Project Management

Project Management: A New Definition

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark was most recently co-lead investigator of the Value of Project Management research project sponsored by PMI. You can read more of his writing at

Last month’s column continued to explore the challenge of trying to define the role of project management in such a way that we can distinguish when we are managing from when we are doing anything else that we might also have on our plates.

The need for this is, in part, because many of us as project managers have other job functions we are also responsible for. In a project context, we often also take on a role of doing as well as managing--of producing individual deliverables as well as overseeing the project as a whole. Our challenge is to distinguish between these roles, and to be able to clearly delineate what a project manager actually does. After all, if we can’t define it, then how do we communicate what it is, and how do we defend its value?

Some readers have questioned whether this is even a value-added exercise. Is there a pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow, or is this just an intellectual meander down the garden path? Others have acknowledged the difficulty of defining it, but have hung their hats on making a distinction between “project” and “product”--that if it is producing the results, it is doing, and if it isn’t, then it must be managing. Others have chosen a more disingenuous path of calling project management a set of tools and not a profession, and circumventing the whole challenge as a result.

While I am not going to wade into the “Is PM a profession?” debate again, for most of us it should be very clear that project management is more than just some tools. Many of us have it as a title on our business cards, and for some it defines our entire waking day.


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It is a role that is valued, and a function that is sought after. Yes, there are tools that project managers bring to the table to enable them to do their jobs, just as there are for programmers, analysts and designers. Yet each of these roles is defined as more than the sum of their tools. I cannot simply say “I have a monkey wrench, therefore I am a plumber.” If you don’t believe me, go ask a plumber.

In defining project management, a test that I have applied in evaluating definitions is: “Does the definition distinguish what a project manager does from the other team members working on the project? Does it clearly distinguish what a project manager does from what a project sponsor does?”

A definition that clearly delineates between other roles in the project organization, that is unambiguous and that doesn’t blur or overlap with other roles should be one that most of us can agree on.

What this test has led me to is a definition of project management that comprises three separate attributes:

Responsibility for the project
”Responsibility” is one of those nebulous words that can mean many things to many people. Here, however, I am being very specific in its meaning. The definition of responsibility in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary is “authority; the ability to act independently and make decisions.” This is, in effect, the first criteria of a project manager--can you independently make decisions regarding the project, without recourse to a higher authority? Now, this is generally going to get a big “yes, but…” in most responses, so I’ll clarify--within the overall envelope of approved time, cost and scope, do you have the freedom to make decisions? Can you change strategy, approach or activity definitions to accomplish the same results within the same window?

Accountability for project results
The next attribute that defines a project manager is accountability for the results of the project. The project manager is the person who is accountable to either the owner or sponsor of the project for delivery of the overall results of the project. This may or may not equate with the delivery of the full business case of the project--for many systems projects, for example, management of the organizational change associated with the results of a project may not be within the scope of responsibility of the project team. Whatever is within scope, however, must be clearly defined and measurable, and the project manager must be fully accountable for the delivery of those results.

Authority to execute the project to get the results
Finally, the key attribute of project management is the authority to execute the project in order to realize the intended results. Authority can be defined as “the power to enforce or influence behaviours or actions.” In essence, project management requires being able to influence or enforce the behaviours that are necessary to attain the results for which we are being held accountable.

While the project manager may have the responsibility to make decisions inside the project, and the accountability for the results of the project, we must also have the ability on behalf of the organization to ensure availability of resources and require the changes of behaviors that are necessary. While authority can take many forms, whether it is derived from our position, our expertise or our influence in an organization, it must be assumed that we are expected and permitted to exercise this power in order to realize the end goals of the project.

Based upon these attributes, a reasonable definition of project management is “The exercise of responsibility and decision-making about a project, the authority to execute within the boundaries of the project, and the accountability to deliver the results of a project in the context of agreed-upon customer expectations, commitments and constraints.”

The implications of this definition are potentially far-reaching. As I have discussed in previous columns, many with project management responsibility do not in fact realize that they are project managers. Based upon this definition, however, many who believe themselves to be project managers may in fact not be fully exercising the role. This is not a failing on their part--it is because they have not been given the full mandate necessary in the context of project management.

We should not be held accountable for results if we do not have the responsibility to make decisions about a project or the authority to attain results. For many of us right now, however, that is precisely the situation we find ourselves in.

Given the implications, does that make the definition meaningless? If our role as it is defined does not possess all three attributes, does that mean there isn’t a project manager? To both questions, the answer is “no.” If the definition holds water, then what we need to do is identify who in our project does have the responsibility, accountability and authority that we have defined.

For many projects, if it isn’t the person with the title of “project manager,” than it’s probably the person with the title of “project sponsor.” Which doesn’t mean that they have redefined our role; it means that they have taken part of ours. And if they don’t want to manage the project, then they’re going to have to give it up.

Next Month: Are you a project manager, really?

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughoutNorth America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark is also the author of Interthink's Project Management Process Model (PM2), a maturity model that has been used to assess over 550 companies worldwide.

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