Understanding Activities

Project management is a complex undertaking that requires careful planning, execution, and monitoring. One of the key components of successful project management is breaking the project down into smaller, manageable activities. This not only helps in tracking progress and identifying potential issues, but also ensures that the project is completed on time, within scope, and to the desired quality standards. In this article, we will highlight the importance of project activities, discuss how to estimate their duration, and explore useful tools like the RACI matrix and Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM) that can help in managing these activities effectively.

PMBOK Definition

An activity is the smallest portion of a project used in planning, tracking, and control. In some projects, activities may be referred to as tasks, stories, work packages, or use cases, or using other descriptors. The smallest portion of a project is the lowest level of the project work breakdown structure (WBS) and assigning an owner to each. Activity definition is a key step in project plan development. After developing the WBS, all listed work should be verified as necessary.

Project Activities

Based on the nature of the project, activities can vary greatly. Some common examples include conducting user research, creating prototypes, developing/testing software, and setting up training workshops. After you define all your project’s activities, you need to determine each activity’s dependencies, what sequence they should be put in, and estimate activity durations and required resources. Project sponsors and end users want to see clear activities in the project’s proposal, so they can picture and envision the project. Also, this exercise can be extremely helpful in talking about indicators (i.e., markers of your projects’ achievements like milestones), monitoring and evaluation.

Estimating the Duration of an Activity

This is the most challenging task in developing the project schedule. It’s difficult because often you are estimating how long it will take to do something that you have not done before. Most new activities to be performed are unique enough to make estimating their exact duration something other than an exact science. Using the WBS approach, break each activity into smaller work pieces and account for the duration of each work piece. For best estimating results, it’s smart to have each piece have a duration of one week or less. This estimating process should include using historical data if available, include a contingency buffer to help absorb unexpected delays, and solicit others as a sounding board. Consider this a set of ground rules for estimating activities. You may add other assumptions (e.g., account for vacations/holidays and the availability of the required resources) that everyone can work from.

Using Matrix Tools

A RACI matrix is a template tool that provides a more comprehensive understanding of project roles and responsibilities. It can be used to assign tasks or activities, track progress, and assure accountability. There are four basic concepts of a RACI matrix:

  1. Responsible: who will do the work?
  2. Accountable: who will be held liable for the results of the work?
  3. Consulted: who needs to be consulted before decisions are made?
  4. Informed: who needs to be kept up to date on progress or changes?

By taking the time to create a RACI matrix, which could be your blueprint for success, you can avoid confusion and duplication of effort, and ensure that everyone understands their role in the organization. Also, the golden rule of RACI is that only one person can be Accountable for each activity. You can download the template from various websites (e.g., Microsoft) or easily create one in Excel – see Table 1.

Table 1 – RACI Matrix

A Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM) is often used in conjunction with a RACI matrix. RAM uses the WBS and the organizational structure to link deliverables and/or activities to individual resources and uses three letters that appear in three columns: O, A, and R. The O designates the owner (performer) of the activity; the A designates the approval of the activity; and the R designates the reviewer of the activity. In short, RACI can be seen as a subset of the greater RAM task-centric view. Both are excellent communication tools, and should be updated and dispersed as needed. “The mechanic that would perfect his work, must first sharpen his tools.” – Confucius


Project activities are important to understand because they ensure projects finish on time, within scope, and to a high standard. By breaking down a project into manageable chunks, it becomes much easier to track progress and identify potential issues. In addition, it fosters clarity and focus, ensuring everyone involved comprehends the project’s scope and objectives and helps you complete your project on time with the desired results.

Your thoughts in the comment section below are welcomed.

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Discussion Forum Post: How frequently should RACI charts be reviewed and updated throughout the project lifecycle to reflect changing priorities, team dynamics, or project requirements?

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Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication. From 2011 - 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks.
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  1. My preference is more for the PMBOK/Process Groups/WBS Practice Standard as teaching tools for WBS and Activities. In those, the Activities are separate from the WBS, Work Packages are the lowest level of each WBS branch, and the Activities are contained in the Work Package they support.

    I get that in smaller projects we’re very likely to identify the activities as we’re identifying the WBS, and a project team needs to do what’s right for their project and to right-size the effort of planning things out. As we train newer PMs though, it’s important that they get the academic understanding of the WBS, so they can know how to apply their efforts, and so we’re using the lexicon consistently.

    Remember too that in the context of the WBS “work refers to outputs, work products, or deliverables that are the results of effort, not the effort itself.” [from Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures, 3rd ed, pg 11]. Also per the Process Groups Practice Guide we Create WBS, then we Define Activities.

  2. Wayne I appreciate your preference to PMBOK.
    Keep in mind that the PMBOK is a “high” level guide which serves as a foundation for the vast body of knowledge in our field. Their are many disadvantages of PMBOK – can be perceived as inflexible, limiting its applicability in dynamic environments and agile methodologies. Also there is complexity – the extensive knowledge areas and processes can be overwhelming for smaller projects. Years ago when I took the PMP exam there were a handful of questions that I knew the real world answers were different than the PMBOK answers. Obviously I went with the PMBOK answers which bothered me but helped me to pass the exam on my first try. Thanks for your input – Ron

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