For the uninitiated the term Project Management might sound like an exotic, uncharted and illusive idea. After all, in the majority of the cases, our encounter with the term ‘project’, let alone ‘project management’ is when we hear in the radio, watch on the television, or read in the newspaper about a major initiative that has just gone way over-budget, has delivered way too late or blatantly failed to meet its prescribed objectives.

With the above in mind it is but rational to assume that projects are those complicated ‘things’ that large companies or governments are engaged with. They will usually be very expensive and require substantial time and effort to complete. They are – almost as a matter of definition – complex organizational endeavors that require specialized and highly skilled people to progress, let along complete successfully.

Let’s spend a few moments exploring the above conjectures.

Project management requires the application of a variety of skills:

1. Integrating different disciplines into delivering a cohesive solution (integration management)

2. Controlling the delivery to a defined scope (scope management)

3. Ensuring things are delivered on time (time management)

4. Ensuring funds are spent in a planned manner (cost management)

5. Making sure the quality of the work is consistent and adequate (quality management)

6. Managing a team in an efficient and effective way (human resources management)

7. Issuing the correct level of communication at the right time and to the appropriate recipients (communication management)

8. Anticipating problems and preparing plans to address them (risk management)

9. Dealing with vendors and suppliers in the most cost-effective way (procurement management)

10. Managing customer expectations (stakeholder management)

“Hang on”, I can hear you murmur, “we do these things as part of our daily business operations”?!

Spot on!

At its core, the act of project management is not different to any other business endeavor. As a matter of fact, if you can cast your memory back to your school days, we were working on projects when we were still in school. We have chemistry projects (mixing some compounds together and registering their impact), history projects (analyzing a historical event and following up on its consequences), an art project (where we ended up messing up our room and made our mum upset). We’ve always been surrounded by projects but somehow, on the way to adulthood we simply forgot.

The only characteristic that distinguishes a project from a normal business activity is the very simple fact that projects, by definition, are time constrained. They have a defined start and end dates and are therefore a temporary, rather than an on-going, initiative.

The principles and attitudes implemented as part of the project management discipline are very much relevant to any business operation. While the degree and intensity of some of these principles could vary from those experienced in some high-pressure projects, it does not diminish from the need to properly execute these principles in a ‘normal’ business environment as their contribution to the business success is as much relevant in non-project as much as in project settings.

Makes sense?

Think about it!

This article was originally published as a guest post in Cornerstone Dynamics

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  1. Shim and colleagues,
    None other than Peter Drucker, in his 1976 tome, “Management: Roles, Responsibilities and Tasks” contained one over-riding theme throughout the book- essentially, “management is management is management” regardless of what form or shape it takes.

    For further support, all one has to do is pick up any decent textbook on operations management and one will find EXACTLY the same tools and techniques espoused by the PMBOK or any other book on project management.

    As a matter of fact, the ONLY significant difference between operations management and project management is project management has a defined finish, makes it temporary in nature.

    One could also argue that at least from the perspective of an owner organization, operations is revenue/value generating while a project is an expense/cost/investment center. But otherwise, the tools, techniques and methodologies are for all intents and purposes, identical. (Why even Earned Value originated on the factory floors of the 17th and 8th century and remains alive and well today in the form of “piecework”.)

    I have long advocated that when we add together asset plus portfolio plus program plus project management into one all encompassing “theory of everything” that we have come full circle back to general management.

    And there are untold examples where even operations has been projectized- Flying a commercial jet from City A to City B; Removing an inflamed appendix in Operating Theater #1 of a major hospital; drilling a single oil well in a field; defending any single case by a lawyer; filing a single years tax returns by a CPA- and the list goes on……

    Bottom line- IMPO, the only thing that makes project management different from operations is the behavioral profile of the people who are attracted to doing something that is defined to end and is not on-going. People who are attracted to (and are likely to succeed) as project managers are people who thrive on change. This has been born out in research I have been doing on creating and testing behavioral profiles of “successful” project managers.

    Dr. PDG, Beijing, China


    • Interesting observation Paul.

      What you are saying is that even in an operational environment, each time you execute a business event, that specific execution can be seen as a unique project, with a separate start and end. So, in that respect, ‘management is management is management’. As I am writing this response I am trying to visualize things I do in the course of my day that an operational manager would unlikely need to do, and while I can’t quite put my hand on it (and can’t come with any example either) there is a sense of uneasiness in me that makes me wonder whether something in this analogy is wrong and that project management is different in some parameters from other types of management. So, while I can’t see anything logically wrong with your argument I somehow irrationally feel that I still need to think this through.

      What I am struggling to figure out is, if all management is the same, how come I would feel that it is wrong to employ a manager without project management experience to do my job?

      What do you think?


  2. Hi Shim,
    No, not exactly, there are some operations which do not lend themselves to “projectizing”. Take for example the assembly line manufacturing a Ford or a Volkswagon. Even though each car may in fact be somehow “unique” the process itself doesn’t lend itself to being projectized. However, if we take a custom machine shop, then even though the process to create a finished product is the same each custom made machine is a separate project. (even the process to create a Rolls Royce barely qualifies as a projectized operation, because fundamentally, each and every car is the same, except for the color of the paint and the interiors)

    Explained another way, there are nuances which can be described by exactly how unique each work order or job order is. (another example would be dry cleaning shop- while each piece could be described as a project, having them dry clean my suit and your wife’s dress isn’t significantly “different” enough to warrant projectizing it, even though each piece has it’s own work order)

    But to help assuage your uneasiness over “experience” “managing” the “project”, would you hire an airline pilot who had never logged any hours flying that specific type of plane before allowing him to fly a new aircraft for you? If you were a hospital administrator, would you allow your brain surgeon to conduct open heart surgery? If you were the owner of a machine shop, would you allow your apprentice to lead a custom built piece of machinery that he had never done before?

    Don’t confuse the EXPERIENCE requirement with an operation which has been projectized. Regardless of whether you are called the “project manager” or the “pilot in command” or the “head surgeon”, you still had to prove your competency in order to gain that title.

    The big difference between being a project manager on a unique, stand alone project vs being an operations manager who happens to work on operations which have been projectized is the PROCESSES of project management are not something unique and separate, but are already embedded in the operational nature. (i.e. the PROCESSES to fly ANY plane from one city to another are identical, even though every single flight is a unique, one time event) Same with the operating theater in a hospital.

    Does this help put your mind at ease?

    Dr. PDG, Beijing, China


    • Hi Paul, it certainly does. Not having been in an operational management position I have, for long, assumed that are diametrically different. Only when writing up this post did I consider the fact that there might be a common denominator between project and operational management. I also take your point about my previous comment regarding whether I will be comfortable letting an operational manager taking on my roll. Without a suitable experience I shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) be comfortable bringing a project manager along either.

      I think I’m good now 🙂


  3. Hi,

    I’ve had this debate more than once when delivering training and indeed, most of the skills are similar and most general managers can (and have to) manage projects. The difference for me is risk. An operational process will have been designed and then improved over time so that it has fairly well-defined input and outputs which do not change too rapidly plus some procedures to follow that have been well tried. That’s not at all to say those doing don’t require skills and competence, of course they do. Things can go wrong.

    But projects, being temporary and one-off, have to deal with many more risks, and perhaps uncertainties too. Plus time is short so the Project Manager has to be able to assess the risk, produce a plan and execute it once, while finding the resources, managing the sstakeholders and all the rest.

    This difference does attract a different sort or person (I have done both), one who perhaps likes the different challenge posed by the risks and the newness of each project. For me, once I have an operation working well, I get a little bored. I prefer the project that improves the operation.

    So that’s my contribution – risk.

    Reading, UK


    • Hi Harry, thanks for your comment.

      I have come across this suggestion before, arguing that the key dividing factor between project and operational management is RISK. This seems like an intuitive proposition and I’m trying to circle in my mind through various operational activities that I am familiar with to gauge whether the risk factor they address is of a significantly lower level than the average project (if there is such thing).

      Being a skeptical sort of person though I must resist the temptation to take this claim at face value. Not all project represent a high risk factor, some represent substantial risk while others, while still being unique, are likely to represent low risk endeavors. Similarly, using this thought experiment, I am happy to entertain the idea that while many operational activities are well rehearsed are are easily executed, some might still be subject to high risk factors. So, with that in mind, is this claim still justified?

      What do you think?


  4. Hi Shim,

    I see where you are coming from and we all draw the line between a project and an operation in a different place, depending on our perspective.

    I had a great question from a student once who, describing a piece of work to install gas boilers in 300 houses over a 6 month period, asked if that was a project or a process.

    My answer was that for me it was a project (as I don’t do that regularly) but for him and his team it was a process (operational) as this was the sort of work they did regularly and they had procedures for managing this type of procurement and delivery. So the same piece of work was either a project or a process depending on who was doing it. For me it was risky and justified the overhead of PM to increase the chances of a quality delivery on time and budget. For him it was business-as-usual, this time boilers the next double-glazing or insulation.

    So perhaps when I said risk I should have said not just of the work itself but including the whole environment in which it is being done.



    • Hi Harry, thanks for your response.

      I’m still a bit ‘stuck’ on this question. The only factor I see differentiating a project from an operational activity is the time constraint aspect associated with a project (though even this point is somewhat arbitrary as operational activities can also be time bound – so I’m not sure what this leaves us with).

      I think this requires some more thinking 🙂


  5. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of October 7 – 13 | The Practicing IT Project ManagerThe Practicing IT Project Manager

  6. Hi Harry and Shim,
    Not to conflate the issue even more, but for Harry’s 600 boilers, I would call the “Installation of 600 Boilers” to be a PROGRAM and each individual installation a project within that program.

    To see the definition of Program that I like is the one GAPPS developed, based on the work of Sergio Pellegrinelli- (I am NOT a fan of PMI’s definition)

    But I still come back to Drucker- “management is management is management” and those of us who prefer PROJECT management over OPERATIONS comes because we don’t like the relative stability (boredom) of doing the same thing over and over and over again.

    Same concept applies working as a not-for-profit manager. It is still “management” but the type of person attracted to this specific type of management is somehow “different” than the person who is attracted to being a project manager vs someone who is attracted to being an operational manager.

    Bottom line- How about if instead of trying to parse out the differences between the various types or applications of management, instead we focused on the unique behavioral characteristics of those people who are attracted to one incarnation of management over the other? Frankly speaking, I think that is the more relevant differential…..

    Dr. PDG, back in Jakarta


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