A colleague asked once “How can we differentiate between projects and tasks?” For many project management practitioners, that question may seem simple but is it?
Why the confusion?
One reason for the confusion is definitions.
If one tries to define these terms, we notice that they are quite similar.
Using the Thesaurus for ‘task” it gives the following synonyms: “job, mission, commission, assignment, chore, undertaking, errand.”
Oxford Dictionary presents us with: “a piece of work to be done or undertaken: a new manager was given the task of developing the club’s talent”.
We can immediately notice that some of the synonyms are the same. Even “task” is also given as a synonym for “project”.
For project definition, Oxford Dictionary presents us with: “an individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim”.
The Project Management Institute (PMI®) main standard, the PMBOK® Guide, defines a project as a: “temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” Now some might say, “this could define a task as well” and we say yes – in a loose way.
Another reason for the confusion, beside definitions, is the actual use of the words.
Often many people will be working on “tasks” and they call them “projects.” For example: if you ask your friend “what are you doing today?” The friend my answer: “I have a project, my boss asked me to organize some files” … or something like that.
Fine confusion persists, then how we differentiate them?
It is not easy.
One possible way:
If the “work” could be routine work, or not unique, or it can be done in a few minutes or hours, then maybe the “work” is a “task”.
How about if it is more substantial can it be a project? For example, if the “work” takes a few days to accomplish then is it a project? Here we have to refer to more definitions.
If we fall back on PMBOK® Guide definition – some might say “a task is temporary same as a project” and we would agree. However, the project should give a unique result; does a task give unique result? This would be a critical question to ask: “is the output unique?” The answer could lead us to decide whether we have a task or a project. Organizing files – we would typically do this work in a similar fashion every time following a pre- prescribed criteria for the organizing (alphabetical, by topic, by the publisher). Therefore, this is primarily a task and not a project.
Another definition is what we use at SUKAD. “A project is anything we create from scratch, or a major change to an existing system that requires a major effort in terms of definition, planning & delivery.” In this definition, we added some key differentiators such as: “major effort” and what we mean here is indirectly referring to more than a few hours or days. We also added “create from scratch … or … major change” so here again we are referring to something more than organizing the boss’s files, or writing a routine report, or performing some analysis, among other things.
What does “major” means?
In discussions with colleagues and receiving feedback from the original post, one colleague made the point that “major effort” or “significant effort” are subjective terms. What is major or significant is variable based on the people or organizations using these words. We agree this is why we mentioned earlier that “major” is more than a few days, but this is still more subjective than qualitative.
As we said, this is not an easy definition, and you can decide on your definition of what a project is or what is major in the context of projects.
For many organizations in the industrial business (oil & gas, power plants) anything less than 5 million US Dollars might not be even considered a project or they might call it “operational project.” In those situations, major is defined in years and possibly tens and hundreds of resources. Whereas for small organizations or internal business projects, a project could be defined as anything that require more than 40 hours of work.
Some Examples to Differentiate
- Organizing the boss files is a task; establishing a filing system could be a small project
- Issuing an announcement for a course, is a task; developing a marketing campaign is a project
- Registering in a conference is a task; organizing a conference is a project
- Collecting feedback from event participants is a task; drafting a feedback form is a task; establishing a feedback system is a project
- Feel free to add some of you own
We say a task should be something simple that you could do in minutes or hours, may be a day or two at most. A task should also be for work that is considered operational or routine.
On the other hand, a project requires significant effort in term of planning and implementation (days to years) and usually result in something new or a modification to a major system. One thing we can add on here is that the project should also have many people involved whereas a task is quite often one person.
To close; since this is not a science, what we can only offer here is our humble opinion.
If you like us to discuss other topics, please do not hesitate in letting us. You can comment on the blog or send us an email.
 PMBOK® Guide, Chapter 1
This initial version of this article was originally published in September 2012. It is updated and republished in April 2015.