What is a project? Definition, examples, interpretation aids

Projects are found in all sectors of the economy and in personal spheres of life, in non-profit organisations as well as in public sector institutions. Projects are often carried out with the aim of achieving technical or organisational improvements. Projects can occur across organisations or be limited to one or a few functional areas within an organisation. So there are different project types and we encounter them everywhere. But what is a project?
A person writes on a sheet with several checkboxes drawn on it.


What characterises a project

A project is a complex and novel undertaking that pursues a goal defined before work begins and is to be realised within a defined time frame. The project goal can only be achieved in an interdisciplinary team. The resources needed to achieve the goal are limited. Responsibilities for the (sub-)objectives of the project to be achieved are defined.

The project check

Whether a task is a project can be checked with the help of a project check and simple questions:

Complex project
  • Why is the task difficult to solve?  
  • Are the helpers geographically distributed?  
  • Do all the people involved speak the same language?  
  • Do the people involved understand each other? 
  • Are there coordination problems, e.g. because of different technical terms? 

Novel project
  • Can knowledge from similar projects be used?  
  • Can individual work processes be derived from routine activities?  
  • Are the boundary conditions unique?  

Undertaking that must achieve a goal defined before work begins
  • What is to be delivered as a result or service at the end of the project?  
  • How long will it take?  
  • Are there time constraints?  
  • Are there cost targets?  

Undertaking with a defined time frame – start and finish
  • By when can the formulation of objectives for a concrete project contract / order be started and by when can it be completed?  
  • By when can the planning and organisation of the project be completed?  
  • By when can / should the result of the project be available? 
  • By when can the actual project costs be presented?  
  • By when are the findings from the project summarised and made available to the project-supporting company?  

Undertaking to be worked on in an interdisciplinary way
  • What expertise must the staff bring to the table?  
  • What training should employees have?  
  • Do the employees come from different departments, areas, companies, cultures?  

Undertaking that must achieve the goal with limited resources
  • Which employees, machines, equipment, etc. are only available to a limited extent?  
  • Are there time and / or financial constraints?  

Undertaking in which the responsibilities for the results to be achieved are defined
  • Who is the client?  
  • Who will provide the necessary financial resources?  
  • Does the undertaking have to be carried out in a division of labour?  
  • Can individual topics of the project be combined and delegated in a sub-project or work package?  
  • Who will manage the project?  
  • Can a project-specific organisation be created?   

If each of the seven points is fulfilled, the task is a project according to the above definition. If one or more points are not fulfilled, the execution of the task should be done as a routine activity or carried out as individual work, but project management methods can still be used to support it.
Since there are no clear rules of measurement in this definition – e.g. it is difficult to determine how complex or novel a project is - the challenge remains to ensure that the assessment of the respective point is at least comprehensible.

Examples: Is it a project?

With the help of the project check, goal-oriented processes such as the reorganisation of a laboratory or the development of an electric motor can be examined for their project character. Below are two examples to show you both what a project is and what it is not.
Example 1

A construction company builds several single-family houses every year. The respective project is actually nothing new for this company. Nevertheless, the building contractor treats each individual building project as an independent project - with project organisation, process planning, risk management, project controlling and other project management methods. For good reason, because from his overarching point of view, each construction project may be subject to different legal requirements, there may be different subcontractors and stakeholders who will work on it and so on. Thus, in the totality of its circumstances, every construction project becomes a new type of project.
Whether a particular process of service provision is a project can be examined in each individual case.
Example 2

For a brickyard, the production of roof tiles is not a novel project, it is not complex for them. The service provision does not require a "project-specific organisation" because the service is provided within the framework of the line organisation. The production of roof tiles can be classified as a routine task in mass production. It has no project character and thus the management concept “project management” is not applicable.

Interpretation aid: Is it a project?

There are always discussions about whether it is a project or perhaps a task to be worked on individually. Is it a project, or is it better to speak of serial production, or is it a routine task? Some interpretation aids can facilitate the classification.
Interdisciplinary division of labour

Other project management associations do not give space to an important characteristic of projects, but as mentioned above, according to our definition the participation of several or numerous persons, working groups, companies or institutions is an essential characteristic of a project. Projects are interdisciplinary processes based on the division of labour. If someone writes a poem or cleans the garage yard alone, these are not projects. These activities require neither a cross-functional division of labour nor a coordinating function of project management. Knowledge and experience, good self-management and skill on the part of the people involved is quite sufficient here.
Project vs. series production

There are always border cases where it can be discussed whether it is still a project or already a small series production. For example, is it still a project if numerous freight forwarding halls of exactly the same design are built at different locations? Dülfer offers a solution to this demarcation problem. According to this, "the characteristic of uniqueness in industrial contract manufacturing (...) is not to be related in every case to the content of the project task (...), but more to the respective project implementation under given individual environmental conditions“.
The transition from service provision with project character to small series production can be fluid. The more similar the configuration of the individual objects and the more constant the framework conditions are, the more likely it is to be small-scale production. Examples of such border cases can be found in shipbuilding and house construction. On the other hand, in the production of goods such as cleaning agents or telecommunications equipment one speaks of mass or large-scale production. Accordingly, the large-scale production of a router does not have the character of a project.

Project-specific organisation

Not every project has to have a project-specific organisation. The research and development departments of industrial companies, for example, constantly plan and realise projects that have a target as well as a time, financial and personnel limit and can be clearly distinguished from other projects. However, they lack one characteristic: project-specific organisation. The head of department manages these projects within the framework of the line organisation and at the same time fulfils the function of project manager. This solution is practicable when employees of a single organisational unit are involved in the work.
Uniqueness of conditions

The "uniqueness of conditions" does not refer to the individual activities of a project, but to the project as a whole. Even in projects with a high degree of novelty, there are work steps that are or have been carried out in the same way not only in the latest project, but also in earlier projects. An example of this is the creation of drawings for machine components that are developed in a project. Projects can also be embedded in a so-called service production with a repetitive character, for example the production of several prototypes in the development of carbon wheels.

Delimitation problems and project inflation

The above definition of project represents a sieve. Tasks caught in this sieve are most likely not of project character. However, whether a project should actually be treated as a project is another question. Let's take a look at an example:
A small machine tool factory calls the development of a new special machine for a customer a project because it has a high degree of novelty for the company and the share of the order value in the total turnover is high. On the other hand, an automotive company understands something quite different. The value of the order received by the machine factory would only represent a negligible part of its total turnover. For this reason, the group does not classify this task as a project.
Each organisation must decide for itself which non-routine task it wants to treat as a project. Other criteria may be the contract value, the planned budget or the planned duration.
It is quite reasonable to define the term "project" more broadly in the case of short-term tasks with a low budget, otherwise the project planning alone may consume so much time and money that there is nothing left for the service provision, i.e. the creation of the project object. The effort for project management should therefore be in reasonable proportion to its expected benefit or the size of the project. Only from a longer project duration with a sufficient budget, a comprehensive project classification can have a recognizably positive effect. On the one hand, this lays the foundation for good project management and, on the other, prevents project inflation.

Individual organisational project definitions

There are organisations that define themselves which projects they want to treat as projects and according to which criteria they define a project. For example, a company-specific project definition could look like this: "All tasks that are not routine and have a planned duration of more than three calendar months, an effort of at least 50 person-days and more than two participants are to be planned and realised according to the principles of the company's own project management handbook". In this example, the definition refers to the duration, the effort and the number of participants. Alternatively, the project term could be more formally delimited: "Projects are time-limited, factually self-contained undertakings for which there is an approved development application."
Such definitions are of course permissible because there is no legislation that would prohibit this. However, it requires explanation and coordination when a person who has worked according to the first definition is used as an external consultant by a company that operates according to the second definition. For this reason, it makes sense to choose a uniform definition for such cross-company projects in order to prevent misunderstandings.

What is a project ? - A picture from the author
Keywords: project management, tips, project check, definition

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For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.