The line can sometimes get blurred between what constitutes a project and what is really a routine or routine work. The definition of a project varies from one company to another. In some cases, the word is used loosely to describe any task, exceptional or recurring. Thus, a “project” could mean any routine that demands time. That’s unfortunate because it diminishes the importance of actually planning out and managing a project.

Search Craigslist job postings for the word “project” and it’s amazing how many non-project roles are listed as projects and how many postings that need project managers are actually looking for a clerk or a data entry person.

Let’s look at a few items that separate a project from some of the routine work that gets performed that really isn’t a project.

A project is an exception

A project involves investigating, compiling, arranging, and reporting information outside the range of usual activities while the routine is defined within the range of a department’s function. Example: The manager of a customer service department prepares monthly reports identifying customer contact trends (complaints, inquiries, suggestions) as part of her routine. When she is given the task of investigating and comparing automated customer service software, she is responsible for a project.

Project work includes investigating and reporting

Project activities are related

Routines for recurring tasks performed in your department are related to the activities that define and distinguish that department only, whereas the activities involved in project phases are related to one another and to the desired end result. So your project may involve coordinating work that not only takes place in your immediate department but extends to actions in other departments, as well as to outside resources. Example: The customer service manager given the project of investigating automated systems may work with the IT manager, the marketing department, and several suppliers. Collectively, the internal and external information will help her identify the points of comparison.

Project goals and deadlines are specific

Recurring tasks may be managed with departmental goals in mind, but these goals tend to remain fixed or move forward only with time. The same is true of deadlines; you may face weekly or monthly deadlines for completion of reports, processing, and closing. Projects, though, have singular goals that will be either reached or missed. And projects have clear starting points and completion dates. Example: The customer service manager is told to compare prices and features of the software, make a recommendation, and complete a report within three months. This project has a clear goal and deadline. In comparison, her department’s routine goals and deadlines extend from one month to another.

Specify project deadlines

The desired result is identified

Routines are aimed not at one outcome but at maintenance of processes, whereas the research, development of procedures, or construction of systems or buildings on a project produce a tangible, desired result. Example: For her project, the customer service manager is expected to deliver a conclusive report. It’s a one-time assignment, not one that will recur each month. But the routine reports her department generates will still be produced as a maintenance function of her department. Projects are also distinguished from routines by the way in which they must operate under the three constraints of result, budget, and time. To a degree, all management functions operate within these constraints. For example, your department may be expected to perform and produce certain results; it’s subjected to budgeting controls, and its work is planned and executed under a series of deadlines.

Information for this article was derived, in part, from Michael Thomsett’s book entitled, “The Little Black Book of Project Management.”