PM-Foundations – Why Manage a Project?

The other day I was at a client participating in a discussion on strengthening the portfolio management processes, when someone asked the question, “Do we understand what a project is?” This question made me smile. After all of this discussion, we don’t know what a project is, really? From my perspective it is best to keep the definition of a project very straightforward. A project is an effort to achieve a specific goal that has a definitive beginning and end.


When you break down this statement, the following are the important elements:

  • Effort – Projects require resources to complete. These resources generally include money and people. Therefore events that “just happen” are not considered projects (many refer to these as Acts of God).
  • Goal – The goal represents the desired outcome that the project is attempting to achieve. The goal is what defines the end of the project.
  • Beginning and End – The most important element of the definition of a project is that it is a temporary endeavor. Projects always have a beginning and an end (even if the end does not represent a successful outcome). The fact that a project is a temporary endeavor is what differentiates it from an operational process. Operational processes are repeated on a day to day basis to perform on-going business functions.

While most people can quickly agree upon the definition of a project, I think the more important question in the context of portfolio management is, “Which efforts should be purposefully and formally managed as projects?” Many project management enthusiasts would respond to this question with a passionate, “Everything, of course!” I would counter that projects can be managed as actions planned and executed within the context of operational processes. For example, I have seen many continuous improvement type initiatives successfully run “in-line” with the completion of operational work. From my perspective, the organization needs to define the efforts that should be separated from operational work, and managed as part of the project portfolio. This approach allows organizations to focus on achieving successful outcomes on the efforts that directly align with business strategies / priorities. Projects that do not fit in the project portfolio are either thrown out, or completed as part of performing normal business operations.

5 Guidelines for When to Manage an Effort as a Project

Below are my top 5 reasons to formalize an effort as a project, and manage it within the project portfolio.

1. Strategic Initiative – If an effort is tied directly to one of the organization’s key strategies or top priorities, it must be formalized as a project. These efforts need the visibility and rigor that a project provides to ensure the organization is demonstrating and communicating progress on its key strategies.

2. Requires Funding – Efforts that require additional funding / resources are difficult to run “under the radar”. The project initiation process facilitates the justification and approval of funds for these efforts. This process ensures that the organization is investing in the “right” initiatives.

3. Involves Opportunity Cost – An initiative may not require incremental funds, but involves a decision to reassign resources from another effort to initiate this effort. There is an opportunity cost related to stopping or slowing the other effort. Again, the project initiation process facilitates making decisions of this nature, and ensures that resources are working on the “right” initiatives.

4. Cross-Functional – Many efforts require facilitation of decisions and coordination of resources across different areas within the organization. Formalizing the effort as a project enables the level of coordination required to ensure its success.

5. Something New – When an effort is introducing something new to the organization (e.g., process, product, or technology) the effort needs a higher level of visibility to ensure the organization is prepared to accept and effectively leverage the new capability. Formalizing the effort as a project provides this increased level of visibility.

When do you need a project manager?

I feel obligated to discuss a related and somewhat controversial question within the project management community. When should a project manager be assigned to manage a project? From my perspective, all projects must have someone who performs the role of the project manager. I do not believe that projects will be consistently successful without someone that is formally responsible and accountable for what is delivered, when, and how much it costs. The question then becomes, when should the project manager assigned be a dedicated and fully qualified project manager, rather than a person that is performing the role as part of another role on the team (e.g., team lead)? Although I am of the belief that projects are generally more successful with a dedicated and fully qualified project manager performing the role, I do think there are projects and situations that can be successful without one. It is important to understand the project and situation when making the determination of who will perform the project manager role on the team. Here are some things to consider when selecting the project manager for your project.

  • Strategic – Is a key priority or strategy of the organization tied to the success of the project? If the answer to this question is “yes”, you should have a “real” project manager assigned to manage the project. It is common sense that a competent project manager will significantly reduce the risk of a challenged or failed project. Why put a key company priority at risk by cutting a corner on the project manager role?
  • Size & Complexity – As the number of deliverables and activities grows on an effort, so does the need for a qualified project manager on the project. The best indicator of complexity is the number and type of dependencies (both internal to the project, as well as dependencies on external activities or projects). An experienced project manager is going to do a much better job managing a large and complex project schedule, than someone who is performing the function as part of another role. In addition, an experienced project manager will more effectively manage the increased level of change that comes with larger and more complex projects.
  • Resources – Is the core team and stakeholder community cross-functional? Diversity on project teams helps drive better project outcomes, but also introduces challenges in terms of leading and controlling the project. An experienced project manager will more effectively establish and manage expectations on the cross functional core team and within the overall stakeholder community.
  • Cost – Is the cost of the project material to the organization (based upon impact on the investment portfolio or operating results)? Effectively managing a project budget is one of the most common areas that trips up an inexperienced project manager. Experienced project managers understand how to prepare a budget, forecast variances, and as required, implement corrective actions.






About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

3 Responses to PM-Foundations – Why Manage a Project?

  1. Pingback: PM-Foundations – Why Manage a Project?

  2. Adam Russell says:

    Interesting post and one very germane to my recent thinking. I’ve been wondering lately whether there is a general trend to a lower understanding about projects: what they are and what they mean; why they are needed (or not), and what differentiates them from ongoing departmental operational work. In particular I wonder if folks understand as much the level of commitment that is required in order to deliver project outcomes. It might be just the industry I’m working in (project management of online and mobile apps software development) or it might be a broader trend. What prompted you to write this post and have you seen similar trends?

    • Steve Hart says:

      Overall I think there is still a high value placed on delivering positive outcomes, and I think that most organizations believe that projectizing efforts and assigning project managers helps increase the probability of success. I do run across a bit of “just do it” in organizations. These are organizations that think that project delivery approaches such as scrum and Kanban are contrary to project management concepts / processes — my feeling is that they are complimentary. I wrote the post because I feel that people get hung up on the definition of a project (have run across it recently), and do not focus on the real issues — When is it important to projectize work and when is it crucial to have a professional project manager managing the project? My suggestion is to go with flow. Actions speak much louder than words on this issue (e.g., demonstrating the value of a project manager by successfully delivering projects with proven PM best practices).

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