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Perspectives on the PMBOK Guide – Part 1

A tour of the Project Management forums in LinkedIn shows how divergent opinions on the PMBoK® Guide and the PMP® (Project Management Professional) certification process are. At one extreme are the enthusiastic supporters who have fully embraced the PMP designation and believe that it is a must for all Project Managers. At the other extreme are those who reject the process and raise serious doubts about its value. Caught in the cross fire are a lot of people who are confused over what the PMBOK Guide is and whether or not PMP certification adds any value (beyond the obvious fact that many hiring managers treat PMP as a prerequisite for being hired).

If you are one of the ones who is confused, don’t worry you are not alone. As a Project Management instructor I’m often asked for my opinion on the subject. Should I read the PMBoK Guide? Is it worth doing the PMP exam? Given the frequency with which I’m asked, I thought I would write some posts to put my opinion on the record.

Before continuing I should declare that I do teach PMP exam prep courses in Vancouver, Canada and hence have a vested interest. However with that in mind I’ll attempt to provide perspective that will help people make informed decisions about how to view the PMBoK Guide and what the PMP exam represents.

As a starting point for discussion I think we need to understand a couple of things. First, what is the PMBoK Guide (i.e. what does it claim to be and does the reality match the claim)? Secondly, how useful is the guide. Within the context of real-world projects how much value does the guide really add? In this first of a multi-part posting I’ll try to answer the question: what is the PMBoK Guide?

The official answer to that question can be found in the introductory chapters of the Guide itself. Summarizing, the introduction says that the Guide represents “the set of Project Management practices that are generally regarded as good practice in most situations” and that applying the practices usually helps increase the chances of project success. The document then goes on to explain that although the processes in the Guide are a “standard” for Project Management, they are a “guide” rather than a “methodology”.

To me, those opening remarks in the Guide are a source of confusion to people and contribute to the arguments about the Guide’s value. The combination of the words “standard” and “guide” clouds the definition of what the PMBOK Guide really is. The word “standard” is generally taken to mean that there is a prescriptive set of things I “must” (or at minimum “should”) do. However the use of the word “guide” softens things down, implying there is no standard and everything is optional.

To add further confusion, the Guide says it is not a methodology. However, you can argue that the document is presented as if it were a methodology. Because the Guide defines the inputs and outputs between processes, the document implies a particular sequence of events (i.e. do step A then step B, etc) and as a result, people interpret it as if it were a methodology to be followed.

With those observations in mind I can fully appreciate why people are confused about what the PMBOK Guide is. However, if we are able to go beneath the surface and look at the document at a more practical level there is still a lot of value to be had. To see what that value is, we need to step back and think about what the guide really represents.

At its core, the guide defines a set of 47 Project Management processes (5th edition of the Guide) and the interactions between those processes. The processes outline the steps used to initiate, plan, execute, monitor and control and then close a project. Each process establishes the inputs to the process (i.e. the documents or artifacts that are normally required before the process can proceed) and its outputs (i.e. the things produced by the process). For each process the Guide then makes suggestions about the tools and techniques you might apply when using the process. There is little detail (if any) about “how” to do things and Project Managers are left to make up their own mind about which tools and techniques to use and how best to apply them.

As such, the Guide is really a “framework” rather than a prescriptive how-to methodology. The framework suggests a sequence in which Project Management type activities should flow and how one process relates to the others. Within that framework the how-to part is then left to the individual Project Manager to decide.

As a framework the PMBOK Guide offers significant value to those who understand it. Once understood, the framework answers some important questions that all professional Project Managers need to be able to answer. Among the questions answered by the framework are important issues such as: How to do establish a firm foundation for a project? How do you plan a project? Those are pretty fundamental questions every Project Manager should be able to answer. Would you want to hire a Project Manager who could not give very solid answers to those two basic questions?

Of course the devil is always in the detail and although the Guide is a very comprehensive framework, the lack of how-to guidance can cause less experienced readers to get lost. Compounding the problem is the fact that the structure used to present the information in the Guide masks the flow of events in the framework. Because the processes have been grouped according to “knowledge areas” the flow of events (the chain of processes linked up via their inputs and outputs) is very hard to follow. So although the guide is a framework of processes, the full details of the framework are very hard to see unless you invest significant effort in reading the document multiple times.

So returning to our original question: what is the PMBoK Guide? Well there are two answers. Officially the PMBoK Guide is a “standard” and a “guide”, but not a “methodology” (whatever that means). In reality, the PMBoK Guide is a framework that once properly understood provides a good structure within which to plan and manage a project.

Having studied the Guide in depth, my own opinion is that as a framework the PMBOK Guide is actually relatively good (good enough that I do follow the framework in the projects I plan and mange these days). If you understand the framework and are able to apply it effectively, it brings structure to a project and can help you get things properly organized.

In my opinion the problem is less with what the PMBOK says and more with the way it presents the information. The way the Guide is presented makes the framework very hard to visualize and not surprisingly when first reading the document, many students feel that the PMBOK is an impenetrable maze. To be honest I can’t disagree. However, just because the Guide is hard to follow doesn’t mean it has no practical value. In reality beneath the surface is a lot of material that does make a lot of sense. In fact, once students understand the framework I have yet to come across anyone who disagrees with it. Sadly penetrating the document to the point at which the full details of framework becomes visible takes either a very significant investment of time or guidance from someone who does understand it. As a result there are many people out there who have opinions (often strong opinions) about the PMBOK Guide but have never reached the depth of comprehension needed to really understand what it says.

In part 2 of this series of posts, we’ll look more at how the PMP fits into the context of real world projects. Later we will look at whether or not learning the PMBoK really adds value to your Project Management career.

PMP and PMBOK are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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