Except for text quoted by others, the views expressed are strictly those of Max Wideman.
Published here October 2016

Introduction | Lynda's Suggested Update | A Historical Perspective
The Real Problem | Definitions by Various Authors | Summary Conclusions


"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said [to Alice] in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'"
In Alice's Adventures — Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

For some time now, the "official"[1] definition of the word Project has been criticized as being weak and insufficient. For example, Dr. Lynda Bourne has recently posted an excellent short analysis in her blog, titled: Seeking a definition of a project. In it, she says in part:[2]

"Good definitions are short and unambiguous and are essential for almost every aspect of life. Even something as simple as ordering a snack requires a clear understanding of what's required — this understanding is the basis of a definition."

"The simple fact is if you cannot define something precisely, you have real problems explaining what it is, what it does and the value it offers, and this lack of definition/understanding seems to be a key challenge facing the project management community. Definitions serve two interlinked purposes, they describe the subject of the definition in sufficient detail to allow the concept to be recognized and understood and they exclude similar 'concepts' that do not fit the definition. Definitions do not explain the subject, [they] merely define it."

"Way back in 2002 we suggested the definition of 'a project' was flawed. Almost any temporary work organized to achieve an objective could fit into almost all of the definitions currently in use — unfortunately not much has changed since. PMI's definition of a 'project' is still a: temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. This definition is imprecise — for example, a football team engaged in a match is involved in:

  • A temporary endeavor — the match lasts a defined time.
  • Undertaken to create a unique result — the papers are full of results on the weekend and each match is unique.
  • Undertaken to create a unique product or service — the value is in the entertainment provided to fans, either as a 'product' (using a marketing perspective) or as a service to the team's fans.

Add in elements from other definitions of a project such as a 'defined start and end', 'planned sequence of activities', etcetera and you still fail to clearly differentiate a team engaged in a project from a football team engaged in a match; but no-one considers a game of football a project. Football captains may be team leaders, but they are not 'project managers'."

While we are sympathetic towards the intent, we are not sure this argument is valid. After all, just because no one calls a football match a project, is that sufficient reason for not calling it a project? And that is especially if it fits the presumed criteria of a project?[3] Perhaps the reason why football team managers do not call themselves a project manager is because they feel that this label does not feel appropriate to their status![4]


1. By "official" we mean the definition touted by PMI® for several years now and adopted by other organizations with only minor variations.
2. Mosaicproject's Blog: Seeking a definition of a project, posted on August 11, 2016 at https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com
3. Actually, a football match does not fit the presumed criteria of a project because the time limits are set by decree and not by the ultimate delivery of the stated objectives, as is the case with a project.
4. Or perhaps football team managers are simply not familiar with the term.
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