What is a project? The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK, 5th Edition) gives the following definition:
“A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The temporary nature of projects indicates that a project has a definite beginning and end.” PMBOK, p. 3
In opposition to that, operations are the regular operations of an organization. The operations include processes that are ongoing, and are not supposed to end.
The standard view is that the operations are ongoing, and it is the changes to regular ongoing operations that would be managed as a project.
“Changes in business operations may be the focus of a dedicated project – especially if there are substantial changes to business operations as a result of a new product or service delivery.” PMBOK, p. 12
As mentioned in PMBOK, there are various points of intersections between operations and projects, especially when a project is now fully implemented and transferred to the operations. This is the standard view, and it is important to know it. It is part of PMBOK, and part of the knowledge required for the PMP certification.
However, it reflects a hard line between projects and operations. The hard line certainly still applies in some businesses and some economic sectors. As such, this definition should be known by project managers and business leaders.
But the business environment is changing very fast, and this hard line is now getting thinner and thinner for many organizations. In the past, organizations would seem to exist and be stable for long-period, and sometimes have to go through key changes. This is why people were able to dream for a lifetime job in the same organizations, just doing basically the same thing for many years. They could move up the ladder, but it would be to supervise or manage the same process.
Now things are different. There is a fast pace of change in knowledge, in technology, and in business and social environment.
Knowledge: the pace of innovation and new knowledge is very fast. It used to be that you could study a subject and make a living on that knowledge for your whole career, then retire. Things wouldn’t change much, which is why almost the only thing that was important was “years of experience”. Now, with a fast pace of innovation, a diploma becomes quickly obsolete. A diploma is still better than none, don’t get me wrong, but the winners will be those who can learn, unlearn, and constantly learn new knowledge. Fast pace of innovation will disrupt the operations and bring a start and an end to many operational processes.
Technology: I can just say this. Those who are fighting technology are fighting a lost battle. It is not going away. And it often brings paradigm shifts that make obsolete may processes that were successful and appropriate in the past. And this fast pace of change will also disrupt the operations and bring a start and an end to many operational processes.
Social environment: The needs of customers are also evolving fast. An organization that was successfully serving their customers may see the client base disappear quickly if they don’t pay attention. We all know companies that had fixed ongoing operations, and didn’t react fast to changes. They all suffer a huge loss in their leadership positions, if not simply just died and disappear. Even if they tried to summon the social environment to not change, it doesn’t work like that. Fast changes in the social environment will also disrupt the operations and bring a start and an end to many operational processes.
Finally, the business environment is in constant evolution. The winners of yesterday may not keep their leadership position. Size is no longer a winning factor in many economic sectors. With the internet and technology, small organizations can offer an excellent product and benefit from being more nimble and agile. Again, fast changes in the business environment will also disrupt the operations and bring a start and an end to many operational processes.
Because of that, there is now a very thin line between projects and operations. If in the past changes were the “anomaly” that needed to be managed, it is now becoming “status quo” and “ongoing operations” that is the anomaly that should be managed. In the past, leaders were often afraid of changes. Even the theory reflects that with “change management”, which implies going from a stable context A to stable context B. The theory often talks about managing appropriately the risks of changes.
In fact, if we look at the pace of changes, and its consequences, it is now the status quo that is very risky for organizations.
Because of that, we now have a very thin line between projects and operations. As such, many project management techniques can be more useful than ever to organizations. In fact, many organizations can be projectized and gain benefits. Having good project managers, and leaders who understand project is important for organizations living in a fast changing world.
Michel Dion, PMP, CPA
Founder and Developer of Project-Aria
Discover my book:
Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers: Achieve Better Results in a Dynamic World