Definition: What is a Project?

Before we can begin to manage a project, it’s useful to know what that formally means, beginning with the definition of the word “project” itself. Most of us have an intuitive sense of what a project entails, but it is nonetheless useful to examine the formal definition, as it in turn can help us better understand and define the specific functions and responsibilities of the Project Manager.


The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as follows:

“A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.”

Breaking this sentence down into its constituent components, we can discern the following useful information about the nature of a project:

  • “A Temporary”. Every project has a finite length, with a distinct start and finish. Projects are not open-ended; they start at a distinct point in time, and they eventually come to a clear and complete conclusion at a later, predefined milestone date.

  • “Endeavor Undertaken”. This phrase implies that every project requires some amount of work to be performed. We’ll define “work” later, but for now, suffice it to say that a team is required; i.e., the project manager and some form of a project team will be required to undertake and perform the work required to develop and deliver the project’s deliverable.

  • “To Create”: Again, there is no free lunch; i.e., this aspect of the project definition implies that there will be a necessary commitment of personnel, materials, and/or financial resources to perform the work.

  • “A Unique Product or Service.”. There are three key things we can derive from this last part of the definition sentence:

    • Projects Are One of a Kind. Projects create products that can come in a nearly infinite variety. From simple to complex, from small to large, and covering essentially all industries, engineering projects span the development of everything from structures to systems to processes to documents to software. The possibilities are endless, but all projects are intended to create something that is one-of-a-kind; i.e., the product may be simply a small variation from a previous project deliverable, or it may be something completely brand new, a never-before-conceived-or-built thing, but in both cases, the project is creating something unique.

    • Projects Have Clearly Defined Outcomes. The product is unique, but it is also clearly defined and describable. Successful projects require that the end product or result is well-understood before the project begins. Few if any of the details need to be defined or worked out at the beginning of the project, but the big picture Who/What/When/Where/How/How-Much aspects of the project must be defined. Said another way, the desired outcome needs to be specific, with predetermined objectives and constraints in place.

    • Projects Contain Risk and Uncertainty. The fact that the deliverable of a project is unique and takes time to create brings with it an element of risk. This is okay (in fact, it can be argued that risk is necessary), but risk must be actively managed for a project to succeed.

Finally, it’s important to note that most projects have external stakeholders. Implicit in the creation of a unique product or service is the fact that there is typically someone or some entity that ultimately wants the product or service built and delivered. This can be a customer, a funding agency, or end user; regardless, there are almost always outside elements that want the unique thing that the project is tasked with creating and delivering.