Medecins Sans Frontieres Doctors Without Borders

Join the Community

Project Manager

Australia's online resource for project management professionals

Stringing it out like a project manager

The difference between a project and business-as-usual is that projects end. So who determines the length?

How long is a piece of string? The question has always intrigued me. It’s a neat way of saying ‘I don’t know’, while throwing the question back to the person who asked it.

It’s kind of a weird question, though. It doesn’t take into account the idea that a ‘piece’ has a determinable length, or at least a determinable range. I wouldn’t think, for example, that one millimetre of string would constitute a ‘piece’ for the simple fact that it would be a bunch of fibres rather than something we’d recognise as string. And a ball of string has an end point. It might be 50 metres, it might be 100, but it ends.

The reason for this postulation comes from my appreciation of projects. Projects end; that’s what separates them from business-as-usual. We get closure, we move onto the next project. Call it the advent of the IT project manager, but pieces of string are much more complicated these days.

In the days where construction projects were the only recognisable projects, you built something and handed it over to maintenance and that was the end of it. When you’re creating a piece of software to perform a particular function, the project doesn’t end until that software has been decommissioned. There are always patches and bug fixes and updates that contribute to the original project; this is not maintenance, this is instrumental to the functioning of the product. Would you say this is actually a project that originally sort of failed but now has a series of consequent projects that improve on the initial one, or is it just an (almost) endless piece of string?

Most of you would say that the project sponsor determines the length of a project but between scope creep and the way we handle projects today, the end of that piece of string is a little less distinct. Are programs a bunch of strings interrelated like macrame? Is portfolio management just a kind of Jacquard loom? When we run a project using agile techniques, are we just tying a series of shorter strings together? Who can actually tell me: how long is a piece of string?

Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
has written 112 articles for us.


Need a Gravatar (the image next to your comments)? Visit

Comments from the community

  • The project has to end when the piece of work that got commissioned is accepted and put into production. Outputs that are fit-for-purpose, that’s what project managers do. They deliver a capability. What happens after that is up to the project sponsor. There is a good article on this point in “Boosting Business Benefits” from the Benefits Institute. What do others think?

  • Adeline Teoh says:

    Are project managers supposed to cut the string first ie determine an end point, or do they just unwind the string until they reach the point of handover, then cut it?