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

You might think of elementary school book reports or science fairs, complete with bubbling vinegar-and-baking-soda "volcanos." Or you might think of building a house, repairing a car, or something else entirely.

But while "project" can refer to many things, one definition from the Project Management Institute (PMI) can define them all: "[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 point is all projects are temporary. Building the Golden Gate Bridge met this test because it had an end date, but painting it does not because it never ends: 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. Et cetera. All projects must have an end point.

The second takeaway is all projects are unique. Projects create a unique product, service, or result. So - for example - responding to emails in a help desk email account cannot be a project because those email responses will support all those customers in similar ways. Running an engine is operations, and building an engine is a project.

Anyone can use the PMI's definition to identify which tasks are projects and which are not, and then comes the real benefit: you have at your disposal a mountain of project management knowledge, processes, techniques, and tools that you can use, and I guarantee that some of it will be applicable.

In other words, 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.

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.

What software and vinegar volcanoes have in common is 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.

To get started, take 30 minutes to read PMI Educational Foundation's Managing Life’s Projects, which introduces PMI's conception of a project concisely and memorably. For the less readable but authoritative version, see the PMBOK® Guide and Standards.

Consider using a PMI idea or two the next time you are starting a project or run into an issue with an ongoing project.