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Is Your Project a Real Project?
By The Grumpy Project Manager

When a project manager is offered a project or is nominated to run a project the first thing to do is to check whether it is really a project. The biggest mistake a project manager can make is to agree to run and be responsible for a project that is not actually a project. A project manager can of course make several big mistakes also after that. Possibilities are limitless. But if this mistake is made then failure is more than just possible.

A real project has an owner or a sponsor from the management. She or he is a real, living, breathing person who actively participates the project: ensures that the project has enough resources, solves possible higher level problems the project manager cannot influence etc. The first check point – ownership: It’s not a project if it does not have an owner.

A real project has clear objectives. A few bullet points in a presentation slide is not enough, if they are not based on a decent strategic evaluation. The objectives are one basis defining the scope and for making a project plan. Everyone in a project, project team and the stakeholders, should know the objectives and understand those the same way. Here it is possible to use the method police uses. Interrogate several stakeholders separately; ask them to tell what the objectives and the scope are. Then check if their stories match. The second check point – objectives: It’s not a project if it has nothing more than a presentation slide as a basis for a project plan.

Project’s timetable is based on something real, like a predefined scope and available resources. If a project proposal has a predefined timetable that is based on a certain point of time like before holidays or by the end of the year a project manager should get suspicious. If you find yourself working during holidays or on a Christmas Eve you have forgotten the third check – timetable: It’s not a project if it does not have a better timetable than “by the end of this year”.

Project’s budget is based on detailed calculations, so that it is possible to follow costs on a detailed level. It is of course possible to define the budget and timetable beforehand and make a project fit to those. But if it seems that the objectives, timetable and budget are pieces not from the same puzzle then don’t give the ‘this is a real project’ stamp. The fourth check – budget: It is not a project if it does not have a better financing plan than “there is still some money left in the annual budget”.

A project has a real project manager. Even if the people participating a project are on the same organizational level the project manager has to be a project manager and not a coordinator. Sometimes, for example because of organizational politics, a project manager is called e.g. a coordinator. A coordinator just may become a person who is responsible for a project but has no real power to take make decisions and give order. The fifth check – roles: It is not a project if the project manager is described as “coordinator”.


A real project has a real owner and a real project manager. They form a team that actively takes the project forward. A real project has a clear scope, timetable and budget. These are dependent on each other.

Most real projects succeed. The ones that are not really projects often fail and deflate the value of proper project management.

The Grumpy Project Manager is a program manager in an international corporation and has over ten years of experience in managing R&D, IT and business development projects. You can read more from the Grumpy PM on his (or her?) blog. S/he can be contacted by email at

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