Tuesday 23 February 2010

What is a Project?

Alongside our series of posts on creating Gantt charts in Excel for the purpose of managing small to medium sized projects, a discussion on "what is a project?" might be useful. Most of us feel we understand the general usage of the term "project", but what does it mean in the context of Project Management?

The Cambridge Advanced Leaner's Dictionary defines the noun project as "a piece of planned work or an activity which is finished over a period of time and intended to achieve a particular aim". The key attributes are a) having an aim or purpose, and b) being able to define a start and end date/time. These attributes make projects distinct from ongoing operational, live, production or business as usual (BAU) activities.

The existence of the end date is an important element of the project, and a lot of work goes into agreeing the end date and then making sure the project is delivered/completed by the end date. Plans are drawn-up, often including Gantt charts.

Projects exist to create something new; something that hasn't been created before. So, we can have a project to create a new business intelligence solution for a new SAS customer, or we can have a project to create a new data mart. Producing a bunch of standard reports every week is not a project, but the task of producing the reports for an individual week might be considered a project because it has a defined aim and a defined end date.

An important element of project planning is to be sure that everybody understands what "finished" means, and what it looks like. Does your development project finish when your code is successfully tested and goes live, or will their be a "warranty period" wherein the development team will be on-hand to investigate and resolve problems quickly, or does all of the user training need to be delivered too?

It is the responsibility of everybody involved with the project to make themselves aware of the full set of deliverables and the dates by which they should be delivered. And it is every team member's responsibility to focus on achieving these deliveries on-time, on-budget, and with the expected degree of quality.

I should add that sometimes projects finish before they have delivered their aims. It is good practice to monitor progress throughout the life of the project, but it's also good practice to review whether the aim is still achievable and whether the expected benefits will still accrue as a result. If you have a multi-year project aimed at producing a new, improved widget yet (since you started your project) the world has discovered that foobars are preferable and everybody's getting rid of their widgets, you better give serious consideration to canning your project (or resetting its aims, or increasing the marketing budget for your widgets!).