If a general counsel or other manager in a law department sets out to accomplish a specific goal in a set period of time, that is an initiative, also referred to as a project (See my post of Jan. 7, 2010: examples include to license a new software system, change the mentoring program, set up a pro bono program.). It is a formal, recognized and perhaps even named management effort with boundaries of resources and objectives.
A process, by contrast, is a set of activities that goes on, often unannounced, unnoted and unnamed, like tracking time or distributing board books. People do it over and over and often don’t consciously think about the steps, let alone how to improve them. There is a process to make reservations in the conference room and a process to call the help desk when your monitor goes blank. Processes in law departments are everywhere, perhaps hundreds of them. Processes have component steps and they do have some variability, but unlike projects, mostly ad hoc and novel with a team designated for each, a process is to varying degrees standardized and familiar and no one may be really in charge or accountable.
Just as processes have associated tools, a body of knowledge, such as process maps and guidelins, so too do management projects. Books are written about project management, classes and consultants stand at ready, and there are tools galore, such as GANTT charts.