Unique Product, Service, or Result: The Project and The Manager

What is Project Management? I have been asked that question nearly every time I conduct an information session for our firm during our annual college recruiting process. In fact, articulating a consistent answer to that question is de rigueur for our entire on-campus recruiting team. Invariably, though perhaps not unexpectedly, some in our audience will start to express some uneasiness with the nature of project management, specifically as it relates to initiating and closing the project. Thus, the inescapable moment that confronts all those who wish to explain the project management discipline: defining the word project. It's not that our audiences lack savvy; on the contrary, many seem to have a good grasp of project management tools and are even aware of the Project Management Institute (PMI). Yet, we've found it helpful to step back and define the concept of project prior to diving into its management.

What is a Project?

A project is a group of related tasks performed by a team, one time, to produce a unique product, service, or result. The characteristics that define a project are:

  • The effort is finite
  • The output is unique
  • The tasks are related and becomes more detailed over time

Finite Effort

Projects have a definite start and end. The endeavor is temporary and is governed by a schedule. One measure of project success is how it performs against its schedule; that is, how closely does the project come to matching the start and end outlined in the project plan. For example, building a sports complex, like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, or the Beijing National Stadium (Bird's Nest) in China is a project. Both had specific dates when planning, design, and build were to take place; and of course, both had specific dates when build must be completed. In the Bird's Nest's case, it had to be built and quality tested in time for the 2008 Olympics.

Unique Output

Projects produce a unique product, service, or result. The uniqueness of the output does not necessarily mean that the project bears no resemblance to other previous projects. In fact, it is not unheard of that a project may leverage existing assets from previous projects, such as the communications management plan. It does mean that the process to produce the output is unique in its totality; that is, the resources, location, constraints, and schedule among other things, are unique, and by extension, the output will be unique. For instance, when McDonald's helps to build a new restaurant for a franchisee, it wouldn't be the first time they do so; however, the effort is still a project, and the output is still considered unique -- the resources, location, constraint and schedule will be unique, and the new restaurant, despite its conformance in design to other McDonald's restaurants, will also be unique.

Related Tasks

What you do ultimately contributes to the output. With projects, the activities and associated tasks are related and oftentimes interdependent; that is, there is a purpose for each task, and subsequent tasks often depend upon the completion of previous tasks before they can be started. Over time, project work becomes more detailed. In project management parlance, that is called progressive elaboration. High level tasks performed in day one and detailed tasks performed in the last day all work towards the fulfillment of the project. If we look at our previous McDonald's example, one of the early, high level tasks might be site selection and one of the final, detailed tasks might be the installation of the cash registers. Both tasks are related in that they contribute to the completion of a new McDonald's restaurant.

Project or Operation?

Note that on-going business operations are not projects. For example, producing cars are on-going operations for General Motors and therefore cannot be construed as a project; however, their bankruptcy and restructuring of 2009 is a project. When GM produces a car, it does so repeatedly until a predetermined volume is met. This repeated effort is thus classified as an operation, and not a project. In contrast, the bankruptcy and restructuring is one-time, and once completed, will not be repeated in the same context. The effort was finite, performed through a set of related tasks, with a specific, unique output: protection from creditors and the emergence of a new entity better able to conduct business operations.

What is Project Management?

If a project is a group of related tasks, performed by a team, one time, to produce a unique product, service, or result, then Project Management is the collective application of inputs, tools, and outputs to satisfy project requirements. It is the act of applying knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to meet project requirements; in short, using assets to drive to a successful project completion.

Project Management directs the inputs to, and the production of, outputs from specific activities. The smooth progression from input to output is vital to the success of a project, and the Project Management Process Framework enables that progression.

The PMI defines five foundational process groups that underpin the Project Management Process Framework:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and Controlling
  • Closing

In subsequent hubs/posts, the five process groups will be explained in detail. There are new concepts associated with each group, and a separate hub/post will be required. For now, here are the summary definitions for each process group:

The Initiating Process Group consists of two processes designed to produce the Project Charter and the Preliminary Project Scope Statement. The Planning Process Group is the largest of the five process groups and is designed to produce output related to plan, scope, time, cost, quality, human resource, communications, risk, and procurement. The Executing Process Group is where most of the project work takes place, including team management, quality assurance, human resource, communication and vendor management. The Monitoring and Controlling Process Group touches upon the same areas that the Planning Process Group does. Its primary design is to ensure that the project is proceeding as planned, and in the event that it is not, to make adjustments to ensure acceptable results moving forward. Finally, the Closing Process Group is where the project and the contract is closed out.

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