What are the differences between tasks and projects?

Minor updates and re-published on 8 November 2013!

A while back a colleague and client asked me “how can we differentiate between projects and tasks?” For many, that may seem like a simple question but is it? Why the confusion?Read this Article in Arabic

Definitions

One reason is definitions.

If we try to define these terms we notice that they are quite similar. Using the Thesaurus 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].

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®) main 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.

Differentiation

Mounir-Ajam-SUKAD-Co-FounderFine, confusion persists, then how we differentiate them?

It is not easy.

One possible way: if the “work” could be routine work, or not really unique, or it can be done in a few minutes or hours, then maybe the “work” is a “task” but 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 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. But 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 outcome 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 similar fashion every time following a 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 … 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.

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 an easy 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 defined as 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
  • Issue an announcement for 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) 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 know. You can comment on the blog or send us an email.

 

 

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33 thoughts on “What are the differences between tasks and projects?

  1. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Azeezat Abisola,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    Project is a temporary task that has a start and end date and must have a result, while task are executed for project to be completed.

    Reply
  2. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by joseph huberty,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    Task is the special activities,which aim to accomplish the project and task must have someone responsible to act upon it. Lack of clear task planning result to fail of implementing plan.

    Reply
  3. SUKAD Admin

    This
    comment was posted in ISO 21500 Project
    Management group
    by Raphael M
    Dua – FAICD,FGPC(PC),FAPE,MACS(Snr),CP,GDISC, https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642
    Dhanya

    You will find a vast amount of information by
    using Google.. There are at least 350,000 articles.Too much for this
    post which was on a different subject

    Raf

    Reply
  4. SUKAD Admin

    This
    comment was posted in ISO 21500 Project
    Management group
    by Allan
    Old, https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    Everyone seems to know what a task is. A low
    risk action that produces an output.

    If we call a project an experiment then the
    difference between a tasks becomes clear. An experiment assumes that if you
    take an action or a series of actions that you will get a desired result. Not
    all experiments are successful. Some projects are relatively low risk because
    the tasks needed are known ie construction projects. The risks are in timing
    and cost. Other projects are high risk experiments- development of new
    technology etc.

    Reply
  5. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Nabielbagi Abdelbagi,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    Often people call their tasks “projects”. Cleaning your room, filing documents are often called projects when they are really tasks.
    A project has a desired technical objective, a deadline and a budget. Projects contain many tasks (and even projects!), but a task does not contain any projects. Projects are planned and developed where tasks can be accomplished with little up-front effort.
    Task
    1- A piece of work assigned or done as part of one’s duties.
    2- A difficult or tedious undertaking.
    3- A function to be performed; an objective.
    Project
    1- Something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; plan; scheme.
    2- A large or major undertaking, esp. one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment.
    A project is anything we create from scratch … or a major change to an existing system … that requires major effort in terms of definition, planning & delivery
    Projects consist of Tasks, But Tasks don’t make up Projects
    If we try to define these terms we notice that they are quite similar. Using the Thesaurus 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

    Reply
  6. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Anthony Curtis, PMP,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642
    Yep, seems everyone got the answer right.
    Tasks-steps either as a single item or sub group of items required to complete a project.
    Project- consists of a group of tasks either as a single item or group of items to complete a product, service, or goal.

    Reply
  7. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Raghubir Chand,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642
    A project may be a commercial or non-commercial one but it is definitely connected to the process of achieving a decided objective/objectives and involves the mobilization and use of resources through well planned activities, some of which may be parallel and some may be in a sequential or a combination of both so as to achieve the objectives in a particular time frame.
    A task can be an element of activity or sub activity and even can be a project as a whole and depends upon there elated owner of the project/ project manager/activity manager depending upon the case.

    Reply
  8. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Helmut Berger,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642
    A Project should be based on a business case for which the Project Sponsor is responsible and a Project needs a Project Assignment to make clear what the Project Manager + Project Team shall achieve.
    A Task can be performed without all this stuff.

    Reply
  9. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Huda Osman,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642
    A project is a defined set of activities with a defined course of time and cost, developed to reach a desirable result.
    When we breakdown the project activities into levels we make smaller pieces (tasks) that help much in project implementation and monitoring! Since tools, techniques and
    procedure are applied to accomplish the tasks.

    Reply
  10. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Raghubir Chand,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    Tasks are activities which can be performed / completed independently but its initiation / start may or may not be linked or dependent on the start or completion of any other activity/task of the project and it may comprise of further sub activities when task is a sub project which in isolation may not mean anything.
    Whereas, a project can be referred to the task of realization/ achievement of an objective after the decision is taken to realize it and it involve all tasks or sub projects
    and activities to be performed to realize the decided objective.

    Reply
  11. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Themba Moyo – CIPM ® ,MPM ®,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    True that CK. Tasks or activities are executed for the project to be completed. Let us not forget the basics of the uniqueness of the project and that it has a start an end date (like a task) but a task can be repeated over and over and a task can have a float/slack

    Reply
  12. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Sabareeshan C.K.

    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    Interesting discussion! To me task is an activity within a work package with a deliverable attached to it. The raging debate however is whether a task I exclusively a part if a project or could also form part a functional process!

    Reply
  13. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Raphael M Dua,FAICD, MACS Snr, PCP, CP, GradDISC, https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    A ask is the defined piece of work which must be accomplished with the duration estimated for it’s execution to make up a required deliverable

    Reply
  14. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Shane Devries,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    A task is an activity that is part of a particular process within a project. A task is usually made up of several individual steps that are usually found in procedural manuals. Defining tasks allows workers to understand what it is that needs to be done, when it is to be carried in relation to other tasks and in what order each step must be completed. It is usually at this level that you can assign resources, Costs etc.

    Reply
  15. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn PMO group by Jim Milliken, PMP, https://www.linkedin.com/groups/What-Are-Differences-Between-Tasks-106439.S.5961139574309736449view=&gid=106439&item=5961139574309736449&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961139574309736449%3Agroup%3A106439&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961139574309736449%3Agroup%3A106439

    I have my own history with activities identified with those terms, and I have discovered that there is virtual limitless variety in both definition and implementation.
    So I make it a very early practice in any group arrangement to define what we intend to do and work out explicit agreements as to the terms we will use.
    In the end, I don’t care what we call it — just so we mean the same thing when we call it that.
    In my initial lexicon, a task is a relatively small, action-oriented amount of work. A project is the whole complex of tasks organized to achieve a larger outcome.

    Reply
  16. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn ISO 21500 Project Management group by Derrick Durham,
    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItemview=&gid=96642&item=5961116993963700227&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5961116993963700227%3Agroup%3A96642

    Tasks are events that are associated with a project, tasks help get a part of the project completed.Projects are client goals or services to be completed that the company is paid for. There are several tasks within projects that help the project come to completion.

    Reply
  17. SUKAD Admin

    This comment was posted on LinkedIn PM Training Network group by Anne Matin

    https://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=2347661&item=5893713793497726977&type=member&commentID=discussion%3A5893713793497726977%3Agroup%3A2347661&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_GROUP_DISCUSSION_YOU_CREATED#commentID_discussion%3A5893713793497726977%3Agroup%3A2347661

    The ‘project’ is the overarching defined goal/s. The ‘task’ or ‘tasks’ are the program actions and activities which achieve the defined project goal/s.

    Reply
  18. Robert B Miller

    Dear Mr. Ajam,

    I work as part of the US DoD in the IT Management Department and since most initiatives have an IT tail these days, we are struggling with defining a project and a task.

    Some points of consideration have been; length, affected base, branch involvement (singular or multiple), involvement of external entities, et al. It seems that, as you stated, it depends on any combination of these points, but there is no hard, fast answer that fits all situations.
    One suggestion that makes a lot of sense in the decision process, create a swimlane chart to define the flow towards the goal and see how many swimlanes are involved in reaching the goal.

    Regards,

    Robert B. miller

    Reply
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  21. Ahmad Alkhiary

    Dear Mr. Ajam,

    Thank you for the explanation. I am in the E-Government business. Our work is nation-wide, not organizational. Hence, we segment it in Workstreams, initiatives, projects. Each workstream would have multiple initiatives to achieve it. Each initiative, would require multiple projects to achieve it. And projects require a coordinated series of tasks managing limited resources to achieve them.

    The true challange is departmental, not organizational. Department directors are wondering how to classify their assignments, based on complexity, cost, time, effort, impact ? Projects have to appear on the PMO dashboard. Tasks do not.

    So far, the implemented practice is that any taks that requires more than one resource to work for more than two man weeks would be classifies as project.

    Comments ?

    Reply
    1. SUKAD - Integrated Project Management Solutions Post author

      Dear Mr. Alkhiary

      Thank you for writing with your question and sorry for the delayed response.

      Actually, there are three points i would like to make in response:

      1. The first point relate to the concept of organization. For us an organization does not mean the whole organization, it could mean a department or a business unit if the department has some decision making autonomy.

      2. When you mention initiatives and projects and many projects, here we might have a situation where if the initiatives are large enough, we could be talking about programs that might require somewhat different approach to manage than managing projects.

      3. On the third point: projects vs. tasks – interesting that i just completed a class on project management and one of the concern of the participants was their organization push to classify some tasks as projects. This seems to be one of the issues you raised as well.

      Since item 3 is the main focus here i would elaborate.

      I can understand that those believing in project management might believe is the best way to control the work and they try to force the concepts on everything including tasks. Personally, i do believe we can use some aspects of PM Thinking to manage tasks but to force fit tasks into projects to better manage them i do not think it is a good idea – but that is my personal opinion. We can have a simple system to manage tasks without classifying them as projects. I understand that if they are projects than they are on the PMO dashboard but even though i still would not classify them as projects.

      How to move out of the situation? Directors should put emphasis on task management and hold people accountable even if the tasks are not on the PMO dashboard. Why not creating a simple Tasks Dashboard?

      Regards

      Reply
  22. Ahmad Alkhiary

    Dear Mr. Ajam,

    Thank you for the explanation. I am in the E-Government business. Our work is nation-wide, not organizational. Hence, we segment it in Workstreams, initiatives, projects. Each workstream would have multiple initiatives to achieve it. Each initiative, would require multiple projects to achieve it. And projects require a coordinated series of tasks managing limited resources to achieve them.

    The true challange is departmental, not organizational. Department directors are wondering how to classify their assignments, based on complexity, cost, time, effort, impact ? Projects have to appear on the PMO dashboard. Tasks do not.

    So far, the implemented practice is that any taks that requires more than one resource to work for more than two man weeks would be classifies as project.

    Comments ?

    Reply
    1. SUKAD - Integrated Project Management Solutions Post author

      Dear Mr. Alkhiary

      Thank you for writing with your question and sorry for the delayed response.

      Actually, there are three points i would like to make in response:

      1. The first point relate to the concept of organization. For us an organization does not mean the whole organization, it could mean a department or a business unit if the department has some decision making autonomy.

      2. When you mention initiatives and projects and many projects, here we might have a situation where if the initiatives are large enough, we could be talking about programs that might require somewhat different approach to manage than managing projects.

      3. On the third point: projects vs. tasks – interesting that i just completed a class on project management and one of the concern of the participants was their organization push to classify some tasks as projects. This seems to be one of the issues you raised as well.

      Since item 3 is the main focus here i would elaborate.

      I can understand that those believing in project management might believe is the best way to control the work and they try to force the concepts on everything including tasks. Personally, i do believe we can use some aspects of PM Thinking to manage tasks but to force fit tasks into projects to better manage them i do not think it is a good idea – but that is my personal opinion. We can have a simple system to manage tasks without classifying them as projects. I understand that if they are projects than they are on the PMO dashboard but even though i still would not classify them as projects.

      How to move out of the situation? Directors should put emphasis on task management and hold people accountable even if the tasks are not on the PMO dashboard. Why not creating a simple Tasks Dashboard?

      Regards

      Reply
  23. Richard Bayney

    Dear Mr. Ajam,

    Like you, I have been perplexed by PMI’s definitions of ‘project’ and ‘task’. I do not understand, for example, why a ‘project’ is “a temporary endeavor …that produces a unique product, service, or result”. In the world of Pharma & Biotech, investments in an asset can take as long as 9-15 years from discovery of the asset to its commercialization and may not yield a unique product. In fact, the world’s most commercially successful drug – Lipitor – is not a unique chemical entity; it belongs to a class of drugs called statins, the first of which was discovered and commercialized several years before Lipitor. Yet, this drug took many years to discover, develop, and commercialize. So, was Lipitor a project? Most of us, I believe, would state that it was. In fact, it still is a project as ongoing investments are being made to expand its therapeutic use in patients. Perhaps if the words ‘temporary’ and ‘unique’ were defined, we would have a better understanding of what may be classified as a project or not.

    In my case, I prefer to use the terminology ‘project’ and ‘sub-project’, to distinguish between the integrated project and the activities that constitute different portions of the project. By definition therefore, a ‘task’ is a sub-project. I am also less concerned about the temporal nature of the investment or the uniqueness of the end result; rather, I focus on the allocation of resources to each sub-project in pursuit of the attainment of one or more goals of the overall project.

    Regards,

    Richard.

    Reply
    1. SUKAD - Integrated Project Management Solutions Post author

      Dear Mr. Bayney

      Thank you very much for taking the time to write and share your views on projects vs. sub-projects vs. tasks. In general i do agree with you that large projects could have sub-projects. To follow up on the concept of sub-projects, then we can also say in large projects and the sub-projects are substantial in size on their own to have their own tasks.

      In the case of Lipitor, i do not know much about it — but the way you explained it is that it could actually be more than a project – maybe a program with multiple related projects. However, with the information provided, one cannot judge whether Lipitor is a large project with long duration or a serious of projects under one program.

      Regards
      Mounir

      Reply

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