First published in June 2002 as an editorial for
Project Management World Today Web Magazine. Updated here June 2002.


Musings Index

What's in a Name?

"Project" is fundamental to the concept of "project management", and both have been around for a long time. Considering the vital part that projects play in our modern society today, you would have thought that by now a clear definition would have emerged. A definition that provides the bed-rock foundation for the theory and practice of the project management discipline, and one that has broad consensus amongst practitioners at large. But it seems that this is not the case. Indeed, there has been a spate of variations for this term over the last few years reflecting many different perceptions of the meaning. You can confirm this by a simple search of the Internet.

For example, the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms, v3, now lists more than twenty definitions for "project", each with a different flavor. They range from the simple:

"An organized undertaking, limited in time to achieve specific objectives."[1]

To the controversial:

"Any organized business activity where an investment is made. It most commonly refers to the work of creating and operating a physical asset, such as a bridge or a building. However, it need not involve the creation of a new physical asset at all. For example, if a company launches a new product which has been manufactured by existing assets. The project extends over the whole investment life-cycle of activity, not just the initial phases while the investment is being made."[2]

To the complex:

"A human endeavor legitimately regarded by its stakeholders as a project [because] it encompasses a unique scope of work that is constrained by cost and time [and] the purpose of which is to create or modify a product or service to achieve beneficial change defined by quantitative and qualitative objectives."[3]

If this demonstrates anything at all, It shows the value of flexibility in defining terms to reflect the author's particular point of view. But woe betide the unfortunate that comes on board a project with preconceived and fixed ideas of what the jargon means on that particular project! Meanwhile, the official US concepts of project management appear to be languishing while those in Europe are moving ahead. Over the last couple of years there has been a marked effort to advance "program" management. Although spelled "programme" east of the Atlantic, there have been a spate of new definitions.

These range from:

"A broad effort encompassing a number of projects."[4]


"A collection of projects related to some extent to a common objective. For example: a major project, a new business objective, or a new product development."[5]

To any one of:

  1. A portfolio of projects selected and planned in a coordinated way so as to achieve a set of defined objectives, giving effect to various (and often overlapping) initiatives and/or implementing a strategy.
  2. A single, large or very complex project, or
  3. A set of otherwise unrelated projects bounded by a business cycle.[6]

However, Tom Mochal in the US provides further clarification by saying:

"The umbrella structure established to manage a series of related projects. The program does not produce any project deliverables. They are produced by the individual project teams. The purpose of the program is to:
  • Provide overall direction and guidance
  • Make sure the related projects are communicating effectively
  • Provide a central point of contact and focus for the customer and the project teams, and
  • Determine how individual projects should be defined to ensure all the work gets completed successfully."[7]

But it takes Rick Turoczy corresponding by email 7/2/01 to explain Project Portfolio Management:

"A process designed to ensure that individual projects, initiatives, and the required resources are all aligned with corporate strategy, thereby ensuring the most value and least risk for the invested resources. In addition, the process allows the corporate strategy to be communicated throughout the organization, better equipping it to choose and execute those projects and initiatives that support the strategy, while eliminating those that do not."[8]

We could not have said it better ourselves.

1. Nordic Project Management Terminology, NORDNET, Reistad Offset, Oslo, 1985
2. Risk Analysis and Management of Projects, UK, circa 1998. Editorial Note: In this description, RAMPís definition of "investment life cycle" extends from the start of an idea to the disposal of the resulting asset.
3. Cooke-Davies, T. J, in an unpublished thesis, August 2000
4. Welcom PM Glossary, Project Management Solutions, Internet: 1998
5. Patel, M.B., & P.W.G. Morris, Centre for Research in the Management of Projects University of Manchester, UK, 1999
6. Projectnet Glossary, Project Manager Today, UK, April 1997
7. Mochal T, the TenStep Project Management Process Glossary http://www.tenstep,com/
8. ProSight Inc

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