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 Project Management Terminology

If you've ever sat in the dentist chair, you've probably heard the dentist bark out commands to the dental assistant in what sounds like another language. "Pathogens found on mesial buccal, #8 & #9" means you have some food stuck in your teeth. Just like dentists, project managers have their own 'language'-- words and phrases used primarily in our industry and not always used or understood by people that don't work regularly with project managers.

If you find yourself working with a PM, and can't understand what they're talking about, hopefully this guide to common terms will help. Some of the most common terms are listed on this page, and you can click on the external links for a more complete list of terms here:

More Terms (with more complete definitions): In-Depth PM Terminology

Note: The defintions provided here are over simplified to provide a 'high level' definition to non PMs (and possibly a smile), the external links provide more formal definitions and more detail.

"We hope your progressive elaboration of discovery will create a deliverable of increased utilization baselines for you as a resource." (Translation: We hope this helps you.)

Activity Duration Estimating:

A best guest/estimate of how long it will take to do something.

Activity Sequencing:

In what order should we do things? What should we do first, second, third, etc.?


For planning purposes, we say it's true. If it's not, there could be trouble.


Once all the planning is done, our best guess of what the project should look like. Provides a way to compare what we planned with what actually happens later.

Best Practice:

Everyone else is doing it (and it seems to be working for them).


We're all working in the same place (office, city, etc.).

Contract Statement of Work (SOW):

What needs to be done to complete the project, written out in longhand.

Core Competency:

What we do best.

Cost of Quality:

How much extra we have to spend to make sure we produce a good product.

Cost Performance Index (CPI):

How effecient are we at staying on budget? (expressed as a number -- above 1 = good, below 1 = bad.)

Cost Variance:

How much over or under budget are we?.


Throwing more people onto the project to try to get it done faster.

Critical Path:

All the things that can't be delayed without delaying the entire project.


Breaking things down into smaller parts to make it easier to manage.


The thing(s) you're hoping to get out of the project. (Could be a product, result or ability to perform a service.)

Earned Value:

If you stopped the project today, what would you have and what would it be worth?

Estimate at Completion:

At the rate we're going, how over or under budget will this be?

Fast Tracking:

Doing things at the same time that were planned to be done separately -- to speed things up.


Re-arranging your schedule so you're not overbooked.


A system of how you like to run your projects. (See Project Management Methodologies Reference) for more.


An important event in the project. Often this is a phase ending/beginning or where an important decision has to be made about the future of the project.


More than one project, all working together for a common goal(s).


Accomplishing something with a beginning and end. In contrast to a process that is ongoing/day-to-day.

Project Charter:

A document created at the beginning of the project as an overview.

Project Scope:

Everything that needs to be done in the project (and nothing more). Beware of scope's nemesis, 'scope creep'.


Anyone (even remotely) involved in or effected by a project.


The individual activities that make up a project.

Triple Constraint:

"Fast, cheap or good. Pick any two."

Use Case Diagram:

A graphical way of showing how people and systems may interact, similar to a flowchart but more complex.

(See Use Case Definition & Simple Example) for more.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS):

Simplifying the 'big picture' into smaller pieces in an organized way.


An improvised solution created 'on the fly'.