Projects are used in all organisations, making up about 50% of the work completed. Projects are used to help organisations in a number of ways, for example, to meet strategic goals, to advance technologies or meet legal requirements.
On a day-to-day basis, operation and project work is undertaken. Projects differ from operational work in an organisation in a number of different ways. In particular, a project,
- produces a unique product/service as an end result
- have a finite length
An example of a project is a 3 month piece of research that reviews the current Information Technology practices of an organisation. This is a project because the output is a report on the understanding of the IT practices. It has a finite length – 3 months. This finite length implies a start and an end date.
Organisational work is often repetitive, to keep the organisation “ticking over”. Examples of this include finance and accounting, human resource management and legal work.
It is important to note that a project does not always have a short duration. Some projects can be undertaken in a short period of time, others, for example, a PhD research project can span 3-5 years!
When a project is initiated, there are only a few pieces of information known. Generally this includes,
- where you are now – from what is the project derived?
- where you want to go – what will the project output be?
This lack of detail introduces a concept known to the Project Management Institute (PMI) as progressive elaboration. Progressive elaboration is defined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge as,
an incremental process that allows changes to be incorporated into a project without significantly affecting scope
This means that as the project progresses, and following further communication with the customer, will evolve as more information becomes available.
Progressive elaboration can easily be confused with scope creep. However, scope creep, defined as,
changes to the original scope of a project without addressing the effects this may have on resource use or on customer expectations
should always be identified, and will naturally trigger progressive elaboration. The importance here, is that changes in scope can affect budget and timeline. Before any change is implemented, it must be agreed between the project team and the customer.
What are Projects? – Think Context!
Seldom does a project stand completely on its own. It is often necessary to understand the bigger picture of work that is being driven. For example, at a university, an aerospace engineering department may have a collective interest to pioneer research in the field of fuel efficient aircraft. This strategic goal would derive several projects – for example, projects that look at aircraft aerodynamics, aircraft structures and aircraft propulsion methods. These projects can be split further into more detailed projects with much more specific deliverables, that specific people can provide expertise in.
It’s important therefore to understand the context within which a project resides. As demonstrated, projects are often grouped to align with strategic goals of an organisation. Specifically, phrases such as; Portfolio, Program, Project, Sub-Project are used.
Sub-Projects allow for complex issues to be split into more manageable chunks. Sub-Projects can be undertaken in-house, but are often sub-contracted. There is no exact science on how a project can be split into sub-projects. This varies case-by-case, and at best can be determined once a full understanding of the customer requirements is obtained.
Programs are groups of related projects that is centrally managed. This is beneficial as it allows for efficient use of time management, priorities and sharing resources. In particular, project programs allow project managers to manage the impact of one project upon the entire program.
Portfolios are collections of Programs, Projects and on-going work. At this level, it allows managers to manage workload in alignment with strategic goals and business objectives. In particular, because of the alignment with strategic goals, Portfolios will determine the priority of Programs to be executed, and within those Programs, what Projects will be undertaken and those which may not.
It is important to note that due to impact, collections of Projects, whether it’s a Program or Portfolio, are communicated two-way. From the top down, priorities are derived, however, the outcomes of findings within Projects are communicated up to the Program and Portfolio level. This allows managers at these levels to realign their projects, or at Portfolio level, to develop new strategic goals.