What is a Project? – Definition, Lifecycle and Key Characteristics

What is a Project? – Definition, Life-Cycle and Key Characteristics
What is a Project? – Definition, Life-Cycle and Key Characteristics

If you’re a project manager, developer, or anyone else who works on completing goals, then you’re familiar with the definition and key characteristics of project. This word is often used in different contexts and it can mean something different to each project management professional.

But one thing that everyone agrees on when it comes to the meaning of “project” is that every project initiative defines a final deliverable to be produced in a finite time span and budget, unlike a process that runs continuously.

An individual or organization involved in projects needs to understand how to solve complexity of problems through a systematic management approach. In this article we’ll define the terms “project” and “lifecycle”, describe the key characteristics of a project, and explain how to distinguish a project from an activity.


A girl wondering if she's going to do a project or an activity

What is a Project? – The Definition

Project is a great opportunity for organizations and individuals to achieve their business and non-business objectives more efficiently through implementing change. Projects help us make desired changes in an organized manner and with reduced probability of failure.

Projects differ from other types of work (e.g. process, task, procedure). Meanwhile, in the broadest sense a project is defined as a specific, finite activity that produces an observable and measurable result under certain preset requirements.

It is an attempt to implement desired change to an environment in a controlled way. By using projects we can plan and do our activities, for example: build a garage, run a marketing campaign, develop a website, organize a party, go on vacation, graduate a university with honors, or whatever else we may wish to do.

A Project is a temporary, unique and progressive attempt or endeavor made to produce some kind of a tangible or intangible result (a unique product, service, benefit, competitive advantage, etc.). It usually includes a series of interrelated tasks that are planned for execution over a fixed period of time and within certain requirements and limitations such as cost, quality, performance, others.

The Key Characteristics of a Project

As follows from the given definition, any project can be characterized by these characteristics:

  • Temporary. This key characteristic means that every project has a finite start and a finite end. The start is the time when the project is initiated and its concept is developed. The end is reached when all objectives of the project have been met (or unmet if it’s obvious that the project cannot be completed – then it’s terminated).
  • Unique Deliverable(s). Any project aims to produce some deliverable(s) which can be a product, service, or some another result. Deliverables should address a problem or need analyzed before project start.
  • Progressive Elaboration. With the progress of a project, continuous investigation and improvement become available, and all this allows producing more accurate and comprehensive plans. This key characteristic means that the successive iterations of planning processes result in developing more effective solutions to progress and develop long-term projects.

In addition to the listed characteristics, a conventional project is:

  • Purposeful as it has a rational and measurable purchase
  • Logical as it has a certain lifecycle
  • Structured as it has inter-dependencies between its tasks and activities
  • Conflict as it tries to solve a problem that creates some kind of conflict
  • Limited by available resources
  • Risk as it involves an element of change with a negative impact

Below are some examples of project:

  • Digging a well for the extraction of a natural resource in Nebraska
  • Building a wooden house somewhere in Spain
  • Developing a cloud-based marketing platform for startups
  • Establishing a non-profit organization for COVID-19 relief and recovery efforts
  • Renovating the kitchen
  • Organizing a project meeting with key stakeholders
  • Running a marathon … (anything you don’t repeat often).

No matter how big or small your project is, you can benefit from using editable project templates ― pre-formatted, reusable outlines that serve as a starting point for planning out new work. Templates enable you to set up to-do’s, budgets, schedules, reports, and other project management documents without having to start from scratch every time.

Project Work Breakdown Structure

In project management, the work breakdown structure (WBS) defines a deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of all the essential work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the desired objectives and create the required deliverables. It’s made up of separate activities organized as packages or phases.

It’s an organized and systematic way of illustrating a project in order to increase clarity. The main purpose of the WBS is to describe what work needs to be done, and how it all fits together within the context of the project. It’s important for identifying the tasks that are necessary for successful completion of a project, so you can have a clear understanding of what activities should be accomplished by specific dates.

A WBS can be used as a basis for finding the critical path and developing a network diagram that captures the flow of work needed to accomplish the project objectives.

Project Work Breakdown Designed In Google Sheets

Image source: workspace.google.com

In organizations, a project is defined as a piece of work that is planned for implementation within current business environment. This definition lets make a distinction between other pieces of work, such as:

  • Program – a broad, long-term objective that is often decomposed into a series of projects and sub-projects
  • Task – an identifiable and measurable activity that create a small unit of work for a related project
  • Work package – division of a project task
  • Work unit – division of work packages

Projects along with programs, tasks, work packages and work units are the elements of work breakdown structure or WBS. Often WBS is used to determine an activity-based hierarchy of projects, with reference to their deliverables and objectives.

A program includes several or more larger projects. A larger project can be broken down into smaller interrelated sub-projects. Each one can be divided into tasks which in term are decomposed into interrelated activities or sub-tasks. A task includes a series of smaller goals which are monitored against milestones.

Project Lifecycle: Common Phases

The concept of lifecycle is fundamental in project management. It describes the phases that a project goes through over time, from initial launch to completion and termination.

The project lifecycle includes all activities that an organization conducts to produce the final product. All of these activities should be considered equally important and they should be referred to as “steps” or “phases”.

The value of project life-cycle management is that it defines what key stakeholders should be focusing on: 1) in each phase in order to progress the project to its next development step, 2) associated risks and challenges, and 3) the effective leadership styles, team dynamics, and strategies that support project success.

Depending on the company and the chosen method of project management, the project lifecycle can include these common phases:

  1. Conducting a feasibility study — it is a phase meant to determine the viability of a project. The primary purpose of this phase is to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities of the proposed project.
  2. Establishing the project requirements — identifies functional and technical requirements from which a desired outcome or benefit will be produced. Defining project acceptance criteria is usually included in this step.
  3. Developing the project scope — it defines what has to be done for the product, who will do it and how it will be done. This stage is also where the high-level project objectives should be defined.
  4. Creating the schedule and the budget — also called “project baseline”, it refers to the level of detail of the project timeline and the estimated budget, including dates and time spans of each activity and the costs to be covered. It also include time buffers for contingencies to avoid delays in the start or delivery of the product.
  5. Creating the project plan — the process of planning, organizing and scheduling the work assigned to a project is known as project planning. Its main aim is to ensure that the activities required to create and deliver a product are put in place in accordance with the allocated budget and deadline.
  6. Executing project work — it is also known as project implementation. The primary purpose of this phase to ensure the completion of all activities and tasks in accordance with the project plan.
  7. Controlling and reporting — this phase consists of tracking progress, changing circumstances, risks, identifying issues plus monitoring the work performed during project execution. It can notify managers in the case of any deviation from the plan.

Predictive and Iterative Project Lifecycles

The majority of project management life-cycles can be of two types: predictive and iterative.

The predictive lifecycle is suitable for those types of project where the deliverables should be completed within a predefined time frame and budget. For instance, here are the five phases of the predictive lifecycle (the waterfall methodology) according to The PMBOK Guide by the Project Management Institute (PMI):

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning
  3. Execution
  4. Monitoring and Control
  5. Closing

The predictive lifecycle is used in situations when you can estimate the average time required to complete every phase in your project. This makes it easy for managers to estimate the total time and cost that will be involved in completing the project successfully. However, this approach does not allow to identify factors which might prevent you from achieving your goals on time and within budget.

The iterative lifecycle, sometimes referred to the spiral lifecycle, is suitable for situations when you cannot accurately estimate the time and cost to complete every phase or activity.

The iterative methodology is suitable for those types of agile projects that have to deal with uncertainties, frequent changes in requirements and other unforeseeable problem-solving activities.

Below are the six common stages of the iterative lifecycle (Scrum, Extreme Programming, Agile approach):

  1. Concept
  2. Inception
  3. Iteration
  4. Release
  5. Maintenance
  6. Retirement

Project Management in Business

Project management is widely used by startups and mature companies to complete complex tasks and business objectives. It is used for planning, organizing and controlling business projects that guide an organization’s growth.

Business project management is a systematic approach to planning, organizing and controlling the work of one or more people and divisions within an organization to achieve a specific business aim. It is usually carried out by using project management tools and techniques to achieve a particular business goal.

A business project can be aimed at developing a new product or service that will either fill a gap in the market, or develop a new niche for your company.

Say, you want to develop a new generation of mobile phone, then it is an R&D project management task within your business operations.

Or, you want to build a computer program that will speed up the process of resolving life-chat queries in your customer support department. Then you have to plan and organize its development in the form of a software project.