9 March, 2020

The Definition of Project Management: What are a Project and Project Management?

What is Project Management? The definition of Project Management may be a philosophical question or a practical one. But either way, it’s one every project manager needs an answer to.

You may have thought that the definition of Project Management would have been the first article we wrote for this site. But it wasn’t. So now, four years late, we’ll set that right.

In this article, we’ll look at the definition of a project, and what is project management. And, in our typical way, we’ll aim to be thorough.

The Contents of the Article

The Definition of Project Management: What are a Project and Project Management?

So, that means we’ll:

A: Define the key terms:

And we will compare definitions from several important sources:

  • Project Management Institute (PMI)
  • Association for Project Management (APM)
  • PRINCE2 (Axelos)
  • International Association of Project Managers (IAPM)
  • International Project Management Association (IPMA)

B: Distinguish Project Management from:

The headings and bullet points above are navigation links.

Definitions of the Key Terms

There are many definitions of what a project is, but they all overlap to a degree. Soon, we’ll look at formal definitions. And we’ll be sure to cover the definitions of project and project management that all the main players adopt.

But first, let’s take a look at the basics.

What Projects are All About

Getting stuff done: that’s what projects are all about. Call it an initiative, a job, an assignment, an undertaking, an engagement, a venture or a scheme, an enterprise or a quest. Call it what you like: everybody has, at some time, to get stuff done, to make a change, to create something new.

Often, we call that a project.

How to Recognize a Project

Projects are new: they do something novel that has not been done before – or, at least, has not been done before, by you, in this place, and in this way. And they also tend to involve different steps, different materials, and different people. This makes them complicated and, therefore, risky.

There are lots of things you’ll need to coordinate, usually to achieve a pre-defined outcome by a specific date. Projects make change happen and produce something new and of value. To do this, there will be many tasks that you’ll need to plan and manage and, often, there will be a limit to the amount of the resources available to make all of that happen.

Whilst there are formal definitions of projects available to formal project managers (we’ll get to them soon), the truth is that there are a lot of features that projects share. But many do not have all of them. Here’s is a checklist of those features.

Is it a Project or Not? Ten Typical Features of a Project

  1. Defined outcome, product, or thing to be produced
  2. New, novel, unfamiliar or innovative – needs creative approaches
  3. Clear start date
  4. Clear finish date
  5. Many tasks to be co-ordinated
  6. Limited resources and budget
  7. Different people to get involved
  8. Creates change
  9. Uncertainty about process or outcomes
  10. Complex interdependencies among project elements or between the project and other activities

Does what you need to do have many of these features?
If it has: call it a project.

Project Management and Project Manager

If you have a project, then Project Management is the job of making it happen. And the person who does that job is a Project Manager.

Definition of Project

I’m guessing you came here for a formal definition of a Project. So let’s look at what some smart people say:

Project Management Institute (PMI)

A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.

The Project Management Institute (PMI),
in The Project Management Body of Knowledge, 6th Edition (The PMBOK Guide)

This is the most succinct of the definitions, so a great place to start. In just 12 words, it captures the essence of a project. So, it is little wonder to me that this is the definition I have seen most often.

Association for Project Management (APM)

A unique, transient endeavour undertaken to bring about change and to achieve planned objectives.

The Association for Project Management (APM),
in The APM Body of Knowledge, 6th Edition (The APMBoK)

Not only is this similar in substance; it also adopts a similar style. I do like the reference to bringing about change. But, I am less happy about ‘achieving planned objectives’.

It’s not that I disagree. But then, I am a traditional project manager with a background in predictive project management. I am not sure how this aspect of the definition holds up in Agile projects, so I suspect this definition will need to evolve, in a future 8th Edition.

For more on the comparison between planned, predictive projects and adaptive, agile projects, check out our article: Agile vs Waterfall: Which one is Right for Your Project?

Axelos (owners of PRINCE2)

A temporary organzation that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case.

Axelos (owners of PRINCE2),
in Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 2017 Edition (The PRINCE2 Guide)

I really like this definition. It differs from the others in two significant ways. It:

  1. Defines the project as an organization in its own right
  2. Refers to the business case and therefore the initial justification for the project.

The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM)

IAPM defines a Project as having:

1. An objective definition before work commences
2. Limited resources
3. Need for interdisciplinary cooperation
4. Defined responsibilities for results
5. Complexity
6. Novelty
7. Defined start and finish

The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM),
Adapted from PM Guide 2.0: Guideline for the Certification of Project Managers

As far as I can discover, the IAPM does not have a single, succinct definition of a project. But what they do have is a seven-point test. If what you need to do passes all seven tests: it’s a project!

If it passes some of the tests, they recognize that it can benefit from a project management methodology. But if most answers are no, then you may be best off treating the task as a routine operation.

The International Project Management Association (IPMA)

A project is defined as a
‘unique, temporary, multidisciplinary and organised endeavour to realise agreed deliverables within pre-defined requirements and constraints’

The International Project Management Association (IPMA),
in Project Excellence Baseline for Achieving Excellence in Projects and Programmes, Version 1.0

This is a pretty standard definition. However, I do feel that the language is ugly. It feels like it’s been written by technocrats with no literary soul!


A coordinated set of tasks, which together create a defined new product, process, or service within a constrained time and resource budget.

in How to Manage a Great Project, Mike Clayton (Pearson Education Limited, 2014)

I created this definition to capture all the elements I consider most important. Notice the one thing that this definition has, which no other definition (save, perhaps, the IAPM non-definition).

Something to think about…

I define a project in terms of ‘a coordinated set of tasks’. This is because:

  • One task is not a project: it’s a task
  • Many uncoordinated tasks are not a project: they are a load of tasks
  • It is the coordination of a load of tasks – and the necessary coordination of time and resources, that is key to the nature of a project.

Definition of Project Management

Okay, now we know what a project is, the definition of project management must surely be ‘the job of making it happen’!

Far too often, we find that project management is a race to complete a poorly defined thing by an artificial deadline, by co-ordinating a disparate bunch of people who each has their own agendas, prejudices, and ideas about how to manage the chaos of a complex, novel, and urgent endeavor, for which they will never be properly thanked.

Let’s start again… 

What Project Management should be

Good Project Management is a structured process that deals with all of the defining features of a project. It:

  1. Defines a clear outcome
  2. Encourages creative problem solving
  3. Manages delivery to deadlines
  4. Coordinates completion of tasks
  5. Makes good use of available budget and resources
  6. Engages, motivates, and manages the people involved
  7. Deals with the intrinsic uncertainty and unravels the complexity

Let’s see how the smart people define Project Management.

Project Management Institute (PMI)

The application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.

The Project Management Institute (PMI),
in The Project Management Body of Knowledge, 6th Edition (The PMBOK Guide)

Once again, the PMI scores with the most succinct stand-alone definition of Project Management. An extra comma wouldn’t go amiss!

Association for Project Management (APM)

The application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve specific objectives for change.

The Association for Project Management (APM),
in The APM Body of Knowledge, 6th Edition (The APMBoK)

Once again, the APM charts a similar path to the PMI. Change is here again, but not (thankfully) the word ‘planned’ applied to the objectives. ‘Specific’ is better.

I do like that APM adds ‘experience’ into the mix, which PMI sadly omits.

Axelos (owners of PRINCE2)

The planning, delgating, monitoring and control of all aspects of the project, and the motivation of those involved, too achieve the project objectives within the expected performance targets for time, cost, quality, scope, benefits and risk.

Axelos (owners of PRINCE2),
in Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 2017 Edition (The PRINCE2 Guide)

As I’d expect, the PRINCE2 guidance is strong on the governance aspects of the job. It’s also solid on what project management delivers – with a welcome addition of benefits and risk to the familiar quartet of time, cost, quality, and scope.

But what is excellent about this definition is the inclusion of ‘motivation of all those involve’. This talks about management (and leadership) of people, as well as of the project.

The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM) and The International Project Management Association (IPMA)

I can find nothing explicit from either of these organizations. If I’ve missed something that you’re aware of, please let me know – with a reference.

I’ll not only update this section: I’ll fully credit you where I do.


The process of managing a project. Deploys tools, processes, and attitudes that deal with the complexity and uncertainty inherent in a project.

in How to Manage a Great Project, Mike Clayton (Pearson Education Limited, 2014)

Firstly, you’ll see from the first sentence that I am nothing if not literal!

But for me, the important part is the ‘tools, processes, and attitudes’. I explain more about that in my video: ‘What is Project Management?’

Definition of Project Manager

For all that we discussed in the definition of Project management, a project manager needs an impressive range of skills and attributes. 

So, think of a project manager as a circus performer.  You need to be able to keep lots of plates spinning whilst juggling many balls in the air.  

  • The plates are the streams of work that you need to keep going – the tasks.  
  • The balls are the relationships you need to constantly manage; maintaining effective communication with all of the people upon whom your project depends.  

The tension between getting the tasks done and managing relationships will be ever-present.  Perhaps your most important challenge will be to balance that tension.

Project Manager as Circus Performer

What a Project Manager really is…

If that sounds like a job for a superman or superwoman; it is.  There are three domains a project manager needs to pay attention to, if you are to thrive in the role and achieve all the things that project management needs to do. You need to be able to:

  1. Deploy tools and techniques that get the job done.  You must be a ‘Doer’.
  2. Impose processes and procedures that create the right amount of structure.  You must be an ‘Organizer’.
  3. And you need to have a helpful set of attitudes and management styles that will allow you to motivate, influence and lead your project.  You must be a ‘Succeeder’.

So let’s cut out the jargon and call you what you really are: a doer, an organizer, and a succeeder.

But, you may need the jargon. So, once more let’s see what the smart people say…

Project Management Institute (PMI)

The person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsile for achieving the project objectivs.

The Project Management Institute (PMI),
in The Project Management Body of Knowledge, 6th Edition (The PMBOK Guide)

This would have made it three-for-three for the PMI in terms of beautifully succinct definitions. I can’t argue with the sentiment, but I hate the term ‘performing organization’. I know god grammar requires the ‘by whom’, but I can’t help thinking that ‘The person assigned to lead…’ would have been even more elegant!

Axelos (owners of PRINCE2)

The person given the authority and responsibility to manage the project on a day-to-day basis to deliver the required products within the constraints agreed with the Project Board.

Axelos (owners of PRINCE2),
in Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 2017 Edition (The PRINCE2 Guide)

This is a pretty pedestrian definition. There’s nothing to either disagree with; nor to find inspiring.

Association for Project Management (APM), The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM) and The International Project Management Association (IPMA)

I can find nothing explicit from any of these organizations. If I’ve missed something that you’re aware of, please let me know – with a reference.

I’ll not only update this section: I’ll fully credit you where I do.


A cricus performer who can keep juggling relationships with the many people involved in a project, whilst keeping many tasks spinning like plates. A good project manager must be able to get things done, organize people and processes, and succeed at influencing, motivating, and inspirting their teams.

in How to Manage a Great Project, Mike Clayton (Pearson Education Limited, 2014)

Okay, so I’ll accept that it is based on a somewhat audacious metaphor – a circus performer. But I hope you’ll agree with two things:

  1. That the two broad components are correct,
  2. And that the metaphor is a fair one

The Role of a Project Manager

Ultimately, what matters far more than any definition of the term Project Manager is the role you need to fulfill. Here is a short video where I spell out the components.

Some organizations are unable to deploy their own Project Managers. As a result, they would want to consider securing Project Management consulting services to fulfil these project management responsibilities, such as:

  • Creating the project plan and drawing up documentation:
    • detailed project timeline and budget estimation with a breakdown into deliverables and related activities
    • project KPI system and KPI templates, etc
  • Establishing processes for:
    • project communication and reporting on the progress
    • proactive risk management
    • vendor management, in case of multi-sourcing of the project

Distinguishing Project Management from Similar Terms

My mailbag (virtual of course) is not unusual. Look in forums like Facebook Groups and Quora, and you’ll see loads of questions that amount to:

‘What is the difference between Project Management and …?’

Well, I’ve answered many of them and I’ll do so again here.

Project Management vs Operational Management

I guess it’ obvious that the one is the management of projects, while the other is the management of day-to-day operational processes. So, the real question is: ‘how do the two differ?’

Having done very little operational management, I could easily fall back on stereotype. Project management is constantly challenging variety, while operational management is familiar day-after-day sameness.

But that’s simply not true. If day-to-day operations were always the same, then we wouldn’t need human managers. I think the difference is in degree and therefore in their priorities. Both share a lot, but the balances are different.


Project managers deal with change. And people react to that. So, Project Management has a far greater element of engaging with stakeholders. There is also less that is familiar, because we are making changes. Therefore, the project management role also includes a lot more risk management.

The flip side of change is constancy. Operational managers must deal with long-life processes and relationships. So their emphasis must be on maintenance and constant improvement. Their people management focus is on long-term development. For a project manager, we aim to develop people within the context of our projects. It’s only when we take on a mentoring role that we start to look with a ‘whole career’ perspective.

Likewise, operational managers will aim to constantly improve their operational processes. Project managers try to optimize a process early on, and then focus on making it work well. Yes, we take opportunities to tweak or processes, based on lessons learned. But our focus is on using the processes to get things done, and improving them next time – on our next project.

Project Management vs Program Management

It’s to big a topic to do justice to in this short subsection. But the essence is this. A program is a coordinated cluster of projects and related initiatives. They share something important; some or all of:

  • strategic objectives or goals
  • resources (people, assets, materials)
  • budget
  • governance structure
  • time-frame

Big Differences

Program Managers oversee programs in the way that project managers oversee projects. The big differences for me are:

  • Level of Detail
    Program managers have a wider overview across multiple projects
  • Tolerance of Uncertainty
    Project managers aim for high levels of control and minimizing uncertainty. Program Managers must tolerate more uncertainty
  • Business and Benefits Orientation
    Recently, organizations like the PMI and APM have been bringing the language of benefits into their project management guidance. But programs will remain at a higher strategic level, and so continue to have a greater focus on business needs and the benefits the programs produce. Projects will always focus more on their deliverables and immediate outcomes. It’s a matter of degree.
  • Enterprise Level
    Most programs operate at an enterprise or multi-functional level. They are transformative. Projects often sit at a lower, more-contained level within an organization.

Project Management vs Portfolio Management

Portfolio Management is absolutely an enterprise-level activity. It’s about delivering a strategy by crafting and overseeing a portfolio of changes. And those changes will come about as a result of a portfolio of programs, stand-alone projects, and other initiatives.

Portfolio managers need to be strategic thinkers who can operate comfortably at C-Suite level.

Project Management vs Product Management

In a way confusing these two is a category error. Product Management is part of operational management. There are, however, some overlaps, so perhaps the confusion is not only because the two sound alike!

Product management is an operational role of taking care of a single product or product range, or a set of related products through the whole lifecycle:

  • Identifying market need or demand
  • Specifying and developing the product through market research and Voice of the Customer
  • Product development and testing
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Sales and vendor relations
  • Aftercare and customer support
  • Investment and end-of-life decision-making

My experience of training and working with product managers is that project management skills are a valuable addition to their professional toolkit.

Project Management vs Project Control or Project Coordination

The two terms are not used wholly consistently. Indeed, it can often depend on the company or organization itself.

But, in general, the Project Controller or Project Coordinator (PC) is a lower-status role than that of Project Manager. A PC will often perform administrative duties or act as a support to a project manager. They may also act as a day-to-day source of coordination on a ‘routine’ project, while the PM gads about doing other things.

But also be aware that some PMs use the term ‘Project Coordinator’ as a derogatory term for a fellow project manager whom they do not consider to be managing ‘serious’ or ‘significant’ projects. This is clearly absurd, disrespectful, and obviously a sign of insecurity!

So, to conclude, what matters is the brief you have. If it’s purely administrative and involves less decision-making, stakeholder engagement, or other leadership activities, the Project Coordinator label fits better. But don’t let people fixate on labels. 

‘A rose by any other name will smell just as sweet’.

Project Management vs Project Support or Project Administration

Project Support and Project Administrator roles are just like the coordinator or controller roles in that they can be at a lower level of responsibility than that of the Project manager. But they differ in that there is no doubt. The very titles make it clear that the Project Support and Project Administrator roles are about supporting a PM and focusing on more mechanistic administrative tasks.


PRINCE2 defines Project Support as:

An administrative role in the project management team. Project support can be in the form of advice and help with project management tools, guidance, administrative services such as filing, and the collection of actual data.

Axelos (owners of PRINCE2),
in Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 2017 Edition (The PRINCE2 Guide)

Did they say ‘actual’ data? Yes, they did!

What did I Miss?

Did I miss any useful project management definitions? Or did I get any wrong? Please do comment below and I’ll be sure to respond.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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