Project Management vs. Work Management: Understanding the Difference

How useful would your household budget be if only you only tracked your biggest and most predictable expenses—like your mortgage or rent, utility bills, groceries, and car payments? It turns out that iTunes downloads, Amazon purchases, and Starbucks expenditures have a tendency to add up.

How successful would a diet be if you only followed good health practices during designated mealtimes? (Yes, I get that this is a cruel question to ask during pumpkin-spice season.)

Likewise, how effective can your work team be if you manage your projects well but not the rest of your work?

The Problem with Project Management Solutions

Project management software does exactly what the label implies: it helps you manage projects. It’s designed for endeavors that have defined objectives, clear start- and end-points, and distinct participant roles. As such, it doesn’t easily account for ad-hoc projects, one-and-done assignments, ongoing work, cross-functional initiatives, and all of the other daily tasks that characterize work in the modern age.

Why is this a problem? Because most of the work we do falls into that second, undefined bucket. Our most recent State of Work survey revealed that today’s knowledge workers devote just 40% of their time to their primary tasks—which is quite often defined as project work.

We spend far more time answering email, completing administrative tasks, attending meetings, and juggling one-off tasks than we spend accomplishing the work we were hired to do. Yes, project management solutions are great at helping us with 40% of our work—but what about everything else?

That’s where modern work management comes in.

Modern Work Management: A comprehensive software solution that combines project management, intelligent work automation, and in-context collaboration to empower teams to do their best work much faster.

Project Management vs. Work Management

Work management platforms are designed to encompass all enterprise work, both project-based and ad-hoc. They provide a centralized space to collaborate, communicate, share and store documents, review and approve others’ work, organize and assign projects, allocate resources, and the list goes on. If you’re not clear on how that differs from project management solutions, consider these definitions from Gartner:

Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.

Work management is a set of software products and services that apply workflow structure to the movement of information as well as to the interaction of business processes and human worker processes that generate the information. Work management streamlines and transforms crucial business processes and thus can improve results and performance.

When our State of Work survey asked knowledge workers if they’re currently using something that resembles a work management solution, 23% said yes and another 51% say they would like to. A few years ago, a colleague of mine would have counted herself in that second group.

What Work Looks Like Without Work Management

I have a colleague who formerly worked for a small startup with no central office space; all employees worked out of their homes. While not wanting to reveal the name of the company or its owners, she mentioned in exasperation the number of different tracking systems they used to accomplish team goals:

  1. A massive Google spreadsheet to track product details and sales data
  2. A custom-built web page to track individual projects toward completion
  3. Various isolated forms and reports buried in the website’s back end
  4. Shared Google docs to capture decisions, meeting notes, and project plans
  5. Trello to track the progress of a massive individual project: a year-long website redesign
  6. A customized web page for tracking the results of post-mortem meetings
  7. Email for sending and receiving assignments
  8. Workflow diagrams built in Microsoft Word for capturing processes and procedures

My colleague is not a trained project manager; she’s a marketing writer. But she could see the obvious flaws in using so many different systems to track the same work. Not only was there tons of manual effort required in keeping everything updated, data was also being duplicated in several different systems, and key details were constantly falling through the cracks. If she had a question, she had to consult five different systems to find the information she needed.

It’s important to note that the individual projects that served as the company’s bread and butter sailed along relatively smoothly. They were pros at managing projects. But everything else was a mess.

My colleague tried at one point to get the company to onboard a work management solution—although she wouldn’t have known it by that label at the time. She was able to get the owners on conference calls with a couple of different software reps, but they were too comfortable with their patched-together systems and processes to consider taking a step into the 21st century.

That company has since folded, and their departed marketing writer now works for Workfront, where she has none of the same complaints. (We’re not perfect, but we do walk the talk when it comes to managing our work with cutting-edge work management tools.)

What Work Management Does that Project Management Doesn’t Do

My colleague’s story may be an extreme example. After all, the company was only using one tool (Trello) that could even be counted among modern work management methods, let alone anything resembling a more comprehensive work management solution. But the story is illustrative of a larger trend. Most of today’s knowledge workers are called upon to manage projects and other work initiatives, whether or not they have any training, and most are not currently equipped with the right tools for the job, nor are they familiar with the terminology.

Again, according to our State of Work report, 57% of knowledge workers “have not been formally trained to manage projects but do manage projects,” 31% feel like their company requires them to use too many technology tools and solutions, and only 23% are currently using modern work management technologies.

Despite being a familiar term with a long history, “project management” as a standalone practice is no longer cutting it in the world of modern work, which is marked by constant digital transformation, the rise of the Hollywood model, culture of distraction, and a more integrated and holistic approach to work. Just ask Dignity Health, an organization that was already well versed in project management best practices. But they were still able to eliminate 38 spreadsheets required for monthly reporting and gain an estimated 20-25% in project management time savings—among other benefits—thanks to their switch to a modern work management platform.

Why such a drastic change? It comes down to a few key differences between standard project management practices and work management software. Project management solutions are often more narrowly focused, as they rely more on up-front planning and depend upon there being specific time and budget constraints—which leads to a sense of rigidity. Work management, on the other hand, tends to be more flexible, because it’s designed to account for all types of work, including open-ended operational work, cross-functional collaboration that’s not tied to specific projects, and ad-hoc tasks, on top of its built-in project management capabilities.

A Holistic View of Work

As my colleague’s story clearly illustrated, not to mention the Dignity Health case study, managing projects well isn’t enough in the world of modern work, especially when we’re spending 60% of our time on everything but the work we were hired to do. Yes, project management is an aspect of work management, and a vital one at that, but organizations that focus exclusively on the first at the expense of the second are no different from dieters who only count the calories they consume at formal mealtimes toward their daily totals. Or budgeters who only track the cost of food, shelter, and transportation—and then wonder where all the rest of their money went. (Given the time of year, the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte at $5 a pop is one possible culprit.)