Projects and operations are both necessary for businesses to succeed, but they require different approaches. When it comes to managing them effectively, understanding the differences between projects and operations is key.
From examples of project activities in a business versus operational activities to strategies for balancing projects and operations simultaneously — this article will help you understand the differences and consider the similarities.
Projects vs operations
The short answer to the question: “What’s the difference between projects and operations?” is this.
Projects change the business. Operations run the business.
In my experience, that creates tension. Ops managers want (and seek) stability so they can manage process performance. The status quo is good but project managers keep changing things!
However, the two sides of any organization can live in harmony. Projects vs operations is not a battlefield and you can navigate the tightrope to keep them both balanced.
Let’s look first at examples of projects and why they are needed, and then we’ll do the same for operations, so you can see how they both fit together and ensure the business remains resilient, profitable and stable.
The context for projects
All organizations need to do projects.
Projects are what keeps an organization moving forward towards its business goals. Projects help deliver strategy. They introduce new products, help companies reach new market sectors and keep the business competitive when the environment changes.
Projects usually require project management practices to help them get delivered. Even if you aren’t using a formal lifecycle or specific methodology, you’ll still be planning, executing, controlling, and monitoring tasks in order to meet objectives – that’s project management.
The project management skills required to lead and deliver a change successfully include:
- identifying objectives
- defining scope
- creating schedules
- allocating resources
- coordinating teams (even if that’s just you, you still have to manage your own time)
- managing risks
- tracking progress
- measuring performance against set targets
- making adjustments when needed
- reporting results.
Examples of projects
Examples of projects include building a new office space or renovating an existing one, developing a new website or mobile app from scratch or revamping an existing one, launching a new product line or expanding into new markets.
More examples could be research, design, events, replacing manual work with digital or automation, construction or legal work on a case.
Lots of companies work through ‘transformation’ projects which are designed to create large-scale organizational change such as mergers and acquisitions or culture change, or meeting the expectations of technology use through implementing digital strategies.
All these require careful planning and execution in order to be completed successfully within budgeted timelines without compromising on quality standards set by the organization itself, its customers, clients, and stakeholders.
Here are some of the projects I have worked on:
- Updating an intranet
- Adding staff from more subsidiary countries and companies to an international online ‘phone book’ for a global company
- Rolling out new software (as an IT project manager for many years, I’ve done this many times)
- Implementing new processes
- Making sure our organization was ready and compliant with new legislative changes.
Plus many smaller initiatives like organizing staff training, organizing a
To be honest, I even put my wedding in Microsoft Project. I mean, why not? Weddings are fixed date projects. You’ve probably organized a family event, or helped out with school events, planned a party or a sports fixture or a neighborhood barbecue. They are all projects.
Finding case studies of projects
There are lots of case studies available to read about projects. For example, in the UK, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority manages projects and shares best practices for UK government projects. The National Audit Office publishes reports each year on major project performance, and those reports regularly include examples and case studies.
In addition, the Major Projects Association publishes regular reports and articles that draw on large projects, such as the Grand Paris Express.
In the United States, the Government Accountability Office publishes regular reports into major projects.
These are all great sources of examples of projects.
Next up, examples of operations management.
Operations management is the process of managing and organizing resources to ensure the efficient production of goods or services.
In other words, making sure you can serve your customers. It doesn’t matter if those customers are high-net-worth individuals wanting bespoke financial services, or frazzled parents shopping in a budget supermarket: the goal of business operations is to make sure they get what they need (and ideally come back again as a repeat customer).
After all, if you don’t have any customers, you can do all the projects you like, but you won’t be in business this time next year.
Operations managers are involved in and responsible for planning, organizing, directing, controlling, and coordinating activities within an organization in order to meet customer needs. Operations management focuses on maximizing efficiency while minimizing costs.
Projects cost money and mess up efficiency by changing ways of working, but when a project finishes, the end product is handed over into the operational environment. More on that later.
Examples of operations
Operations is the name given to any team that is involved in overseeing and managing the operations of an organization. In other words, the parts of the business that keep the lights on.
This includes both the ‘front-line’ services and the ‘behind-the-scenes’ services.
Let’s say you work for a clothing retailer. The front-line operations will include:
- Shop managers and retail staff
- Warehouse staff who receive orders and unpack boxes of clothing for the shop floor
- Facilities managers that oversee the maintenance of each building
- Security managers that ensure the right people have access to each shop and that staff badges let them into the right areas.
Behind-the-scenes operations staff include the teams that make it possible for the shops to operate consistently, including:
- Human Resources who recruit, train and support staff, and manage payroll
- IT teams that manage the point of sale software and the company’s website
- Legal teams that draw up contracts with clothing suppliers
- Quality teams that ensures the clothing supplied for sale is made ethically and meets the company’s standards
- Branding team who ensures the company’s brand is consistent across all shops and media mentions
- Designers who work out the fashions for the next season and source appropriate new products to stock
- Finance team that manages the money, making sure bills are issues and paid.
Typically, a business is likely to have Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, and any other functions specific to its purpose. In healthcare, for example, we have a Pricing team that sets prices for services and manages the huge catalogue of different things people come into a private hospital for. You might have a Research team, or something different that is key to your industry.
All these activities help organizations run smoothly by ensuring they have what they need when they need it at a reasonable cost without sacrificing quality standards.
Operations management is an essential part of any business, and understanding its key principles can help managers ensure projects are completed successfully, with the minimum disruption to continuing to offer a service to customers.
Next, we will discuss project management and the differences between it and operations management.
Differences between projects and operations
Projects and operations are two distinct activities that require different approaches when it comes to management. However, as we’ve seen, they are two sides of the same goal: we want to do the best thing for customers and hit the strategic business objectives for the firm, so we need them both.
Generally, operations sets the strategic plans and vision, and the projects side of the organization delivers the improvements and changes required to get there.
The table below highlights the differences between projects and operations.
|Create something new or improve on an existing product, service or process
|Keep the business functioning and serving customers; smooth running of day-to-day activities
|Has a defined beginning and end date, short-term effort
|Ongoing, long-term effort
|Dedicated resources for the life of the project only
|Resources required on an ongoing basis
|Delivers change and hands it over to operational teams
|Receives deliverables from a project team
|Often includes tangible things like software applications, products, process manuals
|Often includes intangible things like customer satisfaction surveys and process performance reports
|Recurring results over time
|Creates and changes processes
|Carries out business process management
|One-off tasks, unique activities
Similarities between projects vs operations
There are differences as we’ve seen, but there are also similarities. For example, many projects use resources from operational teams. They have to, as the ops people are the experts in the process, goals, customer expectations and specialist knowledge areas.
They both cost money to do. They both require resource planning so people are available to work on them. They both need great communication skills, ongoing reporting, people management skills and open, trustworthy leadership.
Ops and projects both seek to deliver the same long-term goal: meeting strategic objectives, which could be to make more money for the business or something else.
They also both have similar methods for staff recognition for a job well-done. Managers will reward and recognize people involved in projects and those who are responsible for keeping the organization going.
Strategies for managing both projects and operations simultaneously
Managing both projects and operations can be a difficult task, but it is necessary to ensure optimal results. Often, the same management team will be responsible for both the operations side of things and also ensuring that projects are prioritized and resourced – that’s what your board or C-suite is for.
Prioritizing tasks and allocating resources wisely is key in managing both projects and operations simultaneously. This means understanding the scope of each project or operation, determining which tasks are most important, and assigning time and people to them accordingly. It also involves ensuring that teams have enough resources to complete their work on time without sacrificing quality.
That basically means making sure there are enough staff available to do the work.
In my experience, one of the most frustrating things for both project team members and subject matter experts in operational teams is not having enough people. We’re always struggling to meet the organization’s need with the resources we have, because there is always more we could do.
Before you go
Here are a few examples of project case studies that are worth reading about if you are looking for more inspiration.
If you are interested in studying project management, then I can recommend the Google Project Management certificate as that includes a worked case study of Plant Pals and also a Capstone project for Sauce & Spoon – both hands-on (albeit fake) projects for you to learn about and work with. When you work through a project, you’ll quickly see how all of this translates to real life.
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