When is a process a project?

Written by Ian James, Nov 12, 2015

Is it a process or project and what is the difference between the two?

A sketch showing a stick figure unable to tall the differnce prween a process diagram and a project gnatt chart

People frequently confuse projects with processes. Even software companies that sell great process management apps typically pitch them as project management software.

You could argue that this is a matter of semantics. What’s in a name? Either way, you are going to perform a set of tasks to get something done. Calling it a project rather than a process won’t change anything.

In fact, there are some areas where they overlap. And that’s what leads to the confusion. But there is also a crucial difference and that has an impact on how you manage the activities. And that in turn, has an impact on the software applications you choose to help manage them with.

Things projects and processes have in common

Both processes and projects aim to get something done through a sequence of planned activities. They both typically need teams and resources to execute. They even co-exist alongside each other in the same environment sometimes. People can work on processes and have a project on the go.

I have seen a lot of definitions that talk about the relative scale of processes and projects. Projects do tend to be larger and more complex in scope. But I can show you plenty of complex processes. And a lot of projects are really quite small. So it’s not about size.

The one meaningful difference between projects and processes

There is only one meaningful difference and that is how often you repeat the activity. Projects are one-offs. At the very least you perform them infrequently. Yes, I know there are such things as project templates. That kind of implies that projects are repeatable. If you are planning a set of activities towards some goal for the first time, it’s a project. Now, if you end up repeating it over and over based on the same plan, I’d say it has become a process.

Processes are repeatable. They create value by producing a given output on demand. In a way, it’s like an excel function. You put the numbers in and out pops the result. You don’t have to think about it. But someone did the first time through. The designer of the Excel function spent a lot of time getting that right, you can be sure.

And this is the difference that has the impact. The fact that the activities are repeated means that you can effectively amortize the planning effort over many repetitions. You have to plan a project every time. The effort has to pay off from the outcome of the one time you execute the project.

All of this might still seem a bit trivial. Until you consider the impact of the difference in how you manage projects or manage process.

When you manage a project, most of the effort goes into the initial planning. After that your effort goes into seeing things stays on track. You get one shot at it, basically.

But a process is different. You will cycle through a process many times. So that means you get the chance to refine it.

You can review the outcome from a process and learn from it. You can make changes to the process. You have the luxury of experimenting and seeing what works, and what does not. Now your management effort is less on keeping things on track and more about learning how to do it better, faster, quicker.

So there is this big difference in where your management effort goes. And this is reflected in the choices you need to make when it comes to selecting the right software to help you manage projects or processes.

Unsurprisingly, project software is better suited to projects, and vice versa. When people write software, they use an underlying set of assumptions about how they expect the users to use it. If it is project software, there will be one set of assumptions. If it is process software, there will be another.

If you end up choosing the wrong one, you will asking your team to use an application that is fundamentally unsuited to what they are trying to do. And you will make things really hard for yourself.

What happens when you choose the wrong management application?

I have seen a big department try and run tiny repetitive processes on a project management system. The application demanded a minimum of planning data before it could track the project. So, there was this overhead of creating a “project” every time for each instance of the process. It took far longer to enter the data than it did to do the actual work. Not only was this highly inefficient. But in an effort to speed things up, people cut corners and that lead to all sorts of trouble.

So, yes, there is a difference between a project and a process. But only one. And that’s the repeatability you get in a process that you don’t in a project. That changes the management effort from refining through experience to planning up front. And, in turn that demands a different software application to support monitoring and tracking.

I hope you have enjoyed this video and found it useful. There are plenty more on my website, TheProcessConsultant.com. Thanks, I am Ian James, The Process Consultant.

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