What Is the Difference Between Task and Activity in Project Management?

From a Project Management perspective, a better title for this article would be: is there a difference between tasks and activities?. This is because Project Managers are divided on the subject: some say that a task is exactly the same thing as an activity, others say that a task is a work package that may include one or more activities, and finally, to make things more confusing, another group of Project Managers believes that the previous statement is only true when inverted: an activity is a work package that may include one ore more tasks. So who is right?

In order to answer this question, let us examine the following:

  • The PMBOK, considered by many as the final word when it comes to defining Project Management and its terms, is also divided on the subject. In the PMBOK version 3, task and activity do not mean the same thing. However, in the PMBOK version 4, the term task is not defined. Activity is defined as a work package (the lowest level WBS activity).
  • As stated earlier, some Project Managers believe that a task is a work package, and may comprise (or may decomposed into) one or more activities. Their supporting argument is that a task clearly has a starting date and an ending date by definition, while an activity is vague from that perspective.
  • It is unknown why there’s another group of Project Managers thinking that an activity is a work package that can be split into more tasks. This definition is the weakest as it has no logical grounds.

What Should I Do?

As one can see from the above, there are 3 different opinions and there’s definitely no consensus. However it seems that the PMI (who, again, has a huge say when it comes to Project Management) has moved towards unifying the meaning (again, from a Project Management perspective) by solely using activity to denote a work package. Having said that, it is important to note that it’s not a case of who’s right and wrong, and the best thing a Project Manager can do is to follow the standards of his company for the for the proper usage of Project Management terms, and if there are no standards set, then he can set his own. In that case, probably a good idea would be to use these terms interchangeably, along with job and operation, which also mean the same thing.

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