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 “project management” but there is a danger of broadening the definition too far. If the definition is broadened too far, almost anything could be “project management” and that would make it meaningless. 

Difference between a project and a process

For example: Is an effort to provide ongoing maintenance and enhancements for a product a “process” or a “project”?   To eliminate potential confusion, we need clearly-defined and objective criteria for drawing a line between the two. What is a “process”, and what is a “project”.

Difference Between a Project and a Process

I’ve summarized some distinctions between a “process” and a “project” below:

ProcessProject
ObjectiveA “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”.
Time DurationA “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).
Process OrientationA “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.

Project Management Versus Process Management

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

Process ManagementProject Management
FocusThe focus of Process management is on managing a process such as a product manufacturing 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.The focus of Project management is 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.
EmphasisThe emphasis of Process management is 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).The emphasis of Project management is 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.

Overall Summary

In simple, terms:

  • The goal of “Process Management” is to manage existing business processes as efficiently and effectively as possible. An example would be managing a process associated with the current way the business operates.
  • The goal of “Project management” is on managing some kind of change in the way a business operates to make the overall business operate more effectively. An example would be introducing a new product, implementing new processes, etc.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

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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