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My Definition of a Project – Then and Now

My Definition of a Project – Then and Now

By Anselm E. Begley, MBA, PMP, CBAP, PRINCE2   |   Senior Consultant – IIL

An Early “Project” Perspective

Since youth I’d learned of “projects” and, initially, my viewpoint was if the endeavor didn’t change the world, it wasn’t worthy of the title.

To understand how I arrived at this perception, I was taught about projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover and Aswan Dam, and a nuclear aircraft carrier and submarine (USS Enterprise & USS Nautilus).

With this experience I was left with the belief that a project warranted national support and millions/billions of dollars and it didn’t hurt to have a few rocket scientists and/or brain surgeons on your project team.

As I matured, the news was filled with the accomplishments of the Gemini, Saturn, and Apollo programs that culminated with men walking on the moon. Concurrently, my science projects were, at the very least, modest.

Projects Today

Now the definition of a project appears to have been diluted since my youth. It seems the title project is tagged helter-skelter to just about anything. This initially piqued me but taking a broader view, I think it is all to the betterment of endeavors because it begins with an acknowledgement that all is not known by the parties involved. It acknowledges that an effort will involve aspects which are unique and that stakeholders should expect time for discovery, learning, and risk. So in the end, the broader application is good because everyone enjoys learning.

In identifying an effort as a project, we acknowledge that the outcome (deliverable) will have corporal form. It will be tangible, measurable; it will possess dimensions and have expectations that it will be completed by some date and at some cost.

What seems to be given short shift today is the due diligence that precedes any effort to ensure it deserves to be a project. There should be a discovery period, concept period if you like, to evaluate a project nomination before it is propelled forward and the enterprise’s resources are applied to an activity. Most especially to ensure that the endeavor will provide a benefit to the nation, the enterprise, the family or the individual.

The Genesis for Projects

Let’s consider first where the genesis for projects may come from and what constitutes project justification.

Taking business, daily papers describe companies which are going through reorganizations. The driver for this restructuring is that their current plans and their chain of command do not align with the strategic plan. Companies with the exception of the market leaders are commonly behind their target market’s shift. They are driven by the need to rearrange and support the vagaries of the marketplace in which they have a stake. Why? Because their customers are fickle. Many new projects come about when the enterprise realizes that its structure (IT, procurement, etc.) is out of alignment with corporate requirements. As an aside, changing business structure is the most difficult type of project.

I have been strongly impressed by the 7-S framework and The Five Forces, two concepts developed by Dr. Michael Porter of Harvard in seminal works which you can read in the Harvard Business Review.

The 7-S framework stated that an enterprise could be defined by Shared Values (SV) and these shared values would be supported by the enterprise’s:

  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Systems and Skills (categorized as hard elements)
  • Style and Staff (categorized as soft elements)

These 7 S’s are commonly depicted as a mobile which may dangle above a newborn in their crib, with the center as the Shared Values and Staff, Strategy, Structure, Skills, Style and Systems as the satellites. Acting upon these are breezes or winds as the case may be. In the case of the enterprise, the enterprise mobile is acted upon by vectors (forces that include magnitude and direction).

Michael Porter described the Five Forces as:

  1. Threat of new entry
  2. Threat of substitute products
  3. Determinant of supplier power
  4. Rivalry among existing firms
  5. Determinates of buyer power

Each sector in the economy has a different style so the depiction of the S’s and the Forces differs. The bonds of the 7 S’s must flex to accommodate the Forces. An enterprise with too rigid a structure will break without flexibility (excepting North Korea but there other forces at work there).


Endeavors deserve the title project if there is a change. A change of product, a change of process or a change of mind.

I will delve no further except to say that I advise my reader to explore the seminal works cited and I advise them to examine their environments and culture to see if their S’s align. The degree to which they do will be the degree strategy will work. Just as a sailing vessel ‘comes about’ to employ the shift in the wind to propel the ship ahead, so must the corporate chief. The best helmsman and navigator responds to the crew who senses threats within and without the vessel.

One last note, and that is to say that threats may come from a different direction. Sometimes a small issue can cause disproportionate problems. If you are old enough, recall the year 2000 when the use of two digits to describe the year in all prior programs required the upgrading of all software – lest the systems roll back to 1900 instead of moving forward to 2000 when midnight arrived on December 31st, 1999.

New projects can emerge from an event that occurs. This event may derive from thunder or whisper.

Anselm is a learning and development consultant preparing leaders to manage projects for new products and services. He motivates and engages teams of professionals to achieve revenue or service goals of entrepreneurial or intrepreneurial initiatives at Fortune 100 companies. His skills acquired during his career include effective stakeholder communication and strong interpersonal and relationship building skills to enlist and maintain executive support.

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