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Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)® – Book Review

Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)<sup>®</sup> – Book Review

Introduction to the PMBOK®

Project Management Body of Knowledge, commonly referred to as PMBOK®, or the PMBOK® Guide, is the flagship publication from the Project Management Institute (PMI)®.

First published in 1996, the latest edition published in 2021 is a radical departure from previous editions and makes the PMBOK® a welcome addition to the project manager’s toolkit.

Not only that but for the first time, reading the PMBOK® will not bore you or send you to sleep!

The Standard for Project Management

Like previous editions the 7th edition also comes bundled with the sister publication of the PMBOK®, the Standard for Project Management. The Standard covers 3 sections.

  1. Introduction

  2. The introduction covers basic concepts and key terms about projects, programmes, and portfolios.

  3. Value delivery

  4. This section defines why value is important to an organization and how projects contribute to the creation of value. It also covers the various roles involved in a project which contribute to the generation of value, and the role of organizational governance to support decision-making.

  5. Project management principles

  6. This section describes the 12 principles which act as the foundational guidelines for strategy, decision-making, and problem solving on projects.

    Read together, the sections from the Standard for Project Management nicely lead into the PMBOK® itself, by setting the context for the PMBOK® Guide itself.

PMBOK® 7th edition structure

The new PMBOK® is divided into 4 sections and 5 appendices. In the Kindle version, which was reviewed for this article, there are 254 pages.

  1. Introduction

  2. This section describes what’s changed in this edition, and its relationship to the Standard for Project Management.

  3. Project performance domains

  4. This section details the 8 project performance domains which is a major change to the PMBOK® in the latest edition.

  5. Tailoring

  6. This section delves into the details of how to tailor the project management approach, governance, and processes to make them more suitable for the specific project environment.

  7. Models, methods, and artifacts

  8. The final section presents an overview of commonly used models, methods and artifacts which can be used on projects. Many of the most used models and methods are listed and suggestions given for which performance domain they are most useful in.

Appendix X1

This appendix lists the contributors to and reviewers of the latest edition.

Appendix X2

This appendix covers the responsibilities of the project sponsor.

Appendix X3

This appendix covers the value of having a project management office (PMO).

Appendix X4

This appendix introduces the concept of product development and product management, and how global markets are shifting towards a product life cycle understanding, and how projects must adapt to encompass these trends.

Appendix X5

This appendix provides insight into how the update to The Standard for Project Management was developed.

What’s new in the PMBOK® 7th edition

There’s a lot that has changed in the PMBOK® 7th edition. What is most notable about the 7th edition is that it finally addresses many of the changes that have been occurring in the project management area over the last 2 decades.

Iterative life cycles

In particular, its understanding of alternative project life cycles to the traditional waterfall, or predictive approaches is reflected in the fact that references to agile or iterative approaches are made throughout the text. This is a welcome addition.

Whilst other established project management approaches (e.g. PRINCE2) addressed agile ways of working and iterative projects almost a decade ago (PRINCE2 achieved this through its publication of PRINCE2 Agile), the understanding of agile in the PMBOK® 6th edition was very underwhelming and was non-existent in the 5th edition. Even in the 6th edition, the PMBOK® only addressed agile as something to be aware of and did not place it central to the project management approach. The 7th edition finally does place iterative project life cycles at the heart of the book. Better late than never!

Principles

One of the problems with previous editions of the PMBOK® was its prescriptive use of processes. To overcome a prescriptive approach to project management, the 7th edition introduces a set of principles which never existed in previous editions. The 12 new principles are to be used to guide the behaviour of people on the project management team within the 8 project performance domains.

The 12 principles are broad-based which means there a myriad of ways that organizations can align their project behaviours with the principles. The principles are aligned with the values identified in the PMI® Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. The principles are described in detail within the Standard for Project Management (the accompanying book that forms part of the PMBOK® Guide but are referenced consistently throughout the PMBOK®.

It seems to me that with the introduction of the 12 new principles the PMBOK® has stolen the clothes of PRINCE2, which has had a set of principles since 2009.

Focus on products, outcomes, and value

One of the biggest problems with previous versions of the PMBOK® was its focus on project delivery at the expense of seeing how the delivery of project deliverables fitted into a wider context. By following the PMBOK® closely, project managers could have been forgiven for thinking that the project was an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

For many years, PRINCE2 has recommended that decision-making on a project should be based upon the business justification. It recommended the use of a business case to justify the investment of resources in a project so that quantifiable benefits could be realised in return. The PRINCE2 business case theme provides mechanisms to stop the project if the justification no longer exists and provides post-project mechanisms to measure the expected benefits later.

The language in the 7th edition is now very closely aligned with PRINCE2 for the terminology around products and outcomes. The PMBOK® however uses the agile concept of value whereas PRINCE2 refers to benefits.

Appendix X4 in the 7th edition explores the concepts of product development, product management, product life cycles and their overlap with project management and projects in more detail than is covered in the main sections of the book. It seems almost as if this is an afterthought because it was simpler to do it this way rather than incorporate these ideas into the central project management concepts.

Project management functions

One of the major drawbacks with earlier editions of the PMBOK® was their failure to fully explore all the varied project management roles. The PMBOK® only ever focused on the project manager and project sponsor roles. That drawback has still not been addressed in the 7th edition, although the Standard for Project Management does describe several ‘functions’ which might be involved in a project.

Anyone familiar with PRINCE2 will know that it provides detailed a set of responsibilities for each of nine roles which form the project management team. So, although the 7th edition describes ‘functions’ it does not list their responsibilities, although on closer inspection their ‘functions’ very closely map to many of the PRINCE2 project management team roles.

Process groups removed

Perhaps the biggest problem with earlier editions of the PMBOK® was its obsession with prescribing processes performed within the 5 process groups. Almost every article written about the PMBOK® since its first edition has focused on these 5 process groups which, until the 7th edition, formed the project life cycle. Thankfully they have been removed from the 7th edition. That is welcome because although they might have suited a linear predictive (waterfall) life cycle, they don’t fit adaptive (agile) and or hybrid life cycles.

One of the most tedious aspects of reading previous editions of the PMBOK® was the repetitive, prescriptive processes describing in detail the inputs, tools/techniques, and outputs (ITTOs) of each process. These were always unnecessarily complicated when compared with the much simpler PRINCE2 processes. Anyone who has prepared for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam, which is based upon the PMBOK®, will know how mind-numbingly boring it was to have to learn these ITTOs.

I was surprised to learn of the demise of the process groups and processes in the 7th edition, but I am certainly happy to see them go.

Project performance domains

One of the new concepts introduced within the 7th edition is the concept of project performance domains. There are eight of these and they represent a shift away from a process-based standard to a principles-based one which requires a different approach to thinking about project management.

The eight new project performance domains consist of groups of related activities that are critical for the effective delivery of project outcomes. They are interrelated and inter-dependent areas of focus which work together throughout the project to achieve the desired outcomes.

As someone who comes from a PRINCE2 project management background, what strikes me more than anything else about the 7th edition is how so many of the concepts and ideas appear to be taken directly from PRINCE2. That is most clearly visible in the descriptions of the 8 project performance domains. Each domain neatly maps to one or two of the PRINCE2 themes.

The only PRINCE2 theme which does not have an equivalent project performance domain is the business case theme. Had the authoring team of the new edition added a project performance domain equivalent to the PRINCE2 business case theme, then perhaps the PMBOK® Guide would have become too similar to PRINCE2.

Planning performance domain

One welcome improvement evident in the new edition is that it no longer assumes that a work breakdown structure (WBS) is needed on all projects. Whilst a WBS might be expected on a predictive (waterfall) life cycle model the new edition describes how iterative or incremental approaches are more likely to have high level epics that can be decomposed into features or user stories which form items on a backlog.

When these approaches make plans, they often do so by using timeboxes (e.g. sprints) whereby items are pulled from a backlog in a prioritised manner. These concepts of iterative development, epics and user stories come from the agile domain, and are a welcome addition to the PMBOK® and reflect how the authors have tried to cover all life cycles, not just waterfall ones.

Measurement performance domain

Another example of where the new edition has adopted concepts from PRINCE2 is the concept of tolerance and exceptions. These concepts have been at the heart of PRINCE2 for almost 3 decades now but have finally been incorporated into the 7th edition of the PMBOK®.

The PMBOK® how describes how tolerances are the variations which are allowed from a baseline before taking proactive measures to escalate the situation. In such an exceptional situation, an exception plan is an agreed-upon set of actions to be taken in response to the exception. Again, this is another example of the alignment of the new PMBOK® with PRINCE2.

Tailoring

Although tailoring was introduced into the PMBOK® in the 6th edition, it was limited in its scope. The good thing about the 7th edition is that tailoring is now at the heart of everything described in The PMBOK® Guide. Tailoring is the deliberate adaptation of the project management approach, governance, and processes to suit a specific project’s needs. Every project is conducted within a different internal and external environment, and as such, each project requires its own unique approach.

Again, this is something that the PMBOK® Guide share with PRINCE2, which contains its own tailoring principle, designed to avoid a manage by template approach to project management.

Final thoughts

Being a PRINCE2 trainer since 2006 I have tried to understand different project management frameworks, standards, and approaches. For that reason, I became familiar with the PMBOK® Guide since the 3rd edition.

For the changes from the 3rd edition to the 4th, 5th, and 6th editions, I can summarise each of them as more of the same. They were always tedious to read, difficult to implement, and bigger than the previous edition.

It was bewildering why people raved out the PMBOK® so much. I later realised that it wasn’t the PMBOK® they were raving about, but their bragging rights about passing the PMP® exam despite it being based upon such a poor textbook.

For the first time since the 3rd edition, I honestly must say that the 7th edition is a valuable tool for any project manager’s toolkit. It addresses up to date trends in project management and hasn’t been afraid to take some of the best concepts from PRINCE2 to make itself a more valuable tool.

In 2023, I can readily recommend the PMBOK® Guide to anyone with an interest in project management. They will find it not only useful to help them manage projects but will also educate them with a broad knowledge of projects and project management.

References

[1] Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Seventh Edition and The Standard for Project Management (ENGLISH) (p. 254). 2021. ISBN 9781628256666 (kindle edition)

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