What’s the Difference Between a Project and a Process?

What’s the difference between a project and a process? I have a very broad view of what “project management” is. but there is a danger of broadening the definition of a “project” and “project management” so far that almost anything could be a “project” and that would make it meaningless. For example: Is an effort to provide ongoing maintenance and enhancements for a product a “process” or a “project”. I think it could be both because “projects” and “processes” are very inter-related. To eliminate potential confusion, I think we need clearly-defined and objective criteria for drawing a line between what is a “process” and what is a “project”.

I’ve summarized some distinctions below:

ProcessProject
A “process” has an objective that is typically defined around the ongoing operation of the process.
For example, “provide ongoing maintenance for GM vehicles”
A “project” has an objective or outcome to be accomplished and the project ends when that objective is accomplished. That objective might be broadly-defined and might change or be further elaborated as the project is in progress.
For example, “find a replacement ignition switch that will solve the problem with GM vehicles".
A “process” is generally ongoing and doesn’t normally have an end.A “project” has a beginning and an end (although the beginning and end may not be well-defined when the project starts and the end might be a long time in the future).
A “process” is a repetitive sequence of tasks and the tasks are known at the outset since it is repetitive.The sequence of tasks in a “project” is not normally repetitive and may not be known at the outset of the project.

Here’s a similar distinction between “process management” and “project management”:

Process ManagementProject Management
Process management is focused on managing a process such as a software development process. Such a process might be used across a variety of projects.
Process management might involve some project management to define and improve the process.
Project management is focused on managing a project typically using some process in achieving some kind of desired end result.
Every project follows some kind of process even though it may not be formally defined.
Process management has an emphasis on increasing "repeatability" of the tasks, improving efficiency (decreasing time needed, reducing cost), and improving quality of the work product produced by the process (including consistency in quality).Project management has an emphasis on achieving the end result that the project is intended to accomplish.
Higher efficiency is harder to achieve since it might require custom tools and methods that can only be developed if the project was turned into a repetitive process.

In simple, terms, “process management” is focused on managing existing business processes as efficiently and effectively as possible – it’s associated with managing the current way the business operates. “Project management” is associated with managing some kind of change in the way a business operates effectively such as introducing a new product, implementing new processes, etc.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Project and a Process?”

  1. I had an email discussion with Erik Gottesman on this – Erik is a good friend and I consider him to be a thought-leader in this area. He has actively participated in reviewing and commenting on all the books I’ve published on Agile Project Management.

    The discussion I had with Erik indicated that in addition to “project management” and “process management”, there is a third area of focus on “product management”. I think he is absolutely right. These three forms of management are all inter-related and are not independent of each other. For example a focus on “product management” might also include a focus on “project management” and “process management”.

    The important distinction between these three forms of management is that they each require a different kind of orientation and skills.

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