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Process or Project: What’s the Difference?

Many professionals and business owners can’t distinguish the two. They should.

The distinction between processes and projects may seem like a trivial topic to those who have some formal education in management. However, my years of practice in business consulting have taught me not to underestimate the widespread misunderstandings around this issue.

Let me give you a real-life example. A friend of mine, who is a highly successful business person, wrote me recently:

“We are planning a renovation of our house and I am looking for a simple tool to manage it. Do you think Procesoid would do?”

Well, Procesoid is the business process management software that we’ve been developing for years with my colleagues and he had a vague idea of its purpose. So vague that he didn’t actually recognize a process and a project as two separate and distinct managerial concepts.

I didn’t blame him. I’ve needed to explain this kind of misunderstanding many times before, so I just came up with a couple of simple definitions to help him understand the crucial difference:

project is a linear, non-trivial job with a specific goal intended to be reached with limited time and resources. For example, that house renovation, the rebranding of your company, or prototyping a new product.

process is a recurring workflow, repeated step by step time and time again. Like onboarding a new employee, the prep work for a training, or cleaning your office once a week.

“To manage your home renovation, you don’t need Procesoid,” I told him, “that’s a processing tool. What you need is a project management app, like Basecamp or Asana, or perhaps something as light as Todoist.”

There are, of course, subtle nuances that can be misleading. For instance, a wedding might be a process (in a dull wedding agency) or a project (if you organize it on your own). But don’t let these exceptions fool you. A project and a process are by no means the same thing.

You may apply the following rule of thumb:

If you repeat a workflow over and over again, albeit with minor tweaks or omissions, and it has a checklist or a dozen or so of steps that need to be completed by memory, you may call it a process.

And if it is a specific one-time goal to be reached with the confines of a limited budget and resources, and it is something complex in nature with some uncertainties along the way, you may call it a project.

But why is it important for you to be able to apply such a rule?

Because process and project management methods are not the same!

The methods differ substantially, as do the tools, roles, concepts, strategies and certifications. And there are rarely experts for both.

A project manager may lead or consult your projects, but won’t be of much help with your failing or non-existent process management. You need a business process consultant for that.

Therefore, distinguishing between projects and processes is a great leap forward towards a better and more effective system of management in general, regardless of whether you are a business owner, a manager or an independent professional.

Robert Vlach, December 20, 2017

Business consultant, writer and EUpreneur. Proud founder of Procesoid and Na volne noze — one of the largest national freelance communities in Europe

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