Published here January 2014


Musings Index

Are Project Management Guides Useful?

The issues

As we've noted before on these pages, LinkedIn on the Internet is a great source of serious discussions on various aspects of project management. On June 21, 2013, an interesting booklet of only 50 pages was released. It is titled ISO 21500 Guidance on project management - A Pocket Guide and the cover is largely labeled "BEST PRACTICE".[1] Actually, that means that it is one of a series of publications labeled "Best Practice".

I read this book and made this observation in a couple of LinkedIn discussion threads:

"In my view, this 'Pocket Guide' provides an excellent introduction and justification for project management. Moreover, it charts a careful path between the excesses of professional pontification and the reality of real-world projects. I particularly like the illustration on the cover (See Figure 1) as it neatly encapsulates the project management environment as a basis for the ensuing discussion of the inherent processes.

Well recommended."

Figure 1: Project management concepts in organizations and other sponsor entities
Figure 1: Project management concepts in organizations and other sponsor entities[2]

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, this brief review elicited responses that implied comparisons with the Project Management Institute's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, better known as "PMBOK® Guide" or just "PMBOK".[3]

So Shim Marom, PMP, asked: "Is the PMBoK a useful guide? If I asked you to take each of the process areas in the PMBoK and document them in such a manner that they would each take up one page only - would you accept this challenge as a plausible possibility? Another way to look at this question is: Is the PMBoK too large to be of practical use? Can it be shortened without impacting the quality of its content?" Later Shim added: "What I wonder is, even in the context of those attempting to prepare for the PMP, whether a cut-down version of the PMBoK would do the job. As mentioned in a number of comments, it seems like the PMBoK is just too bloated for its own good."

S. Jasim chipped in, no doubt with a smile: "Having years of experience working under PMBOK as a guide, I would say it is possible to do what you asked provided the page is A3 size or larger ... !"

Jim Ward observed that: "I feel that edition 2 was the best PMBOK Guide. Each edition becomes more bloated and less relevant to anything except passing the PMP certification exam. It is a guide, or framework, and not a standard or methodology. It definitely has its uses. There are far better general books on the topic, such as Kerzner. There are many that focus on a particular industry, such as construction, information technology, R&D, etc., that are far more relevant to our day-to-day work. I personally would not bother mapping out the PMBOK Guide processes for use in my work. Yes, you could define each process in one page, but what would you have if you did so?"

Mark Moore, PMP, rejoined: "Personally, I don't keep a copy of the PMBOK for reference. I passed back in 2002 and have seen several revisions, but unless I'm teaching a PMP class, I don't open it. Consolidated views as you suggest would be very beneficial in my opinion. They take out the 'bloat' and make a simple reference guide."

A different perspective

Matthew Weaver, PMP, countered with: "I think size is not an issue, content is. Consider this, 5 process groups, 7 if you consider pre- and post-project concerns, if any. Then, the 5th edition talks of 47 processes, which really might be around 100 if we were to really map out what occurs end-to-end in a project. If we break these down to intro-like pages, sure, now we've got a hundred plus pages but at such high level to be useless beyond an outline. Substance takes time and space, which is why Kerzner's book is more meaningful than the PMBOK in some circumstances. Both though, lack detail on just what a plan, for example, might actually require.

You certainly cannot give someone a copy of the PMBOK and tell him or her to go write a Project Management Plan. No, you need to direct them to ISO/IEC/IEEE 16326 (2009) and even that is a bit high-level, but it will get them on the right track, so long as they can pick and choose what is relevant. No single document has all the answers. A roadmap, yes, we should be able to create one with references to applicable standards, guidelines, and best practices."

Gary Fortune, PMP, intervened with: "I am one of the authors of PMBOK v.3, and I generated a single page with all processes and PMBOK v.4 paragraph number plus where each is used during a typical project life cycle as my 'crib sheet.' I use that just as my reference 'if/when' I need a reminder.

[By the way] I had a project to generate a Project Management Methodology as a project staffed with a multiple functions team for a large technology company. One requirement was to make it fit all major 'Methodologies.' We started with PMBOK, and its nine areas, since it is not dedicated to IT or any other industry. We laid out the topic areas, and then to create a complete methodology worked our way through IEEE, IBM RUP, Prince2, Six Sigma, CMMI, ITIL v.3, SDLC, Agile, Scrum, etc. This was to insure our detailed methodology, templates, and white papers from first client sales call through to project closeout would 'fit' all of them. Our need was to cover hardware, software, networks, consulting, outsourcing, etc.

It was labor intensive, required feedback from the PMs in about 60 nations via SharePoint to make it globally compliant, and required six of us working on it as our priority for a year. In the end it was very highly successful, continues being used today, and is formatted similar to its original PMBOK parent. Had we not used PMBOK as a "GUIDE," what else might we have used that would fit a hundred industries' projects?"

[Incidentally] In my Project Management experience, all other project team members are focused upon the technology, and only the PM is focused upon project quality, deliverables, schedule, budget, stakeholder relations, etc. The PM, Architect, Engineers all need to work as a Team. I have repaired many projects where the assigned PM was not a PM, but rather a technical person with zero interest in schedules, budgets, deliverables, and end user requirements.

It is easy to criticize PMBOK, since, by definition it is a Guide, not a Methodology, and must be generic enough for all industries and project types. My question is: if you dislike PMBOK, then what else is there to prefer?"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Well, we just happen to think that the Pocket Guide that we described at the beginning could be the answer. As The Guide itself says:[4]

"The intention of this pocket guide is to provide you with a quick introduction to one of the latest developments in the project management profession: ISO 21500 'Guidance on project management' being the first really global accepted standard on project management. This guide contains a brief and straightforward introduction and high-level summary of ISO 21500, with tips for its practical application. It is therefore key knowledge for a project manager who is ready for the future."

Amen to that!

1. Zandhuis, Anton, Rommert Stellingwerf, ISO 21500 Guidance on project management - A Pocket Guide, Van Haren Publishing, May 2013, Netherlands, front cover
2. Ibid, Figure 2.1. p42
3. Note: The ensuing text has been extracted from the original LinkedIn discussion, and reassembled to facilitate the flow of the particular theme, with spelling and grammar corrected for better reading
4. Ibid, p5
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