A company is like a beehive – buzzing with hundreds of activities and tasks at any given time. Within each task are countless professionals completing processes and contributing to projects, but these tend to blur together. Many professionals confuse projects versus processes, often unaware that there is even a difference. While the two do share similarities - they are both everyday business practices - they are two very different methods of operation and should be treated accordingly. To help you differentiate between the two, we will discuss the critical differences between a project and a process and what each entails so that you may better perform them.
What is a Project?
A project is a collection of tasks that must be accomplished to achieve a specific goal. Each project is led by a project manager, and assigned tasks are conducted by a project team. This part is obvious, right? Any given project should include scope, fixed timeline, project plan, and appropriate resources. Typically, a project will be something that generally hasn't been done before within a company, so it is often implemented to administer change. Project management, a crucial aspect of any project, is the practice of organizing and delivering a project. Its procedure is reflected through the project life cycle, which is composed of five phases:
- Project initiation. The first phase of any project is the conception stage. During this phase, ideas will be explored, research conducted, and possibilities are determined. This will help managers determine whether a project is feasible enough to actually happen and be successful.
- Project planning. Following initiation, the second phase is where you will consider stakeholder requirements and concerns. Their feedback will help you create a goal, bring a project team together, and create a project plan. The purpose of a project plan is to provide direction throughout the duration of a project. In its simplest form, this plan should cover the why, what, who, and when details of the project.
- Project execution. Phase three is where you begin to take action. The project team will start to create deliverables and attempt to achieve the objectives set out in the project plan. Processes are implemented, resources allocated, and tasks assigned.
- Project monitoring and controlling.Once the project is in motion, you will need to focus on performance and progress tracking. Measures should be established to ensure that objectives are on track to meet the deadline and stay within budget.
- Project closure. The final phase of the project is where all activities come to a conclusion. Whether successful or failed, the project must come to a close during this phase. Administrative tasks will be resolved and finalized, and an evaluation is conducted to improve future endeavors and determine success.
What is a Process?
Alternative to a project that is only completed once, a process is an established, repeatable procedure used for internal business operations. It involves a series of tasks related to one another and must be carried out to achieve the desired result. Processes make up a significant amount of day-to-day business operations, so they are a critical element of company knowledge. An example of a process would be the process that the HR department has in place for hiring new candidates. With each new candidate, the same steps and process are followed to ensure that all necessary tasks are completed fully and accurately. Most processes can be visualized in a flowchart, with step-by-step tasks that add up to a process. The overarching purpose of a process is to serve business objectives that provide customer value. For a process to be efficient, it must be regularly evaluated and improved to refine business standards and ensure maximized value. There are three primary types of processes in a business:
- Operational process. Operational processes are most typically your day-to-day tasks that keep business running smoothly. These processes center on correctly executing the operational tasks of a business. An example of this would be when customer service provides support to a customer or HR onboarding new talent. Should you acquire the help of a managed service provider, this is likely where they will work in optimizing your processes.
- Management process. Management processes make sure that the operational processes are performed correctly. The management team will ensure an efficient and effective work process throughout the company. As you might guess, an example of this would be when a manager oversees the tasks and activities of a project and its associated project team.
- Governance process. Governance processes focus more on the overarching objectives of the company rather than day-to-day tasks. These processes ensure that the company is fully compliant with regulations, guidelines, and shareholder expectations. Specifically, this is where executives make sure that the rules and guidelines for business success are understood and followed. The responsibilities of a company’s board of directors would fall under this category.
What’s the Difference?
The clearest difference between a project and a process is how often you repeat it. Projects are on-off instances, performed to satisfy a specific goal and laid to rest once it is completed. Processes are regularly repeated to ensure the continuous performance of a particular task or behavior. Should a project template be repeated several times over, it should then warrant the status of a process.
Another distinctive factor is the goals that are set within a project versus a process. A project's key goal is success, while being completed on time and within budget. Because projects are one-time endeavors, they include a significant amount of planning and often a considerable risk. As a result, project teams spend vast amounts of time ensuring that the project is delivered while risks are minimized. In comparison, the focus of a process is on optimization. There is significantly less risk involved in processes, hence why they became standardized in your organization. For this reason, processes are meant for refining. The more you work on a specific task or objective, the easier it is to fine-tune it. For factors such as cost and time, there is always room for improvement.
It is important to note that projects and processes can overlap and lie within one another. The phases of a project's life cycle follow a series of stages required to be completed, making it somewhat of a process itself. Additionally, processes may entail mini-projects. If a task, no matter the size, is conducted several times, it becomes a process. Even so, the steps that it takes to complete the "process" may appear in the form of projects. No business practice is black and white, so it is important to recognize that these two may blur together. However, to keep it simple, use the repetition of the activity as a rule of thumb. Understanding the difference between a project and a practice will help your team members differentiate specific tasks and perform them accordingly. This determination will help you decide how to approach a task and what objectives to strive for, allowing you to maximize your potential for success.