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What is the Difference Between Projects and Operations in an Organization?

What is the Difference Between Projects and Operations in an Organization?

By Marcia L Ingino, PMP, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, CBAP

As a project management instructor, I have helped students with many PMP applications. The questions that is always asked is, “What can I put on my PMP application for a project?”

When I answer this question, I usually begin by telling the student the Project Management Institute (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique productservice or result. I also teach in my PMP Preparation class that a project is:

  1. Temporary
  2. Unique
  3. Beneficial

Then, I usually give examples of projects like building a house, buying a car, implementing a new IT system, or developing a new product. All of these examples have a start and end date, deliver a unique product, and when completed have benefits to the customer. At the end of the project, the product is transferred to the new owner to be used, and the new owner must maintain the product. This maintenance is operations work and will go on until the product ends its useful life. For example:

  • Building a house is a project
    • Maintaining the house by cleaning, painting, and upgrading are operations work completed by the owner
  • Buying a car is a project
    • The car needs care like gas, oil changes, tires, brakes, and tune-ups, and this is operations managed by the driver
  • Implementing a new military system is a project
    • The system will be sustained by a specialist doing back-ups, upgrades, and system maintenance – this sustainment is operations work
  • Developing a new product is a project
    • The sales people will sell the product and the support staff will support customers using the product.  This is operations completed by the company for customers.

After this discussion, the project management students than ask, “Well, I’m confused – isn’t EVERYTHING a project?”

I respond, “Well sort of…it depends on if the work is defined as a project for the customer, it depends who is doing the work, and why the work is being completed.”

For example, an oil change is operations for the owner of the car, because it is part of maintaining the car. The oil change is a project for the auto mechanic, because for the mechanic, the oil change has a start and end (several minutes), it delivers a unique product (clean oil and filter), and when completed has benefits to the owner of the car (a well running motor that will run for a long time).

After this discussion, most project management students are able to document the projects they have managed and successfully complete their PMP application. After completing their project descriptions and getting approved to take the PMP exam, the students finally know exactly what they did from a PMI perspective.


Project Management job growth is expected to grow by 18% between 2010 and 2020 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. PMP certification can qualify you for new jobs that are becoming available every day!

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