What’s the difference between projects, portfolios, phases, and processes?

Have you ever confused a phase with a process? Or a portfolio with a deliverable? Maybe not, but project management terminology can be confusing, and this article can help you sort it out.

In this article

Getting your bearings: phases, processes, portfolios, and products

The output: your project’s deliverables

How does Microsoft Project fit into your project management system?

Haven’t had enough? Still want to learn more?

Getting your bearings: phases, processes, portfolios, and products

A project is simply a set of activities that occur according to a schedule, and that produce some kind of output. Some projects stand alone, with no relationship to other work going on in an organization. On the other hand, some projects are part of larger efforts, like phases, processes, programs, and portfolios.

Phases

Projects can be scheduled in phases, so that several projects relating to the same goal can be managed together. For example, a charitable organization has a fundraiser every year. To manage all of the projects associated with the function, they group the projects into three phases: Planning, Event Day, and Follow-Up. Each phase contains multiple projects.

Phase

Projects

Phase Output

Planning

  • Reserve facilities

  • Identify and arrange for guest speakers

  • Invite attendees

Completed event plan document

Event Day

  • Set up facility

  • Assist guest speaker

  • Provide attendee services

Event runs as planned

Follow-Up

  • Survey attendees

  • Compile follow-up notes

Completed post-mortem document

Processes

The activities in two different projects may be interrelated to form a process. For example, let's say you have two projects: one contains the activities necessary to produce a call center ticketing system, and the other project contains the activities necessary to hire and train support staff for a call center.

Project 1

Project 2

Activities:

  • Develop ticketing system

  • Test ticketing system

  • Release ticketing system

Activities:

  • Interview support staff

  • Hire support staff

  • Train support staff

Output:
Call center ticketing system

Output:
Call center support staff

The combined set of activities from the two projects form a process for setting up a call center. The process has an output of a fully functioning call center.

Process

Project 1 activities:

  • Develop ticketing system

  • Test ticketing system

  • Release ticketing system

Project 2 activities:

  • Interview support staff

  • Hire support staff

  • Train support staff

Process output:
Fully functioning call center

Programs

A program is a group of projects that are managed together, to make the most of their interrelated status. For example, a construction company that is working on a new subdivision manages each house in the subdivision as a separate project. By grouping the projects into a program for the entire subdivision, the company can easily see the progress of the subdivision as a whole, and plan for bringing in third-party resources, such as concrete trucks or landscapers.

Program

Projects

Contoso Estates

  • 530 Contoso Drive

  • 531 Contoso Drive

  • 532 Contoso Drive

  • 533 Contoso Drive

Portfolios

Some project managers may use portfolios to pair projects and programs with their corresponding strategic business objectives. For example, a software development company has identified three strategic business objectives: "Innovate in the industry," "Develop secure software," and "Provide top-notch customer support." The organization sets up portfolios for each of these objectives (Innovation, Security, and Support), and aligns the current projects and programs within these portfolios.

Portfolio

Projects and Programs

Innovation

  • Project: Competitive analysis

  • Program: Industry training
    (Includes three projects: "Identify external resources," "Train product managers," and "Attend conferences."

Security

  • Project: Security testing

  • Program: Implement server-based registration system
    (Includes two projects: "Build server farm" and "Develop registration code.")

Support

  • Project: Deploy call center ticketing system

  • Project: Hire and train call center staff

  • Program: Online customer resources
    (Includes two projects: "Build customer interface for ticketing system" and "Develop and release e-learning resources.")

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The output: your project’s deliverables

Projects, phases, and processes all produce some kind of output, called a deliverable. Typically a deliverable is some kind of tangible item, such as a document or a completed product. Deliverables can be products or goods, but they can also be results or services. The following table provides some examples of these deliverable types.

Deliverable Type

Description

Examples

Product

A tangible item that is the output of a project, phase, or process. Products can be standalone deliverables, or they can be a component of a larger deliverable.

Document, software program, house

Result

The output of a completed project, phase, or process.

Revised bug triage process, new organizational structure, guidelines for green construction

Service

An output of a project, phase, or process that enables an organization to perform a business function.

Fully functioning call center, staffed table at a conference, radio dispatch service

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How does Microsoft Project fit into your project management system?

Stepping even farther back, a project management "system" refers to the integrated set of processes, techniques, methodologies, and tools that are used for scheduling and tracking projects. Microsoft Project is a tool within the larger project management system. Projects, also called project plans, are saved as separate files within Project 2010, and can be grouped together into larger efforts, such as phases, processes, programs, and portfolios.

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Haven’t had enough? Still want to learn more?

Applies To: Project 2010, Project Professional 2013, Project Standard 2013, Project Standard 2010



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