Published here January 2017.


Musings Index

Issue: Is a Project a Process?

The other day, a colleague and I were discussing the various project management hierarchies that were identified in a recent paper: More on Project Management Hierarchies.[1] In particular, the Figure 2: Project Management Discipline Hierarchy table shows the first two lowest levels as:[2]

Corporate Level

Given Name



Process Management

I.e. Tools and Techniques


Single Project Management

I.e. Detailed Project Specific Policies & Procedures




Part Project Management Discipline Hierarchy Table (Figure 2)

My colleague said they had difficulty deciding whether or not a "Project" is really a "process" in the first place.

This set us thinking. After all, the Glossary in the Project Management Institute's PMBOK® Guide, 5th Edition (2013) defines a "project" as "A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result"[3] and defines a "process" as "A systematic series of activities directed towards causing an end result such that one or more inputs will be acted upon to create one or more outputs."[4] To us, that sounds very much like a "project" if not the other way round. So we set to work to try to verify this conclusion.

First, let's get down to basics: How do projects come into being in the first place?

Answer (at its very basic): Somebody identifies a need, or sees an opportunity, or has a creative idea that would have the probability of adding value to the current status quo. Any of these will require a creative solution involving work. They then decide that because of some complexity, or even risk, this work needs some managing. Enter project management wherein the creative effort (i.e. the work) becomes a "project".

Typically, projects have various limitations, and involve the satisfying of one or more stakeholders. These, too, must be taken into consideration, thus adding to the project's complexity. To improve the chances of a successful outcome, the work under these conditions of complexity needs to be conducted with some degree of rigor under some logical sequence of activity. That is to say, the work needs to be conducted according to a logical or obvious sequence of steps, i.e., a realistic and relevant process.

In this way the original project, involving specific work in an appropriate sequence, translates into a relevant process. In this sense, any project may be considered as a process, although a given process is not necessarily a project.

But let's step up one level to "project management". Consult any well established text and we find that "project management" is in fact a collective label for a whole series of management processes such as scope management, quality management, time management, cost management, people management, and so on, to name a few.

But how can this be, because we seem to have a process (the project) involving all sorts of other (management) processes? That's because, like so many other situations in our environment, processes can be "nested" one inside the other.

So, we may conclude that while the term "project" is not a substitute for the term "process", under ideal circumstances, a "project" can be described as a "process" in the sense of a nesting of appropriate subsidiary processes.

Perhaps this little limerick will help us in understanding the relationships:[5]

"Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em
and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."

No doubt that last line refers to programs and portfolios!

2. Ibid.
3. PMBOK® Guide, 5th Edition Project Management Institute, Inc. PA, USA, 2013, Glossary p553
4. Ibid, p551
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