The Wizards Keys to Success – a Good Project Definition

“I’m looking for someone to share an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.

 -Gandalf, The Hobbit

Gandalf uttered the introductory quote to Bilbo one quiet morning, “when there was less noise and more green.”  Notice the key words: “share” and “adventure” – as in, “we are going to do it together and it’s got great potential – and “difficult” – as in, “there might be trolls, orcs, and dragons.”  Notice also that he didn’t introduce himself or his goals by saying, “do you want to risk your life for a gumball prize (a ring)?”

The accepted definition of a project is: a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result

PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition (2017), p.13

While this is the commonly accepted and very useful definition it is the Project Wizard’s view that this is a limited and even detrimental mindset to set and maintain throughout a project because it provides numerous excuses and “outs” which allow the PM and the Project Team to skate in the (all-to-likely) event of project failure.

Now, while this definition is tried and true and is great for initiating and planning a project but tends to be insufficient when it comes to the other process groups (monitoring, execution, and closing).  Two reasons for this insufficiency come time mind: first, definitions are often a self-fulfilling prophecy; meaning that things often become what we name them. Thus a forty-year old automobile named Mustang (suggesting: energy, sporty, edgy) is still in production and the peer-era AMC Pacer (boring, slow, ugly) died of market disinterest. Second, a poor definition can impede performance and even cause confusion among participants and observers (queue NFL fans still wondering, “what is a catch?”).

To help resolve these issues, I have divided the definition of a project into two sections: the Characteristics and the Outcomes. These two sections work together like the seed of a plant: the Characteristics describe the part that goes in the ground and the Outcomes describe what happens many months or years later.  If you have good Characteristics, you should expect the outcomes to be of similar quality – “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” to re-appropriate the old phrase.

The Characteristics

“Temporary, Unique, Product, Service, or Result”


adj., Lasting, used, serving, or enjoyed for a limited time

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5e

The first thing that we note is that the PMBOK promises us that projects are, “temporary” which is an adjective meaning, “lasting, used, serving, or enjoyed for a limited time.” Imagine saying to your boss, “Boss. I’d like to do this thing which will be used, serve, last for a limited time.”  Or, imagine going to a potential resource and saying, “Resource. How would you like to join me for something that we can enjoy for a limited time?”

More to the point, I am sure most of you can cite the dates that all of your projects started and ended.  I mean, they are important events with easily-remembered dates like the start of baseball season, or remembering where you were when a major event occurred, or your anniversary. Or, if you are like most PMs that I know, the start date is only vaguely remembered, the current state of your schedule has been, “re-baselined” a few times to fit the narrative, and the end date is a known pipe-dream.

Interpretation: a specific or defined beginning and end

Critique: outside of specific events, can you define when your project begins and ended? Are those really relevant to the project?


n., a conscientious or concerted effort toward an end; an earnest attempt; n., Purposeful or industrious activity; enterprise

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5e

When Gandalf arrives at Bilbo’s home, he did not come wishing help on an endeavor, rather the possibility of sharing an adventure. As with most events, telling someone that we must make a, “conscientious and concerted effort” is not a way to get them to participate. Youth soccer is filled with Dad’s who are great at creating, “purposeful and industrious activity” – unfortunately, those dads are not producing much in the way of output.

The Wizard does not advocate haphazard effort or slapdash planning; rather, when one sets out to accomplish something, there should be a more conscientious effort to take the work more seriously but to give yourself, and your team-members, the chance to exhibit their personality and contribute their uniqueness to the project.

“Already they had come to respect little Bilbo. Not he had become the real leader in their adventure. He had begun to have ideas and plans of his own.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Inside Information, p.221

Meaning: we meant to do it

Reality: someone told me they wanted it; which is rarely how “endeavors” start


v., To take upon oneself; decide or agree to do; v., To pledge or commit oneself; v., To set about; begin

The Century Dictionary

Let me be clear on this: any project that depends on “oneself” is bound to fail. Projects, like battles, games, and races, are inherently team efforts that require the work of a committed, cohesive unit to complete. Further, a pledge and a commitment, while not bad are more associated with marriage (an operational concept) than project-based work.

Inquiry: does that mean a PM is an Undertaker?

Confusion: does this mean that the PM “takes upon herself…to do” to project?


v., To cause to exist; bring into being; v., To give rise to; produce

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5e

A survey of projects cited in the most recent issues of PM Network show that most projects are, or will, meet the definition of the word, and something will be brought into being. The Wizard’s problem with “create” though comes from the fact that we are, most often, doing something other than creating such as building, implementing, or designing. Create is a good word, but the fact of the matter is that you are not always producing an end-product, rather a part of it.

The Wizard also argues that the act of creation is often the source of many problems because the project is attempting to mold material or the world to an unnatural use. Our chief enemy provides the example by, “…[secretly forging] in the Mountain of Fire the One Ring to be their master.”

A sculptor by comparison knows that they are not creating but rather bringing out the natural form of the medium in use – Michelangelo suggested as much when he reportedly said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Assumes: that what you are doing is new to you or your organization

Muses: Creation was done a while ago; leave the world a better place than when you started.


adj., Being the only one of its kind; unequaled, unparalleled or unmatched

Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution

Let’s face it: your 5 year ERP implementation –  it’s been done before; the transition to Office 365 – you should have seen the angst when WordPerfect was removed in favor of MS Word; the new, Eco-green-convenient urban housing project – some guy named Leonardo designed this 500 years ago.

Do you know what is unique? Humans; and if you ever visit Middle Earth: hobbits, elves, dwarves, and ents. Time and again, we see Gandalf encouraging, teaching, caring, cajoling, and correcting the people around him to inspire them to greater feats than they thought possible. To wit: believing in a hobbit who took on the most powerful being in the world; pushing an outcast woodsman to take his place on the throne of the mightiest kingdom; and saving the downcast son of the steward of Gondor who, after his father’s attempted murder, was destined to rule his own realm

Presumes: that what you are doing has never been done before

Savor: the point of experience is the journey with the people that you encounter

The Outcomes

“A Product, Service, or Result.”


n., Something produced by human or mechanical effort or by a natural process; n., a direct result; a consequence

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5e

It’s hard to argue with this part of the definition, but asserting that a Product is the output of a project is limiting and inaccurate in most cases. Modern projects typically fall under the one of three categories: research, development, or improvement. In most of these there is something that one might call a product, but chances are, it’s more of a report, whitepaper, application, infrastructure, or even an idea (anyone “lean” anything recently?).

In addition, to suggest that there must be a product at the end of a project limits the vision for what you are doing. Imagine, Gandalf and Thorin in a bar:

Thorin: “My team and I want to do a project to produce myself as rightful king under the mountain.”

Gandalf: (raises eyebrows) “Do you now. Seems to me like you’ve been servicing the keg again.”


n., Employment in duties or work for another, as for a government; transitive v., to make fit for use; idiom, ready to help or be of use

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5e

Unfortunately, we have a perfectly good word that is not really fit for describing the outcome of a project unless we take the idiomatic use of the term which, to be fair, isn’t fair, strictly speaking. To be clear, you may actually create a “service” as part of your work, but the goal, frequently, is not the software that we call the service, but the work that it completes for us: data transformation, log-in credentialing, batch record-processing, etc.

As a project manager, and a wizard, we are often employing our skills in support of another entity, but we do not define our projects as such and we do not sell the end-goal to our teams or stakeholders by stating, “The goal of our project is to be of use to the Fraud Research team.”  Nor, did Gandalf ever note to Aragorn, “Would you mind creating a service wherein you protect the hobbits? I think there is a game-changing WMD above the mantle in Bilbo’s great room.”


v., To happen as a consequence; n., a favorable or desired outcome.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

Projects are ever-evolving and rarely output the exact end-result as originally intended which is why there is always a strong emphasis in project management in developing schedules, gathering requirements and compiling work breakdown structures. Agilists may beg to differ on the extent to which these are necessary, but these activities are necessary in order to help keep the team focused in the right direction. Further, the Agilist will also admin that ending, “in a particular way” is desired, but rarely is it accurately predicted at the start of a project.

In summary, the outcomes are true and useful, but the the fact that few people in the Project Management line of work view their work in the light of a Product, Service or Result. There is a further disconnect is in your stakeholders: the senior members (owners and sponsors) will often talk in terms of goals (i.e., “Increase revenue”) whereas the working team will think in terms of their role in the project (i.e., “test user stories” or “develop software”).

The Wizard’s Rule

The Wizard stresses three important points about her projects. First, call a project what it really is at its core not just the thing that is being installed or created; look for the deeper problem to solve that has an intrinsic value worth pursuing. Next, make your project more fun and interesting than an “endeavor.” Remember, kick-off parties are not essential, but they are helpful in setting a relaxed environment in which team members can thrive. Finally, make sure that your project has honest outcomes set which show actual value and value to the greater good.

PMBoKThe Project
DurationTemporaryPast Dinnertime
Service, or
Change, or