Passing the #PMP Exam—Study Group Discussions (Chapter 1—What is a Project?)

In this blog post, I discuss the topics that need to be paid particular attention to when studying the PMBOK® Guide Chapter 1—Introduction.  The three topics to be discussed in this and the next few posts are taken from the discussions we had in our PMP exam study group after completing the exam prep course put on by the Orange County Chapter of the Project Management Institute or PMI.

1. Distinction between project and operational work

You wouldn’t think that something as simple as “what is a project?” would cause trouble.   But some exam questions have been known to trip up people on this supposedly simple concept.   Why?  The problem comes from the fact that what is often called a “project” in the real world does not fit the definition of a “project” according to the PMBOK® Guide, but is rather what would be referred to as “operational work” or “ongoing work”.

Here’s the official definition of a “project” according to the 4th edition of the PMBOK® Guide:

Project: A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.

So a project and operational work are different in this respect:

Duration Result
Project Temporary (starts and ends) Unique product, service, or result
Operational Work Ongoing and/or repetitive Mass production (for example), repetitive work

2. Similarity between project and operational work

The famous cycle of “plan, do, check, act” applies to BOTH project and operational work.

In the world of project management, “plan” is covered by the Planning process group, “do” by the Executing process Group, “check and act” are covered by the Monitor & Control process Group.

To these a project adds to the mix a “start” or Initiating Process Group, and an “end” or Closing Process Group.

3. Why is this distinction and similarity important?

Some exam questions will ask you about a company that decides to treat ongoing or operational work as a “project”. It may give you a scenario and ask you what happens next.

The key here is that many of these questions will put the word “project” in quotes. This should be seen as a signal that “the company SAYS it’s a project, but is it really?”


Here’s an example from a previous company of mine, an insurance company.  Every year towards the end of the fiscal year, all of the outstanding claims had to have reserves that were not too small, and not too large, but just right. The purpose of confirming that the reserves were in this Goldilocks zone was to prepare for any potential audit and demonstrate that we were not under-reserving (and thus going against insurance regulations) or over-reserving (and thus going against tax regulations).


In our company, we referred to this annual confirmation of the reserve calculations as “the reserve project.” It had a beginning and an end, and it produced a result (regulatory compliance). Was it really a project according to the PMBOK® Guide?


No, because it is not a “unique” product, but one that was repeated from year to year. This is important because there was planning as a part of our “reserve project”, but there was no need for, say, a project charter or some of the other essential elements of project management.


The distinction between a project and operational work has ramifications for the way a project is managed within an organization, and also for risk management. Projects, given their nature as producing “unique” or sometimes even brand new products, are inherent more risky than the tried-and-true operational work. That makes them not just different in degree from operational work (adding two additional process groups of Initiating and Closing), but also in kind as well.

Some exam questions recognize that the “real world” terminology with respect to the question “what is a project” is not PMBOK® standard terminology, and try to test to see if you know this difference.

Know it and pass the test!

In the next post after the 4th of July holiday, I will discuss the next subject that needs some attention from Chapter 1: the distinction between a project, program, and portfolio.

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