Defining Project Management: Just What Are We Talking About Here?

Last month’s column about accidental project managers generated a great deal of excellent discussion about the challenges that many who “do project management” have had in moving into the role. My final thought was that “we need to manage the transition into the role more effectively, and provide a transition path that offers value without scaring people away.”

As I thought about this idea more, however, one of the challenges I found myself faced with is defining what we really mean when we talk about “project management.”

On the face of it, this might seem to be an absurd question. Whole books have been written on the subject, the Project Management Institute is dedicated to the promotion of it as a discipline and Gantthead and other sites like it are dedicated to the promotion and discussion of how to better manage projects.

But really, what is project management? Is there a definition that we can actually work with and agree on? Is there a meaning we can define that someone new to the discipline can read and identify with?

For many, project management is a subjective idea: “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.”

When people are asked for a definition of project management, most will offer a description of attributes or aspects of the role, without every really defining it. While there are any number of books descriptively titled Project Management that explain their view of how to do it, few actually offer a definition, and those that do don’t provide a truly meaningful one. They simply assume that we all inherently know what it is that we’re talking about.

One of the more obvious places to look for a definition would be the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). In fact – when asked – many people will cite the nine knowledge areas as a definition of what project management is. While they identify the generally accepted practices that a project manager is expected to apply in order to fully execute their role, they overlap with a number of more general management disciplines and don’t uniquely identify what project management is.



Within the PMBOK, however, PMI offers a definition of project management. According to the 2000 version of the PMBOK Guide,

“Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements.”

This definition is useful as far as it goes, but it still doesn’t uniquely define what project management is relative to any of the other work that occurs on a project.

In reality, it could equally apply to the work of the project team in producing the results of the project. Systems analysts, developers, process consultants, trainers, project leaders and other team members also have knowledge and skill. They also apply project management tools and techniques and, at the end of the day, they do all of this within the project activities in order to deliver on the project requirements.

Other definitions on the Web speak to planning, controlling, organizing and issue tracking activities. One offering was that project management is “being responsible for the overall success of a project.” A more entertaining (but no more enlightening) offering is that:

“Project management is a bit like the fairies. You either believe in it or you don’t.”

Even the definition my company uses in its training courses is a little bit disingenuous:

“Project management is the related set of disciplines that together enable project managers to successfully accomplish their role.”

While it is probably true and is all-encompassing enough to embrace the definition when we finally figure it out, it doesn’t help us to get any closer to what the definition of what that role actually is.

Project management cannot simply be interpreted as “whatever project managers do,” but this is often the current perception today. Project managers sometimes do some very strange and erratic things, just as projects arise from strange places and results are attained from unexpected activities.

Without a formal definition, we lack a basis upon which to evaluate what our role is, what we should be doing and how well we are doing it. The problem remains: How do I know when I am doing project management, as opposed to anything else that I might be responsible for doing?

Part of the problem is that we for the most part we still don’t understand what a project is. At their most abstract (a set of activities, with a defined start and end date, designed to accomplish a specific prject objective), you could qualify anything from building a nuclear power plant to writing a letter as a project. For some initiatives, the tools of project management will certainly apply, be relevant and add value. For others, project management is the managerial equivalent of hunting flies with an elephant gun. But if we can’t agree on what a project is, then how do we know if we are managing one or not?

Read Next: Toward a Meaningful Definition of Project Management.

Note: Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark is also the author of Interthink’s Project Management Process Model (PM2), a maturity model that has been used to assess over 550 companies worldwide.