What is 'Project Management'​? - PM 360 Consulting
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What is ‘Project Management’​?

What is ‘Project Management’​?

I’ve been thinking about the definition of project management for a while now.

I think for many it’s been incorrectly defined, explained, or misunderstood, which has led to many of the challenges and ‘religious wars’ between Project Management and Agile.

For many, ‘project management’ means a specific method or approach – waterfall. For others, it signifies a leadership approach – command and control. For yet others, it’s a broader approach, or a concept.

Unfortunately, the larger or more visible/active project management associations haven’t helped in this area.

PMI defines it as: The use of specific knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to deliver something of value to people.

IPMA defines it as: Concerned with the application of methods, tools, techniques and competences to a project to achieve goals.

APM defines it as: The application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills, and experience to achieve specific objectives for change.

Now, while none of these are technically ‘wrong’, I think they’re only part of the definition. They only focus on the verb aspect of project management, the ‘managing’ of projects. But what about the ‘noun’ aspect?

I think of project management much the same as I do ‘medicine’. It’s an umbrella term for a large ‘body of knowledge and practice’. When I talk about project management, I’m talking about ‘all’ of project management – the tools, the processes, the theories, the leadership traits, the problem-solving aspects, the ‘aha’ moments, the different delivery approaches, the people aspects, etc.

In a business context, project management runs the gamut, from ‘strategy development’ to ‘product on the shelf’, from ‘culture change’ to ‘decommissioning the site’. What is strategy execution if not ‘managing the projects to deliver the strategy’? Change management is ‘managing the project of the change initiative’. Product development, digital (or even Agile) transformations, innovation…., all of it falls under the umbrella of project management – the getting from ‘here’ to ’there’.

Merriam-Webster has several definitions for ‘medicine’, but there’s one that captures both the verb and noun uses –

The science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease.

          I think we need a similar definition for project management –

The science and art dealing with the development and delivery of desired outcomes or outputs.

And like medicine, this definition doesn’t mean there’s only one way of doing it. Medical Doctors don’t always agree with Chiropractic, or Naturopathy. Just look at the medical community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic – while there existed a majority view, ‘medicine’ did not see it all the same, or have the same processes or treatments.

The similarity doesn’t end with the discrepancies or disagreements. Medical professionals exist in a wide range of contexts – surgery, general practice, pediatrics, research, pharmacy, etc. There are specialties, which each knowing that they don’t ‘know it all’, and that the field and science are always growing. But it’s all still ‘medicine’. And as ‘medicine’ includes everything from “take 2 aspirin” or getting a Band-Aid to brain surgery, ‘project management’ spans everything from building a dog house or planning a vacation to building a nuclear submarine.

I think if we have a better definition, one that addresses the ‘science and art’ more than the ‘tools and processes’, we can be done with the religious wars of project management vs Agile, and focus on ‘what’s the best way to deliver the particular outcome/output’, and how we keep evolving the practice and professionals.


Article written by Trevor K. Nelson Project,Program and PMO Leadertship 22nd March 2023