What do you think of when you hear the word "project?"

For many of us, "project" recalls elementary school book reports or science fairs. Maybe a bubbling vinegar-and-baking-soda "volcano" comes to mind. For others, it evokes the working world, where a project is finishing a job or delivering something to a customer.

While the word "project" can refer to almost anything, we do not need to work hard to define it. Several useful, accepted definitions already exist.

For me and thousands of project management professionals, the handiest definition comes from the Project Management Institute (PMI): "[a project] is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result."

"[a project] is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result."

The first key to this definition is that a project is temporary. For example, building the Golden Gate Bridge was a project, but painting it is not because as soon as one side is painted, the other side needs repainting. Similarly, writing the U.S. Constitution was a project, but running the U.S. Government is not. Projects must have an end point.

The second key point is that projects create a unique product, service, or result. For example, responding to fifty emails in a help desk email account is not a project because those email responses will support all those customers in similar ways, and tomorrow's emails will probably look much like today's. A help desk runs an engine, which is operations. A project builds an engine.

The third and final important aspect of PMI's definition is that it exists at all, especially in such a precise form and with longtime acceptance among project managers. Using the PMI's definition, project managers reliably define and agree upon which tasks are projects and which are not.

The benefit - for everyone - is that this definition has been in place for so long, across so many industries, that project managers have created and codified a mountain of widely-applicable and useful project management knowledge, processes, techniques, and tools. Today, anyone with an Internet connection who recognizes that their initiative is temporary and resulting in a unique output can grab from a large toolbox of project management knowledge, right off the shelf.

Today, anyone with an Internet connection who recognizes that their initiative is temporary and resulting in a unique output can grab from a large toolbox of project management knowledge, right off the shelf.

So, what do software and vinegar volcanoes have in common? Both are projects. No matter which one you are making, the process will be time-limited with some defined endpoint.

No matter which one you are making, relevant knowledge stands readily accessible. The PMI's conception of a project is introduced concisely in the PMI Educational Foundation's Managing Life’s Projects. It is expressed authoritatively in the PMBOK® Guide and Standards. All it takes is familiarity to start putting that knowledge to use.

Consider using a PMI idea or two the next time you are starting a project or run into an issue with an ongoing project. You will be in terrific company.