Max Wideman’s very impressive Comparative Glossary of PM Terms contains 23 different definitions of the word project – all written by very knowledgeable people. Creating a sticky definition of the word “project” (a sticky definition is one that can be easily memorized by a general audience) requires battling the Curse of Knowledge. The Curse of Knowledge is the result of forgetting what it’s like NOT to know what you know. The more you know, the stronger the curse. That’s why truly sticky ideas often come from unexpected sources, and different fields. (Unexpected is one of the Made to Stick principles.) In my opinion, the very best definition of the word project comes from personal productivity guru David Allen, in his brilliant book Getting Things Done. Here it is...
- A project is any outcome you’re committed to achieving that will take more than one action step to complete.
Why is this a great definition?
(1) This definition is water tight. Unlike the other 23 definitions, I can’t think of a single exception to this definition. (If you can, please post a comment.)
(2) The word outcome covers a lot of PM territory. The word outcome includes the concepts of “deliverables” and “creating unique products, services or results.” It applies to your garage project and it applies to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
(3) The word action captures an essential element of every project – making progress one discrete step at a time.
(4) The word committed filters out activities that are not projects.
(5) The three key words outcome, action, and committed are simple and concrete (two more Made to Stick principles).
Most of the definitions in Widemans’s glossary define projects as the way very knowledgeable people LIKE TO MANAGE projects, especially large ones. Knowledgeable project managers like clear specifications (or user stories), they like budgets and change control, they like project-friendly cost accounting, they adore network schedules (or iterations), they like to manage risk, they manage resources, they create return on investment in their project portfolio, etc. There's nothing incorrect about any of these ideas, but these XL clothes don’t fit very well on small projects. After all, small projects are projects too, and there are far more small projects than there are large ones!
Example: If we are visiting a science museum (just a casual visit) it is certainly not a project. However, if we are committed to organizing a safe, enjoyable learning experience at the science museum for a large group of Third Graders, our project is the set of actions that we take to achieve this intended outcome. It isn't about abstractions like temporariness and uniqueness. This project does not have a budget, it doesn’t have a logic-driven schedule network, there’s no accounting system, there are no deliverables, we might repeat the adventure every school year, and it isn’t formally risk-managed or resource-managed. But anybody that has organized a major field trip for a large group of kids knows that it is indeed a project! Why? Because it has an intended outcome, it has action steps, and it requires commitment.
David Allen's definition deserves to be in the Hall of Fame of Sticky Ideas.
P.s., Thanks for reader Kurt U. for prompting this post.
Labels: book-review, business-results, ideas, principles, project-management