How to differentiate between task and project?

A while back a colleague and client asked me “how can we differentiate between task and project?” For many, that may seem like a simple question but is it? Why the confusion?


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Definitions of task and project

One reason is definitions.

If we try to define these terms, we notice that they are quite similar.

What is a task?

Using the Thesaurus definition for ‘task”, it gives us the following synonyms: “job, mission, commission, assignment, chore, undertaking, errand, etc.” 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”[1].

What is a project?

If we shift to “project,” the Thesaurus presents us with: “mission, job, task, undertaking, assignment, etc.” so we can immediately notice that some of the synonyms are the same. Even “task” is also given as a synonym for “project.” Oxford Dictionary presents us with: “an individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim[2].

The Project Management Institute (PMI®) primary standard, the PMBOK® Guide, defines ‘project’ as a: “temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”[3] Now some might say, “this could define a task as well” and we say yes – in a loose way.

Another reason for the confusion, besides 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.

How to differentiate between task and project?

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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
  • A person (or two) can complete it in a few minutes or hours, then
  • Maybe the “work” is a “task.”

However, if the work is more substantial than what we listed here, can it be a project?

For example, if the “work” takes more than a few days to accomplish is it a project? Here we have to refer back 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 a unique result? So 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, similarly, every time following pre-prescribed criteria for the organizing (alphabetical, by topic, by a publisher, etc.). Therefore, this is primarily a task and not a project.

Another definition is what we use at SUKAD (www.sukad.com) which is: “A project is anything we create from scratch, or a major change to an existing system, which requires a major effort, in terms of definition, planning & delivery.”

In this expanded 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.

Clarifications

In discussions with colleagues and receiving feedback on the original post, one colleague made the point that “major effort” or “significant effort” are subjective terms since 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 earlier this is not a straightforward definition and you can decide on your definition of what is a project 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 anything that requires 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
  • Announce a course is a task; developing a marketing campaign is a project
  • Registering for a conference is a task; organizing a conference is a project
  • Collecting feedback from event’s participants is a task; drafting a feedback form is a task;  establishing a feedback system is a project
  • Feel free to add some of your own

Summary

We say a task should be something simple that you could do in minutes or hours, maybe 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). Projects 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.

One final thought, a project will typically require formality, such as justification, management approval, and possibly formal budgeting/funding process.

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 know. You can comment on the blog or send us an email.

 

[1] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/task

[2] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/project

[3] PMBOK® Guide, Chapter 1