What's the Difference Between Projects and Business as Usual?

5 Ways to Distinguish Project Work and Usual Work

Woman working
Projects and BAU are both essential for organizations. Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Are you working on a project? Or is what you are doing part of the daily operations of your business?

When I speak to people in teams, they often tell me that they aren’t sure whether they are working on a project or ‘just’ doing a business as usual function. Both roles are required in an organization and equally valid, but it can help to understand what you are working on so that you can better see where it fits in the organization overall.

Let's clear up the difference so that you’re confident in what a project is and what is part of business as usual. There are five main differences between project work and business as usual work. You’ll often see ‘business as usual’ abbreviated as BAU.

Projects Change the Business; BAU Identifies Change

First, there’s a difference in how change is handled.

Business as usual operations run the business. They keep the lights on. They serve customers, and they hit targets. BAU teams also are the first to know when the existing business processes aren’t working and are no longer fit for purpose. When that happens, the BAU teams are the ones who identify the need for change.

A manager, as part of a strategic review, can suggest what changes need to be made for that division or business unit to reach their goals. Or, a bright spark in a department might put forward a suggestion for change through an employee suggestion scheme.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might have a full business case produced by a senior manager to deliver changes that are required to help their division reach their targets for the year.

It’s not just streamlining business processes. Those working in BAU roles may also realize that change is essential because of changes in the regulatory framework or as part of the competitive situation for the organization.

Frontline staff works to deliver strategy, and they know what they want to be different to get there.

Projects are the mechanism for implementing that change. Projects deliver change to and through the BAU functions using project management. We'll clarify what project management is further. The project organization works on delivering the change that the BAU teams have identified. This happens once it has gone through a project approval process which is normally ​a business case and senior management approval.

That isn’t to say that people in a project role can’t ever suggest improvements to business practice, but they’ll be doing so under their role as an employee rather than as part of their project role.

This split, which you’ll also hear summarized as ‘change the business, run the business,' is noticeable at the end of projects too. The change that a project implements is to deliver an output. That could be a piece of new software, a building, a new service or something else. The BAU team is responsible for taking that and making good use of it to deliver business benefits. In other words, the project delivers the capability to get benefits, and the BAU operations use that capability to get the benefits.

Projects Manage Risk; BAU Mitigates Risk

For business as usual functions to be effective, you’ll find that BAU teams seek to mitigate all risk to operations. Taking the uncertainty out of business for better organizational stability and repeatable processes is a good thing.

By their very nature of being unique and uncertain, projects require an element of risk. The company is making a bit of a leap into the unknown just by doing a project, as it introduces change and delivers something that wasn’t there before.

Project teams, therefore, approach risk in a different way to the BAU side of the organization. Project managers seek to manage risk, both positive and negative, to get the best outcomes. That might include mitigating risk to try to limit the likelihood that it is going to happen, but it includes other risk management strategies as well.

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever extinguish risk on a project, but you might be able to do that for good operational reasons for your BAU work.

Projects Are Time-Bound; BAU Is Ongoing

Projects have a start, a middle and an end. This is the project life cycle. In fact, the most defining characteristic of a project is that it finishes. The project manager and the project team work on the project during this time. Then the team is disbanded during the handover and close phase at the end.

BAU doesn’t stop. You can, of course, close down a function or stop a process if it is no longer required for the business – although that would be managed as a project!. A BAU function produces ongoing work with no foreseeable end date.

Projects Can Be Capitalized; BAU Often Cannot Be

Projects can be capitalized and often BAU cannot be – you rely on operating expenses for your ongoing business as usual work. In other words, the accounting treatments for projects and ‘other’ tasks are different.

Project funding often relates to bringing an asset into service, meaning the costs can be capitalized.  In some cases, depending on where you are in the world and your local accounting regulations, you can even take project costs below the line.

BAU costs are normally considered opex (operating expenditures) and are tracked in the profit and loss accounts of the company.

Project funding and business funding, in general, is a very specialized area so it’s always best to take advice from your Finance experts before making any judgments about what should and shouldn’t be capitalized in your organization. Accounting rules differ from country to country, and even from organization to organization where individual businesses have particular processes and ways of doing things.

If in doubt, always check!

Projects Involve Cross-Functional Teams; BAU Involves Functional Teams

Finally, there’s a big difference in the makeup of project teams. Projects tend to involve multi-disciplinary teams of experts brought together to deliver a particular output. Knowing how to motivate a project team is important because sometimes projects start without the goal being communicated to everyone. If people don’t have a clear understanding of what they are working on, then they tend not to do their best work.

Project teams are made up of people filling particular roles. These aren’t job titles but positions within the project with distinct responsibilities. The main roles on a project team are:

  • Project Sponsor
  • Project Manager
  • Senior Supplier (the organization responsible for doing the work, which could be an internal team like IT or an external contractor or vendor)
  • Customer (this could be an internal customer such as a different department manager, or, in a client services organization, the customer for whom you are delivering the project)
  • Subject Matter Experts (people brought onto the team either for the duration of the project or part of it who use their expertise to contribute to the project’s success).

Find out more about the roles in a project team.

BAU work, on the other hand, is managed by functional teams. They are experts in their own right but grouped together as a division and normally with less cross-functional overlap to other departments than project teams.

It’s normally very clear what they are supposed to be working on and the objectives for the team. They will have clear targets and a vision for the role the department plays in the company. An example would be a customer services team, who work as part of a larger customer services division handling calls and emails from customers about your product.

It is complicated: there is overlap. For example, a team leader in that customer call center is a specialist in their field. They may be seconded to a project team to manage a work package and the resources related to delivering part of a project that relates to customer contact. But in their project work, they are taking the role of Subject Matter Expert, not Customer Services Team Leader. As a project team member, they will be responsible for their part of the project budget and have a high degree of discretion around how the work is carried out to meet the end goals. They might not have this in their BAU role.

The Conflict Between BAU and Projects

Project work and BAU work can sit nicely alongside each other, but more often than not there is a tension. It happens because projects try to change the status quo. The status quo works pretty well, and people don’t, for the most part, like change, so there’s always going to be a bit of tension there.

Second, when you are asking people to join your project team, they can suffer from a conflict of loyalties. Is their first responsibility to their day job or the project? Clear objectives and a strong commitment to the project from management can help here, as well as keeping lines of communication open so that they know what the company and team priorities should be.

Third, keeping the business running is always the priority. It has an implication for project teams who might see their funding cut, key resources pulled back to BAU roles and timescales delayed because the work to do with keeping the day-to-day operations of the organization going is pulling focus.

Project managers can get frustrated with this but it’s always going to be like that, and it should be. There’s no point in delivering a fantastic project if the company has gone bust in the meantime and there is no one left to use what you have built!

With these guidelines in mind, it should be easy to see if you are working on projects or BAU or both.