I often hear the phrase “project management” used interchangeably with the word “management.” That’s ok, since everything that we do is a project…right?

Well, no. A great deal of the work that we do isn’t organized into projects, even if it could be. And that’s a problem, since the project form of work confers a number of important benefits on the organizations that do them, and the people who participate in them.

Projects are a powerful tool for selecting work, motivating staff, aligning technology with business, and building client relationships.

Here are a few of the important features of projects that distinguish them from other forms of work organization.

1. Unique output. Every project produces a product, a product that’s unique. Other forms of work are designed to carry out repetitive tasks or mass produce identical output, but projects always focus on building something that’s one-of-a-kind.
2. Conscious constitution. Every project must be started with explicit management decisions to invest time and resources. Projects never just start. They never spontaneously generate. A decision must be made to create a project team to build the unique output.
3. Time boundaries. Projects have distinct beginnings and endings. Most other forms of organization are designed to endure and self perpetuate. Project teams are assembled based on the conscious decisions of managers and should be disbanded at the completion of their work. Otherwise they become departments or committees that attempt to live on after they have delivered their value.
4. Specific goals. Well-managed projects have clearly articulated goals that explain what problem the project will address or opportunity it will exploit. Many other work structures are designed to carry out tasks rather than to achieve a goal, but tasks may or may not contribute to the success of an organization.  It can be tough to tell whether a set of tasks is actually valuable. Goals on the other hand are much easier to evaluate.
5. Change focus. Every project is focused on creating some form of change within an organization. Technological projects are usually focused on changing the way the people work or the products that they sell. Very few projects are initiated to maintain the status quo. So every project must account for the human responses to the changes they plan and implement.

So when you are planning work or organizing people, think carefully about whether you are building a real project or whether you are creating something else.