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Perspectives on the PMBOK Guide – Part 4

For part 1 in this series of posts click here.

Over-hyped or much maligned? The PMBoK® Guide is a document that continues to polarize opinions. I’ve heard it described as both “a distillate of wisdom” and as “a long-winded obfuscation”. To me both perspectives overstep the mark. Is the Guide all you need to know in order to run successful projects? Clearly not! Would I want to hire a person who claimed to be a professional Project Manager but who had no knowledge of the process framework outlined in the Guide? Certainly not!

Over the past few posts I’ve tried to bring some perspective to what the PMBoK Guide is and how much value it offers Project Managers. As discussed, the PMBoK Guide is simply a framework of processes that provides an outline of how projects should be planned and managed. The framework is robust enough to be used to plan very large-scale projects, while open enough that it can be scaled back to suit the needs of much smaller ones. It does lean towards projects in which the requirements are relatively stable, but with expertise (and by drawing upon concepts from the Agile extension) can be applied to projects where there is a need for greater flexibility.

To me, having an understanding of that framework is an essential part of being a Project Manager. One of the primary things a Project Manager is responsible for is “getting things organized”. A well-organized project is a credit to the Project Manager, while a poorly organized one is a reflection of poor Project Management skills. Process is one of the primary ways in which a Project Manager brings organization to their projects. Adopting an appropriate set of process brings structure to the way work is done, helps team members collaborate effectively and aids communications. When done well, it can help prevent mistakes being made and help make sure that problems are surfaced and addressed early.

Of course getting the process right is not enough to ensure the success of a project. It is however an important element and all Project Managers should be fully familiar with the available processes, frameworks and options for organizing their projects. Unless you are working in a very specific domain that has well established practices, my recommendation is that all Project Managers should become familiar with the Project Management practices outlined in the PMBoK Guide, the practices in the Agile extension and even the ideas from other sources (e.g. the European PRINCE2® Project Management methodology). Without that basic knowledge, one of the primary values a Project Manager brings to the table is lost. Do Project Managers also need to invest significant energy in developing their soft skills (teamwork, communications and interpersonal skills, etc)? Absolutely! But an understanding of the available processes, tools and techniques is also an important building block upon which a successful Project Management career is built.

Sadly, the potential value the Guide has to offer is often not fully realized. In fact I’ve personally worked with certified Project Managers who (to use an English expression) “couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery”. In part the problem is that you can become certified without having to demonstrate any mastery of the required soft skills (e.g. the skills needed to engage and leverage the stakeholders and team). But from my perspective part of the problem also stems from the way the Guide is organized. The use of knowledge areas to structure the Guide means that the flow of processes in the framework is very hard to see. To see the true picture you need to jump between knowledge areas and see how the different processes interact with each other.  Essentially the Guide’s 47 processes are like a jigsaw. Completing the jigsaw to see how the processes fit together requires either a lot of study time or the guidance of somehow who really understands what the document is saying. Sadly many of the available PMP Prep courses fail to do that. In fact some of the available courses simply walk students page-by-page through the Guide without ever looking at the bigger picture (I know because when I studied for the exam I attended such a course). Although you may be able to pass the exam by taking such an approach (and I did) it is very much a missed opportunity to really understand how the framework is intended to work.

In many ways I think that that is the issue at the core of the disagreements about value. If you complete the exam process, but never really understand the framework the chances are you may not have a very high opinion of the Guide. If, on the other hand, you are given the guidance to really understand the framework the chances are you will see the value in it. As an instructor I try and make sure that my students do get to see that bigger picture and do get to unlock the value that is hidden within. Passing the exam should be a by-product of understanding the material rather than a goal in itself.

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

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