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Perspectives on the PMBOK Guide – Part 3

In part 2 of this thread we started looking at whether or not the PMBoK® Guide processes are truly applicable across a broad range of project types. In today’s post we’ll go further by looking at the skills it takes to run projects successfully and evaluate how the PMBoK Guide fits into that larger picture.

As readers of the Guide will quickly realize, the Guide takes a “process-centric” approach. Breaking Project Management down into five process groups and 47 processes (5th edition), the Guide provides a process framework that establishes the steps and activities Project Managers take to bring organization and structure to their projects.

The practice of breaking work down into its constituent processes is called the “scientific management” method (also known as “Taylorism”). Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) was a management theorist who proposed that work could be viewed as a set of discrete processes. Taylor suggested that by standardizing the processes used to perform a given piece of work, both productivity and quality could be improved.

Prior to Taylor all work had been treated as “crafts”. In craft type work the quality of the outcomes is directly correlated to the skill of the individual performing the work. The implementation of Taylorism de-emphasized the skill of the individual craftsman and through “standardization”, engineered the need for workers to make decisions out of the process. Taylor’s underlying axiom basically says: individual workers are not important; if you want better outcomes, use better processes.

In his day, Taylor’s ideas were revolutionary. His thoughts directly contributed to the mass-production methods that now dominate manufacturing and provided the platform for the “continual process improvement” methods that are the core of today’s quality management movement. Despite these successes, Taylorism does have its limitations. While it works well in mass-production manufacturing where work is highly repetitive and detailed processes can be documented (or even automated), the question we need to ask ourselves is: how effective are Taylorist principles in a project environment where every project is unique?

That uniqueness lies at the heart of the challenge that Project Managers face every day. Each project has its own unique set of requirements and each project exists within its own unique context. Furthermore, uncertainty and risk are unavoidable elements in the project environment. The unique nature of each project and the inherent uncertainties, mean that it impossible to standardize every detail of the way project work is approached. As a result people and decision-making are intrinsic parts of the project environment.

The fact that people and decision-making cannot be “engineered out” of the project environment means that Project Managers need to have great interpersonal and leadership skills. In fact the Project Manager’s role is as much an “art” as it is a “science”. Successfully mastering the “art” of Project Management requires the Project Manager to become competent in a broad range of so called “soft” skills.  Skills such as: communications, teamwork, negotiating, decision-making and leadership are as much a contributor to project success as the quality of the process being followed.

These soft skills is an area where the Guide provides only minimal direction. The need for interpersonal skills, and other soft skills is mentioned in the Guide, but beyond being noted, there is no meaningful substance to explain what these skills are, why they are important or what it takes to master them.  A few of the Guide’s 47 processes do touch on the soft skills side (e.g. 9.3 Develop Project Team), but trying to turn soft skills into a process is not a good translation. Given the subtle and nuanced characteristics of these soft skills an alternative approach needs to be found to document the skills rather than trying to represent them as processes.

Again you can argue that the Guide is not a how to manual and hence it is not the Guide’s role to define how to develop these soft skills. Despite that argument the lack of focus on the soft skills components is another major criticism I’ve heard about the Guide. I can certainly appreciate the criticism. There is no doubt that soft skills are critical to project success. Although the Guide provides a robust process framework, the uniqueness of every project means that within that framework Project Managers still need great soft skills if they are to deliver a successful result. Following an appropriate Project Management process is important for a project (it brings structure and organization to a project), but good process in the absence of effective soft skills is still likely to be a disaster.

In part I think the issue here comes down to expectations. Some people think the Guide should be a one-stop shop for everything you need to know in order to run a successful project. Clearly the Guide does not match up to that expectation. If you read the Guide with such an expectation you are likely to be disappointed. If you read the Guide and recognize it is simply a process framework that can help you plan and manage a project you are likely to be more of a satisfied customer.

In the final part of this series we’ll wrap up our review and look at what it takes to get the maximum value out of the PMBoK Guide.

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