5th Edition PMBOK® Guide—Chapter 1 (Introduction): What is a Project?

In this blog post, I discuss the first of the topics that need to be paid particular attention to when studying the PMBOK® Guide Chapter 1—Introduction, namely, What is a Project?

1. Definition of a project

You wouldn’t think that something as simple as “what is a project?” would cause trouble. The problem, however, stems from the fact that what is sometimes called a “project” in the real world does not always 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”.

First let’s look at the official definition of a “project” according to the 5th edition of the PMBOK® Guide:

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

Please note that in the 5th Edition of the PMBOK® Guide, that besides a project creating a unique product, service, or result, like it says in the above definition, it can also create an improvement in an existing product or service. It specifically gives as an example a Six Sigma project undertaken to reduce defects, so the Project Management Institute is consciously including Six Sigma projects as being subject to the rules of project management as set forth by the Institute.

NOTE: An important point to note is that a project may end in different ways:

  1. if the project’s objectives have been achieved;
  2. if the project’s objectives will not or cannot be met;
  3. the need for the project no longer exists;
  4. the client wishes to terminate the project.

Note these distinctions for later, because they may make sense of certain questions on the test that wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

With the above definition of a project in mind, let’s now contrast a project with operational work.

2. Project vs. Operational Work

A project and operational work are different in these two major respects:

Duration Creates
Project Temporary (starts and ends) Unique product, service, or result, or improvement in existing product or service
Operational Work Ongoing (repetitive) Repetitive product (mass production) or service

With that distinction in mind, we can turn our attention to the matter I posed at the beginning of this post, about companies that call things “projects” that really aren’t “projects” according to the PMBOK® Guide. Here’s a sample question that illustrates the matter.

Sample question:

Every year towards the end of the fiscal year, all of the outstanding claims of an insurance company have to have reserves that are not too small, and not too large, but just right. The purpose of confirming that the reserves are in this “Goldilocks zone” is to prepare for any potential audit and demonstrate that the company is not under-reserving (and thus going against insurance regulations) or over-reserving (and thus going against tax regulations). The company refers to this annual confirmation of the reserve calculations as the “reserve project”. It has a beginning and an end, and it produces a result (regulatory compliance and reduction of risk of an unsatisfactory audit). Is it a project according to the PMBOK® Guide?

Take a minute and look at the question, comparing it to the chart above comparing a “project” with “operational work”.

HINT: the key words are “every year”, “annual”, and a word that is missing from the question is the word “unique” before the word “result.” Note that there is a lot of unnecessary information about what the project actually does; this is a typical hallmark of PMP/CAPM questions which forces you to focus on what is important and skip what is not.


No, because it is not a “unique” product, but one that was repeated from year to year. Therefore, although some planning may be involved in doing the “project”, there is no need for a project charter or some of the other elements you would expect as proper project management, because it’s essentially the same “project” from year to year.

This question is an example of a general phenomenon you may find on the exam, which is that the “real world” terminology with respect to certain terms or definitions such as the word “project” may not be the same as PMBOK® standard terminology, and the test may try to test to see if you know the difference. Know it!

3. Similarities between project and operational work

The above being said about the differences between project and operational work, there are some similarities. The best way to see this is to look at the famous cycle of “plan, do, check, act”, which 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 Monitoring & Controling process Group.

However, with a project as opposed to operational work, there are additional elements such as a “start” or Initiating Process Group, and an “end” or Closing Process Group.

The next post will cover the next topic in the chapter, What is Project Management?


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