Learning to Love the PMBOK®–It Wasn’t Easy

Years ago, I begrudgingly took my project management certification (PMP®) exam.  I passed.  Almost a decade later, I now teach PMP® preparation classes and see the value of the Project Management Book of Knowledge® Guide (PMBOK®) and the rigors of the PMP® certification.

When I started managing projects, in the late 1980s, the profession was in its infancy.  Even though people had been managing projects for thousands of years (Pyramids, Great Wall of China, etc.), it was only two-decades since the Project Management Institute (PMI) was founded to promote the profession.

Back then, most project managers were self-taught.  There were no college or graduate programs focused.  There were only a few thousand PMPs.  In 1986, the PMI conferred its first PMP® certification.  Today, there are almost 800,000 certified PMPs, with that number nearly doubling in the past 5 years.

In 1996, the first PMBOK® guide was published.  In the past twenty-years, the Guide has grown from 178 pages to 758 in the current, 6th edition.

Why We Need Standards

As an individual project manager, I was successful.  The need for rigorous industry standards and guidelines was not apparent.  When I started leading increasingly larger programs and PM organizations, I witnessed the challenges of scaling.

I had many talented people on my teams.  But, they all managed projects their own way.  There was no consistency.  Sometimes we had problems communicating because there was not a common language or terminology.  Without standards, it was challenging to scale practices to the enterprise or large-program level.

Now that I am instructor, I appreciate PMBOK® and the PMP® certification.  That is not to say that I agree with the everything, but I see its value.  Having unifying practices help makes project management a disciplined profession.  The PMBOK® provides a structured approach and framework.  The PMP® sets solid experience, training, and knowledge expectations.

The State of the Profession

Project management is still maturing as a profession.  PMI estimates that there are over 16 million project managers in the world which means that less that’s 5% are certified PMPs.

Project managers are found in nearly all industries.  Construction, technology, and finance are fields with the largest numbers.  Professions such as law and healthcare which traditionally did not have many project managers now have a growing presence.

Project management is a complex discipline.  Its application in industries as diverse as construction and software development are significant.  For example, it is fast and cheap to change the layout of a web-page.   However, moving a building a few feet is not as simple.  Organizations and their cultures also have a huge impact on how projects are managed and executed.

Project “success” remains an elusive goal.  Only about one-third of projects are delivered on-time, on-budget, and with the expected scope.  This trend has been stable for the past 20-years.  Organizations with greater maturity and a project management culture significantly outperform their peers.

The Project Management Certification

Becoming certified is not easy.  The aspirational goal is that the PMP® would be an industry standard similar to the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam which traces its roots back a century.

Training a and experience are required before project managers can sit for the exam.  Candidates must have a college degree and 4,500 hours of experience and at least 35 hours of formal training.  The exam is a 200-questions long and must be completed in under 4-hours.

These requirements demonstrate that candidates have both training and real-world experience before they sit for the exam which is consistent with other professional bodies.

The exam is not easy.  Experienced project managers study hard.  Passing is not guaranteed. The preparation, exam, and ongoing continuing education requirements make the PMP® a meaningful certification.

What Makes a Successful Project Manager

The PMP certification is a de minimum standard to be a good project manager.  It indicates that the recipient understands the process and technical skills of the trade.  Mastery of these skills is required, but not mandatory for success.

Successful project managers have the superior interpersonal skills.  These soft skills are needed to lead, manage, and influence stakeholders and project team members.  Project managers spend 90% of their time communicating.  Often, project managers have limited formal power, so their ability to use leverage their soft skills is critical.

Successful project managers are wise.  They have learned from experience.  While some of those lessons are universal, others are industry-specific.  One of my colleagues spent most of his career producing live theatre which is very different than my experience in technology.

The PMBOK® Guide

The Project Management Book of Knowledge Guide® is often misunderstood.  It is not a “how to” manual.  It is a technical standard detailing the 49 processes that are executed regularly throughout the life of a project.

Most project managers initially chafe at the PMBOK® and its processes.  Many of my students say, “I have been a successful project manager, and I don’t execute all of those steps.”

Most project managers execute many of PMBOK® processes.  They just don’t realize it.  For example, the PMBOK® describes eight discrete processes to create a project schedule and budget.  Most project managers execute these steps, but not as discrete activities.  We combine steps and complete them in rapid succession.

I️ tell my students that studying project management is like tai chi.  Tai chi is a martial art that is practiced slowly and deliberately.  The slow-motion repetition hones one’s skills.  As a fighting form, these motions are executed in the blink of an eye.  Slowing down and understanding the processes and components creates deeper knowledge of the craft.

Change is Needed

The PMI® needs to restructure the PMBOK® and its approach to educating project managers.  At 700+ pages the PMBOK® is too much.  Its sheer weight and size are enough to dissuade most people from approaching the tome.  Inside the PMBOK®, readers find frameworks and process flows, but little tangible advice on how to better manage a project.

PMI® needs to develop materials that are quickly accessible to the average project manager and provides practical guidance on how to better manage their projects.  The guidance also needs to context-sensitive, so project managers can quickly find tools and address specific needs.

Agile industry groups can be an inspiration.  The Scrum Guide is only 19-pages and meets the standard of minimally sufficient documentation.  Agile Alliance has the Subway Map to Agile Practices which provides a graphical metaphor with supporting articles.  Scaled Agile provides one of the best examples of an on-line reference guide.

The PMI® has a wonderful mission to develop and grow the project management profession.  It also has a great set of resources and material.  Now that I am fully immersed in the culture, I can fully appreciate all it has to offer.  However, the PMI needs to find a way to make itself more accessible.

© 2018, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

To learn more about our training and consulting services, or to subscribe to our Newsletter, visit our website: www.pmessentials.us.


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(2015, October 07). Number of PMPs in the World. Retrieved February 18, 2018, from http://praizionmedia.com/praizion/?p=1788

Project management certification. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2018, from https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/project-management-certification-history-development-4941

Rajkumar, S. (2010). Art of communication in project management. Paper presented at PMI® Research Conference: Defining the Future of Project Management, Washington, DC. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Zucker, A. (2017, April 27). Successful Projects: What We Really Know About. Retrieved February 18, 2018, from https://pmessentials.us/successful-projects-really-know/

Image Courtesy of: http://www.formation-pmp.com

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