Project Management Institute

Can Project Management Be Defined?

One of the recurring themes of the 1970 PMI Symposium was the question of how project management should be defined. What is it that makes a project management organization? Many attendees proposed answers to this question …

— Project management is a matrix organization;

— Project management is network scheduling and planning;

— Project management is the management of a unique one-time task.

These are but a few of the perceptions which were put forth. There seemed to be as many different definitions as there were people defining the term.

This was an interesting turn of events, and not an entirely unexpected one. For, as a field unto itself, the study of the management of projects is relatively new. The term “project management” did not come into popularity until after 1954 when Colonel Bernard A. Schriever put together a team of men to manage a crash project for the U.S. Air Force’s missile program. It was not long after this (1958) that PERT was developed to aid in the management of the U.S. Navy’s Polaris project. Because of PERT’s success, there developed a natural association between the PERT technique and project management. This side-by-side development was stimulated by DOD’s insistence during the 1960’s that a program manager be appointed for all major defense contracts and that PERT networks be developed for the management of these contracts.

Parallel to these developments, project management techniques began to be used in other fields to manage such tasks as the design and installation of computer systems, large construction projects, urban development programs, and the development of educational programs.

In spite of this intensive development of project management techniques in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the spread of these techniques to many areas of endeavor, there is no universal agreement on how to define project management. If we revert to the crutch of dictionary definition of the words “project” and “management” we come up with something like ‘the accomplishment of a planned undertaking through people.’ The usefulness of this definition is dubious at best. Is there no useful definition of ‘project management’ or are all definitions useful only to their particular area of application?

On the contrary, there are many useful definitions; numerous authors in the field have addressed the problem of defining project management. J. S. Baumgartner in his book Project Management defines project management in terms of the efforts to produce end items within time, cost and quality constraints. David Cleland (“Why Project Management,” Business Horizons, Winter 1964) and Paul Gaddis (“The Project Manager,” Harvard Business Review, June 1959) describe project management in terms of the role of the project manager functioning as an integrator of the efforts of various functional and extraorganizational groups, Desmond Cook (The Nature of Project Management, Working Paper, Ohio State University, 1968) summarizes the definitions of Baumgartner, Cleland, and Gaddis in terms of the project manager’s role “to produce a product by integrating professional persons into a team operating within time, cost, and performance parameters with that team operating within some lines of organizational responsibilities and authority.” Cook goes on to say that projects have four characteristics. They have a single objective, are usually complex in nature, consist of a series of unique tasks, and are normally a one-of-a-kind or non-repetitive activity.

These definitions really deal with the definition of a project or the functions of the project manager. We can see from this sampling of authors that the diversity of definition in the literature seems to be as great as it was at the PMI conference. Other authors have addressed the problem of defining project management but they also have either addressed the issues of parts of project management or geared their definition to the aspects of project management in a specific field such as aerospace project management, educational project management, etc.

There are, however, many similarities running throughout all these definitions. An analysis of these similarities could yield a general definition of project management.

This definition must answer the following questions.

What is a project?

What is meant by the management of a project?

What activities and techniques are involved with the management of a project?

Such a definition is not easily constructed, due to the diverse application of project management and the infinite variations in project management systems. To do such a definition justice would require an extensive exposition of the entire range of project management systems and applications.

However, a definition must start somewhere; a core definition must be established before the variations can be analyzed. Such a core definition can be drawn from the existing diverse definitions of the various aspects of project management. The following is an example of such a definition.

Project management is the application of a collection of tools and techniques (such as the CPM and matrix organization) to direct the use of diverse resources toward the accomplishment of a unique, complex, one-time task within time, cost and quality constraints. Each task requires a particular mix of these tools and techniques structured to fit the task environment, and life cycle (from conception to completion) of the task.

This definition is general enough to include all types of project management. It is not a precise definition but it is more precise than any existing definition of project management.

A general definition of project management is needed. As a group interested in Project Management and members of the Project Management Institute, it would be highly beneficial to define our field of interest in terms which are common to everyone. Such a definition can only develop out of open discussion. This publication and next year’s symposium are ideal vehicles for such discussions.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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