Published here November 2015.


Musings Index

Word Hierarchies in Project Management — Part 1
It's all a matter of opinion based on individual experience

Seven years ago I wrote that I had trouble deciding the order of related words, especially in the context of project management. So I promptly made a concerted effort to resolve such issues.[1] For example, which implies the higher order in the following couples: "Tools or Techniques"; "Activities or tasks"; and "Goals or Objectives". Why did I have this problem? Because in the course of developing content for the Wideman Comparative Glossary I found that different authors had very different answers. And that really bugs me.

At the time, I tackled one well-known author who appeared to buck the apparent majority top-down trend of "Goals" before "Objectives". I was shocked to discover that he didn't much care. Reference to dictionaries doesn't much help in resolution either since the implications are that these two words are simply synonyms. Now if that is true, then why do we consistently couple the two words together, as in "goals and objectives"? Surely, if we are to communicate consistently and reliably, especially where projects are concerned, at least there should be general agreement on the meanings of what we are talking about.

Just for the record at this point, in my view the best definitions for each are as follows:

  • Goal — Something one wishes to accomplish. Broader, more timeless than an objective. Expressed as a desired and targeted happening.[2]
  • Objective — A predetermined result toward which effort is directed.[3]

Is this particular couple important? I think it is. Consider the following hierarchy, or ladder, from the top down, from the perspective of time management across a given life span in the project management context. Based on the references to The Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms v5.5, I have chosen those definitions that seem most logical to me.

  1. Portfolio — A collection of projects and other work for which more senior management is responsible for orchestrating.[4]
  2. Program — A broad effort encompassing a number of projects,[5] over an extended period of time, together with oversight responsibility for transfer of the products of those projects into the hands of those responsible for garnering the resulting benefits. [Definition extended]
  3. Project — A novel undertaking or systematic process to create a new product or service the delivery of which signals completion.[6]
  4. Period or macro phase — [We are a bit lost here because for larger projects there is obviously a gap for which no distinct label has been established.]
  5. Phase — A major period in the life of a project culminating in a major milestone. A Phase may encompass several Stages.[7]
  6. Stage — A sub-set of Project Phase.[8]
  7. Activity — Motion toward a clearly targeted result, something one does as distinct from something one gets done (result).[9]
  8. Task — A cohesive, individual unit of work that is part of the total work needed to accomplish a project.[10]

Note that at level 4 we have identified a gap that really needs a label. This may not be all that important from a project perspective, but it does matter in Program Planning and even more so in project Portfolio Planning. Also note that in popular usage, "task" and "activity" appear to be used interchangeably. However, as indicated, "Activity" does seem to be more oriented towards "motion" while "task" is more oriented towards completion of an objective.

Objective: did I mention "objective"? In this case, that feels like a much more comfortable word than using "goal". Hence the importance of distinguishing between the meanings of goals and objectives that I talked about earlier!

That's not the end of the story, of course. We may well ask: "Where do portfolios come from?" Typically they come from the desire of a corporate body to implement their Vision of change for the future. If that is true, then "projects" that are lower down on the hierarchical list are clearly a part of general management. And, depending on the extent of that change, this implies the importance of representing a portfolio at the highest relevant level of the organizational structure, if the benefits of the portfolio effort are to be realized.

Why am I interested in all of this? Aside from the fact that I have been developing my Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms for the last 15 years, for the last three I have been assisting the Canadian contingent of ISO[11] to recommend a set of standard project management definitions for use in general project management practice. While a number of terms are straight forward, the rest are proving difficult to resolve. The problem is that not every representative has the same background experience so that together they tend to hold firmly to very disparate opinions.

I'll talk more about all of this next month.

1. Please refer to Issacon #1098 at this location:
2. See Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms v3.1, definition # D00764 - Goal
3. Ibid, definition # D01100 - Objective
4. See Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms v5.5, definition # D06093 - Project Portfolio
5. See Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms v3.1, definition # D01300 - Program
6. Ibid, definition # D01353 - Project
7. Ibid, definition # D01186 - Phase
8. Ibid, definition # D01515 - Stage
9. Ibid, definition # D00028 - Activity
10. Ibid, definition # D01993 - Task
11. ISO is the International Organization for Standardization, an international standard-setting body composed of representatives from various national standards organizations around the world.
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