• Follow us on Twitter

What is a Project? – Definition and Key Characteristics

MyMG Team
July 9, 2010

The definition and key characteristics of a project

Right understanding of the definition and key characteristics of project is of significant importance. Any project is not just a way to make or do something but it’s an opportunity to achieve some desired result by implementing a systematic management approach (for example, producing a product or sharing knowledge).

An individual or organization involved in projects needs to understand how to solve complexity of problems through project management. In this article we’ll define the term “project”, describe the key characteristics of a project, and explain how to distinguish a project from an activity.

A girl wondering if she's going to do a project or an activity

What is a Project? – The Definition

Project is a great opportunity for organizations and individuals to achieve their business and non-business objectives more efficiently through implementing change. Projects help us make desired changes in an organized manner and with reduced probability of failure.

Projects differ from other types of work (e.g. process, task, procedure). Meanwhile, in the broadest sense a project is defined as a specific, finite activity that produces an observable and measurable result under certain preset requirements.

It is an attempt to implement desired change to an environment in a controlled way. By using projects we can plan and do our activities, for example: build a garage, run a marketing campaign, develop a website, organize a party, go on vacation, graduate a university with honors, or whatever else we may wish to do.

A Project is a temporary, unique and progressive attempt or endeavor made to produce some kind of a tangible or intangible result (a unique product, service, benefit, competitive advantage, etc.). It usually includes a series of interrelated tasks that are planned for execution over a fixed period of time and within certain requirements and limitations such as cost, quality, performance, others.

Key Characteristics

As follows from the given definition, any project can be characterized by these characteristics:

  • Temporary. This key characteristic means that every project has a finite start and a finite end. The start is the time when the project is initiated and its concept is developed. The end is reached when all objectives of the project have been met (or unmet if it’s obvious that the project cannot be completed – then it’s terminated).
  • Unique Deliverable(s). Any project aims to produce some deliverable(s) which can be a product, service, or some another result. Deliverables should address a problem or need analyzed before project start.
  • Progressive Elaboration. With the progress of a project, continuous investigation and improvement become available, and all this allows producing more accurate and comprehensive plans. This key characteristic means that the successive iterations of planning processes result in developing more effective solutions to progress and develop projects.

In addition to the listed characteristics, a conventional project is:

  • Purposeful as it has a rational and measurable purchase
  • Logical as it has a certain life-cycle
  • Structured as it has interdependencies between its tasks and activities
  • Conflict as it tries to solve a problem that creates some kind of conflict
  • Limited by available resources
  • Risk as it involves an element of risk

Some examples of a project are:

  • Developing a new product or service
  • Constructing a building or facility
  • Renovating the kitchen
  • Designing a new transportation vehicle
  • Acquiring a new or modified data system
  • Organizing a meeting
  • Implementing a new business process

Work Breakdown

In organizations, a project is defined as a piece of work that is planned for implementation within current business environment. This definition lets make a distinction between other pieces of work, such as:

  • Program – a broad, long-term objective that is often decomposed into a series of projects and sub-projects
  • Task – an identifiable and measurable activity that create a small unit of work for a related project
  • Work package – division of a project task
  • Work unit – division of work packages

Projects along with programs, tasks, work packages and work units are the elements of work breakdown structure or WBS. Often WBS is used to determine an activity-based hierarchy of projects, with reference to their deliverables and objectives.

A program includes several or more larger projects. A larger project can be broken down into smaller interrelated sub-projects. Each one can be divided into tasks which in term are decomposed into interrelated activities or sub-tasks. A task includes a series of smaller goals which are monitored against milestones.

Managing Projects

Project management is the art of planning, controlling and executing a project in a way that ensures successful delivery of the desired outcome. It is widely used in organizations as a complex of tools for delivering strategic goals and objectives.

The key advantages of using project management within a company’s business environment can be described as:

  • Accelerating improvement and strengthening of the company’s management through implementing the ideas of participatory management. Projects help involve employees in decision making
  • Adopting systems engineering approach that helps deal with risks effectively
  • Accomplishing specific changes that are linked to the company’s strategies