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The Difference Between a Project and a Service

April 11, 2012
Michael Scarborough

During a recent ITIL foundation class, a student asked an interesting question. She wanted to know:

“What is the difference between a project and a service?”

To be honest, I haven’t spent much time thinking about this distinction. However, I think that those of us who practice ITIL consulting and training should have good answers to questions such as this.

Here’s how I answered this question.

A project is something that is temporary in nature and results in a new, modified, or retired good or service. In other words, projects result in the modification of something existing or the creation of something new. A project defines a boundary and includes the resources and capabilities required to achieve project milestones and deliver desired results.

A service, on the other hand, is different than a project in several ways. First, a service delivers some value that customers use to achieve outcomes while removing the ownership of specific costs and risks. Thus, a service always has an operational aspect and will often include a collection of requests related to aspects of that service. Services also define a boundary that specifies inputs and outputs as well as the result that the service delivers.

There is a strong relationship between projects and services. A project might be used as the mechanism by which a service is deployed, retired, modified, or updated. Projects often produce one or more changes and/or releases that, in turn, result in the implementation, modification, or retirement of services and aspects of services.

Another fly in the ointment, that sometimes IT organizations do not consider, is that “project management” itself can be defined as a service that the organization offers. In other words, many IT organizations provide value in the form of a service that applies a standard set of processes to project management activities. In these cases, they control the risk and cost often associated with projects in the form of a defined service offering.

While projects and services are not the same thing, there is definitely a relationship. Organizations benefit from a consideration and appropriate structuring of that relationship.

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