Can anything be a project?

Can anything be a project - Blog imageProbably.  Is it a good idea?  That depends.  Project management best practices, when applied to various efforts, usually help produce positive outcomes – sometimes making drastic differences on many engagements.  But is everything a project and can everything fit the definition of being a project?  Still not sure?  When I first became a project manager, I tried to use my project management software to run things at home, but that nearly got me killed by my wife.  So, if you think only in terms of that experience, then NO, not everything can be a project.

I think my general stance is that not everything is a project – and I don’t just mean within our personal lives, but even the work we do as project managers.  And here’s why…Not everything needs project schedules, status reports, budget management and the like.  Some things just need leadership and management.  Since it’s all I have experience with, I’ll examine two examples from my career that were large undertakings I was in charge of, but that didn’t really need detailed schedules and status reporting and detailed resource loading and management.

The first example

This one happened during my first real experience with project management, but it ended up not really being true project management.  I was working with programs, leading significant portions of long-term government contracts by processing student financial aid records.  These contracts were three to five years long and worth $30-50 million.  They weren’t your typical projects – they were ongoing production processing, customer support, and occasional contract modifications. From a project management perspective, it was really only the contract modifications that involved some of the regular tasks that would form part of normal project management as these were the portions of the project/program that would necessitate creating a project plan and managing resources and tasks.

Everything else on the program was management of ongoing production processing, customer service activities, configuration management and change control, and financial management of the all of the billing and costs.  Aside from providing the government with formal weekly status reports and leading face-to-face quarterly project reviews, none of these activities fit well into any type of project management activities.

The second example

I was working for a major Fortune 500 engineering firm and was asked to oversee the completion of the transfer of materials and knowledge for the sell-off of an internal business unit…and get the remainder of the selling price from the purchasing organisation. I was asked to lead a “project” that involved transferring all documents, records, test info and drawings to an external organisation that had purchased an internal business unit.

Leading this activity required that I gain knowledge of the business unit that was being sold in order for me to understand what records and information could potentially be transferred.  I also had to meet with the purchasing company on a regular basis to ensure that I fully grasped what records and information they were expecting.  The plan was to only transfer what was necessary – what the purchasing company was interested in.  But I needed to know what they could potentially be requesting.

Actually, I entered this process well after it originally started.  At the point when I came on board, the purchasing company was withholding nearly $250 000 from the purchase until they obtained all of the materials they thought were due.  It was my job to make them happy and get that money from them.  By engaging the purchasing organisation and thoroughly understanding their needs, I was able to extract exactly what their needs were and then mobilise teams internally in my organisation to get that data, records and so on for them as quickly as possible.

This engagement ended well, but the nature of the activities and the work that needed to be done, did not necessitate the creation of project schedules and status reports.  It was too chaotic, because the information coming from the purchasing organisation was sketchy – mostly because they really didn’t know or understand what they wanted – which is why making them happy enough to pay was not an easy task.

Summary

Both of these scenarios were significant undertakings requiring skilled management and a lot of negotiation. However, in my best professional opinion, they were not set up in such a way to lend themselves well to regular project management practices.  What they required was good investigation, excellent communication and customer management, and solid leadership.  Most of the things we do as project managers do require best practices and most require some tools of the trade, but not everything can easily be categorised as a “project”.

What are your thoughts – is everything a project?  Can any of you share some examples where you thought you were managing a project but really weren’t…and why?

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Brad Egeland

Author: Brad Egeland

Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is married, a father of 10, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at http://www.bradegeland.com/

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