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Back to Basics: How Are Projects Different from Operations?

You are likely reading this article because you are part of MPUG community, and you’re aware of a tool called Microsoft Project (MSP).

Do you know why MSP was first called Microsoft “Project” or why, for that matter, Project and Portfolio Management (PPM) tools contain the word “Project”? And, why there are no standalone “Operational” scheduling tools?

To be honest, I don’t have a clear or definite answer to these questions. I have found; however, that scheduling for a project is much more difficult than scheduling for an operation.

I have written this article to discuss projects and operations. We’ll explore differences and similarities between these business terms. I hope you’ll gain a better understanding of projects and operations from reading it.

A Brief History of Projects and Operations

Projects and operations have been happening since the beginning of mankind. In fact, a case could be made for such pre-dating mankind and going back to the Neanderthal age.

In fact, early projects and operations were tools of survival for humans and Neanderthals. In very early days, hunting or building home were projects. Such activities can still be considered projects in today’s day and age. On the other hand, cooking food or making clothing would fall into the operations category.

Although projects and operations are as old as human history, a clear distinction between these two terms came about only after World War II.

Before that time period in history, all business work was treated as operational work. However, during the war, projects become more complex and sophisticated. Governments and private industries initiated and invested heavily in new weapon development endeavors, which were required to be successfully completed in record times. Although a grim prospect to consider, the development of war weapons gave rise to the recognition of project management as a science distinct from operations management.

What are Projects?

As per the PMBOK Guide, a project is a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service, or result.  Notice the definition contains two keywords: “temporary” and “unique.”

Temporary implies that the endeavor is time bound. It has a definite start and finish date. Unique means that the endeavor is undertaken to produce or result in something that has not been done before.

Temporary does not mean that the result of a project is insignificant or has a low utility. It also does not mean that a project has a short timeframe. It just means that the endeavor has a definite start and finish date.

Projects cannot go on and on and result in something distinct. We can think of a project as an agent of change. Here are a few examples of projects from the business world:

  1. Constructing a building
  2. Developing a software
  3. Designing a new machine
  4. Landscaping a garden

We undertake projects in our personal lives, too. Here are a few examples:

  1. Organizing a wedding or celebration
  2. Organizing a holiday trip

What are Operations?

The simplest definition of an operation is that it’s not a project. In short, operations are not temporary and they do not yield unique results. They are ongoing without a defined end date. Operations are repetitive and they maintain a certain status-quo.

Here are a few examples of operations from the business world:

  1. Running a bus service
  2. Supplying electricity to homes
  3. Manufacturing ingots
  4. Periodic maintenance of a garden

Here are some operations that we perform on a daily basis personally:

  1. Getting ready for work
  2. Cooking meals

Differences Between Projects and Operations

Some differences to consider between projects and operations are as follows:

ProjectsOperations
Create unique resultsCreate non-unique results          
Create new knowledgeUse existing and pre-defined knowledge
Have a defined start and finish dateOngoing and repetitive
Are agents of changeMaintain status quo
Are inherently risky since there is no existing knowledge.Are relatively less risky

You can check also this video for a quick overview of the difference between the two terms.

Similarities Between Operations and Projects

There are many similarities between operations and projects:

  1. Both are performed to achieve business objectives.
  2. Both are planned, executed, and monitored/controlled.
  3. Both are constrained by time, cost, and resources.
  4. Both are performed by individuals.

Conclusion

I have noticed that most people who are curious about the distinction between projects and operations are so because they are preparing for a project management exam. Perhaps this article has satiated your curiosity. Understanding the differences is extremely important and especially if you are applying for the PMP exam or any other PMI exam.

As part of the exam application process, you will likely be asked to list the details of the projects that you have done. I have seen many aspirants provide instead a description of operations they have performed on their application. This leads to a PMI audit and ultimately the rejection of their application.

Did you read this article because you are preparing the PMP exam, or do you want to get into project management? Is your job mostly project-oriented or is it operational? Between projects and operations, which one do you think is more important for running a business?

I would love to hear from you below.

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Written by Praveen Malik

Praveen Malik, PMP, has two-plus decades of experience as a project management instructor and consultant. He regularly conducts project management workshops in India and abroad and shares his project management thinking in his blog, PM by PM.

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5 Comments
  1. Q: What’s the difference between an Ops Manager, a Project Manager, and a Swiss Army Knife?
    A: The maturity of the organization.

    Many organizations can’t or don’t differentiate and when interviewing for these positions. You need to know what you expect to do vs. someone else’s job. Job descriptions use the term Project Manager to mean all kinds of things that are ops management in reality. You need to catch this and decide for yourself if that position is going to grow your PM skills or not and if that answer will fulfill your goals in life. Different people will have different answers, and that’s OK, but you need to go into that work with eyes open. I’ve met many exceedingly confident Ops Managers who simply cannot drive change to meet targets and proactively manage risk, resources, and communications across multiple efforts at once, but believe they are good project managers because they can make a list and check things off it. A red flag is frustration with PMs who can’t close tasks (or projects) as if they are support tickets with a 12 hour SLT.

    Reply
    • Well said.

      Reply
  2. I fight this battle educating my project teams that a project has a definite start and a definite end. It seems many teams just want to kick the can down the road for tomorrow. No pride in accomplishments and getting things done.

    Reply

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