Is Everything a Project Now?

Unofficially project management has existed ever since people have been doing projects, even before they were called projects. I’m sure there was someone in charge of building Stonehenge or the pyramids and that they had a some sort of plan, although they probably didn’t need to create weekly management reports.

Nevertheless in the early and mid 20th century project management was “discovered” and since then the field has grown dramatically so that we now have risk reviews, programme mangers, steering boards and subproject managers.

And as the field continues to grow, the breadth of what is accepted as a project also grows, for example:

  • Protesting against coal mines can be a project
  • Some people think creating the internet might have been a project
  • Avoiding tax can be a project
  • Collecting photographs of people in tutus can be a project
  • Making public transport safer for women can be a project

What is the Definition of a Project?

The problem of course if not helped by the fact that even within project management circles, it is not always clear what a project is.

A temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result

Project Management Institute

A piece of planned work or an activity that is finished over a period of time and intended to achieve a particular purpose

Cambridge English Dictionary

According to these definitions such diverse activities as making and eating dinner, going shopping with friends, building a house, designing an airliner and running a government for a term are all projects.

The point is that, if almost anything can be a project and projects have nothing in common with each other, is calling something a project really meaningful and what are the consequences for project management of “project” being so overused?

Why is This Happening?

Projects are Trendy and Successful

Projects are “in fashion” and everybody successful seems to be using them. Perhaps even without any project management techniques, simply calling something a project can increase its chances of success. I would speculate that projects are popular because, all things equal, project XY is generally more likely to succeed than task XY or initiative XY.

Project Management Works

Project management can provide structure to deal with interdependencies, communication, data and the countless stakeholders that we find in the modern world. So its not a surprise that project management has built a reputation as something that provides a good chance of achieving a goal, or that people go on to try and apply these techniques to new fields.

Can This Cause Problems?

Not Everything is a Project

If you have a hammer, every problem becomes a nail

Modern proverb

The problem of course is that just because something can be a project, doesn’t mean it should be a project. Some things, such as doing research or making art, do not always fit well into the mould of a project and may suffer when people start to ask “what is the next task?” or “are we behind schedule?”. The current proliferation of projects means that there are probably many initiatives, ideas, investigations, tasks, suggestions and collaborations in the world right now struggling under the disguise and expectations of a project.

Project Management is not Free

Even when a project seems like a good choice, we also seem to lose sight that project management costs money and takes time. Is the increased chance of success really worth the cost of hiring a project manager, spending weeks planning the project and monitoring risks on a weekly basis? Before planning a new project I think we should really take one step back and ask “will this even benefit from being a project?”

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