First published as an editorial for Project Mangement World Today Web Magazine. Updated here December 2001.


Musings Index

A New Project Management Standard?

From time to time we take the Project Management Institute ("PMI") to task for the more obvious anomalies in its Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. (For example: "Standards for Very Large Projects" and "Will They Never Learn?") Now rumor has it that work has started on an update to be published in 2005. Like it or not, the shear weight of the US economy has enabled the Guide (known as "PMBOK") to become the defacto standard for project management in many parts of the world. The current document unquestionably has inconsistencies and some dubious advice for neophyte project management practitioners, so now is the time to examine its contents seriously and consider how it can be improved.

We suggest one major area for improvement is in expanding the effective limit of the present document's scope. Project management is about much more than just managing one project. It should also be about the environment in which the projects are generated, how they come into being and on what priority basis. That includes the whole business of project portfolio management where a collection of projects must be selected and managed for the most benefit for the organization. Or program management where one very large project can first be broken down into "sub-" projects. It should also include advice to senior management on how best to set the stage for their accomplishment. We call that managing the "Front End".

By the same token, the update could also include more detail on how to transfer the resulting product into the "Care, Custody and Control" of the customer so that the intended benefits or outcomes for the sponsoring enterprise are securely launched. We submit this part is just as vital for ensuring that the product is not only successful but is perceived to be successful. Only then can the project manager sit back satisfied that his or her project is a truly successful one. We call that managing the "Back End".

What we have in the current PMBOK is a collection of twelve chapters on a variety of subjects in no apparent order and little connection to one another. Miller in his classic psychology paper has suggested that the average person can only handle about seven topics, plus or minus two, at any given level. (See "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information" by George A. Miller, 1956, Harvard University – first published in Psychology Review, 63, 81-97 and on the Internet: ). Clearly this is a serious shortcoming and to add more chapters on more topics without apparent structure could only make matters worse. Considering that the work breakdown structure is such an important tool in project management, a WBS would be an obvious choice – although not the only one.

In contrast to PMI, the Association of Project Managers has adopted an intuitively structured subject grouping proposed by Dr. Peter Morris, CRMP-UMIST, UK. Wideman has proposed a more encompassing six level structure. This spans from the Global Competitive Environment down to the Technique level that is more in tune with the current US model. Such a structure helps practitioners understand where everything fits – and researchers to observe where knowledge is missing. Issacon #1002 explains the structure, its significance and the content at each level.

For example, a significant area of interest to a "global" operation is the matter of culture, not just as a sub-topic, but as an overriding premise. You just cannot run projects the same way in, say, Germany, Russia, the Scandinavian countries or Asian countries. The people in those countries simply have different cultural norms, behave and react differently to different organizational structures and forms of communication, and have different levels of risk acceptance. In other words, one (read US) size does not fit all.

We must sincerely hope that this time around much more practical input will be entertained from practitioners-in-the-trenches. Also, one hopes, the input will be unfettered by constrictive copyright impositions on public knowledge, and preconceived notions of what is best for the Institute's treasury rather than what is best for the project management discipline at large.

Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page