What Is a Task in Project Management?

In Greek mythology, the god Apollo asked the hero Hercules to perform 12 difficult tasks. These were not linked to one another but had the overall goal of letting Hercules rest without regret.

For today’s project managers, tasks are equally important when applied to the successful completion of a project. The first thing to understand is: what is a task in this context?

Very simply, a task is a unit of activity that must be completed in order to execute a project. All such defined tasks have to be finished for the project to be completed.

Tasks can be big or small. They could be done by one person or by a team. They can be complex, containing sub-tasks, or they could be individual actions.

You can conveniently view a task as a unit of work within a project that has to be completed within a certain time.

To make it easier for you to understand the role of tasks in project management, let’s take it up in three stages:

  • How to Define Project Tasks
  • How to Break Down a Project into Tasks
  • Task Scheduling and Dependencies

By the end of this blog, you should have a comprehensive idea of how to view your project as a series of tasks, how to manage and distribute those tasks, and how to correctly create a time-driven agenda to complete them.

How to Define Tasks in Project Management?

One can look at tasks in project management as a building block of a project. Tasks are also sometimes referred to as project activities, but the intent is the same. It’s by completing these in order, one by one, that the overall project is completed.

Here’s one way to make the nature of a task even more clear. Your project scope will mention a set of deliverables. Ask yourself what steps need to be taken in order to complete those deliverables. Each step can be seen as a task.

Importantly, such a breakdown should enable you to assign resources as well as a timeline to tasks.

Some people make an interesting comparison between deliverables and tasks. Deliverables can be described as nouns: that is, things and places, for example. And tasks can be defined as verbs: action words such as prepare, build, create, and so on.

Let’s take an example. A project deliverable could be the successful construction of a new road between two points. When you break this down into tasks, you could come up with: organizing the raw material, getting municipal permissions, subcontracting sections of the road to construction companies, and so on.

Seen in this way, tasks are a series of necessary actions that have to be taken for a project to reach completion.

How to Break Down a Project into Tasks

There is no single guaranteed way to break down a project into tasks. It’s a skill that comes with experience.

However, there are several steps that you can take which will definitely aid you in the process. Among them are:

  • Go through your project plan of deliverables and timelines and note what needs to be done to implement the plan.
  • Conduct workshops with the team during which you can jointly understand the inputs needed for the project. Process mapping, as well as flow charts, can be an important part of this.
  • Carry out risk assessments relevant to the project to understand safeguards and back-up options. This will make the importance of specific tasks clearer.
  • Assigning timelines to project milestones will also help you in allocating task deadlines.

If tasks are well-defined and comprehensive, everyone on the team knows their jobs and understands how these fit into the larger picture.

You, too, have a valuable way of keeping a check on the progress of the project and any course corrections that may be needed.

Task Scheduling and Dependencies

Almost as soon as you begin breaking down a project into tasks, you’ll realize that many tasks are dependent on others. Further, unless some tasks are first completed, other tasks cannot be started.

This is where the concepts of scheduling and dependencies come in. Scheduling is simply the best order for the tasks to be carried out, and dependencies are the ways in which tasks are reliant on one another.

For example, in the road construction case mentioned above, you can’t surface the road unless the foundation has already been laid. And you can’t lay the foundation unless the surface has been dug to a certain depth.

In this way, you need to map the task dependencies before you can schedule them, and then assign timelines.

With many projects, dependencies can be classified into four types:

  • Finish-to-start: A simple linear progression in which one task finishes and the next one starts.
  • Finish-to-finish: Here, the second task cannot finish unless the first one finishes. This is common in software development.
  • Start-to-start: In this case, the second task can’t start until the first task also starts.
  • Start-to-finish: The first task must start before the second task can finish.

There are various methods for you to correctly ascertain dependencies. Here are some examples.

  • kanban board: this is an agile project management tool to visualize overall work, work-in-progress, and the right flow. It can help both agile and DevOps teams establish order. They use cards, columns, and continuous improvement to help technology and service teams identify the right amount of work.
  • Caption: A kanban board template.

  • The waterfall method: this is commonly associated with the Project Management Institute. In this work breakdown structure method, you take the deliverables and then divide them into a sequential and linear array of tasks. Proper planning is critical. Requirements must be clear, and team members should understand what roles and responsibilities.
  • Gantt charts: this is a commonly used and useful tool. It helps you to visualize the timelines and dependencies of a project. It is in the form of bars, so it’s easy to take in at a glance.

Now that you’re clear about the nature of tasks and how to understand the relationships between them, we’ll leave you with a bonus tip. And that is: sometimes, it helps to work backward.

This simply means taking the end goal and then working through the steps needed in reverse order. This can be of great help in drawing up realistic plans and schedules.

With all of the tasks clearly outlined, you can plan your work and then work your plan.