Is the PMBOK Guide good enough to manage projects effectively?

We trust that our readers will go through this article with a fresh perspective, open to possibilities, and reserve their judgement until they read and reflect on what we present here.

This question, is the PMBOK® Guide[1] good enough to manage project effectively, has been on our mind for a long time. We have been debating whether we should write about it or not. Recently, our team has been asking me to write about the PMBOK Guide and offer our perspective and even consider a short book on the subject. A recent online debate is triggering what we share today.

The necessary personal background

We know that there are about a million copy of the PMBOK Guide, if not more, in circulation. We know that 500,000 people have used it to become certified as Project Management Professionals (PMP) in addition to thousands of others who are not certified yet. We have followed the PMBOK Guide since the original consolidated version was published in 1996 and still have that copy, which we used to become PMP in 1998. We had contributed to most editions of the PMBOK Guide; sometime minor contributions and some time more substantial. We have also been volunteering for PMI in various roles, locally, regionally, and globally since 1998. We have attended numerous PMI symposium and Congresses since 1999. Our company offers the PMP training and we promote PMI certifications (along with non PMI certifications). We are a 2007 graduate of PMI Leadership Institute Master Class.

Why the personal background

We are sorry to list this personal background but we believe it is critical for this article since what we are about to write is an objective professional opinion and not a criticism. We have to say this because often when we speak on something (a) that is not in the PMBOK Guide but does not contradict it, … or … (b) it is in the PMBOK Guide but some do not understand it, professionals (PMI loyalists) perceive our input as a criticism. Some of these professionals do not properly or fully understand the PMBOK Guide, yet when we try to explain something in the PMBOK Guide (that they do not understand) they think we are violating “the holy book” rather than being open to learn new ideas.

Further, a large number of project management practitioners today have learned project management through PMI and the PMBOK Guide – and in some cases their organizations do not have formal project management process or system. This combination lead to the PMBOK Guide being the only PM source of reference for some of these practitioners. Personally, we believe that we have been fortunate that we have learned project management years before the PMBOK Guide (I am an old man:)). We learned it from a client perspective working on capital projects worth hundred of millions and billions US$ … … later, we read the PMBOK Guide (after about 10 years of hard-core experience) and it help us put the pieces of the puzzle together in a nice way.

In closing, we have a great deal of respect for the PMBOK Guide and the volunteers who contribute to it on a regular basis. We personally know many of them. One of the team leaders on the newest (5th) edition is Mr. Theofanis Gitois who is a close friend and a fellow long-term volunteer leader.

What is the PMBOK Guide

The PMBOK Guide is a guide … a framework … that discusses the processes and knowledge required to manage a single project. The guide includes the Standard for Project Management that is approved by ANSI (American National Standards Institute).

Most would agree that standards, PMBOK Guide or anything else, cannot and should not cover everything. Hence they are not “inclusive of everything”.

Our professional opinion

In our professional opinion the PMBOK Guide is not enough to manage projects.

Let us clarify this statement first.

What we mean is: on its own is not enough since it is not “inclusive of everything”. If someone, or an organization, learn the PMBOK Guide and nothing else then it is not enough. We should treat the PMBOK Guide as part of a holistic system, which is by the way – how the PMBOK Guide is designed. The PMBOK mandate is to supplement other aspects of the project management body of knowledge, whether internally developed and/or from other sources.

What prompted this article is online debates on this subject, most specifically a recent debate where the person debating us was offended by our statement that “the PMBOK Guide is good but good enough”.

Why the PMBOK is good but not good enough?

  1. The original author and volunteers (developing the PMBOK Guide and its updates) wrote in the PMBOK Guide (describing it) that is a “subset” of the project management body of knowledge … so it is only a piece of what we need … the rest need to come from somewhere else.
  2. Following on previous point: part of PMI copy right guidelines is that they insist on us to use PMBOK Guide and not PMBOK along since PMBOK = Project Management Body of Knowledge … but PMI is clear that its flagship standard book is only a GUIDE and not the Body of Knowledge. For some, this might seem a minor point but it is not; read the PMBOK Guide Chapter 1 for more points.
  3. The PMBOK Guide emphasis Organizational Process Assets (some shorten for OPA) … which means there has to be an organizational system (possibly built on PMBOK principles along with other factors). The bottom line: we need the full system and not only the guide.
  4. PMBOK Guide clearly states that it is a Framework, a Guide, and NOT a methodology … and invite the practitioners to use any methodology to go with it. Here it is worth noting that many refer to the “PMI Methodology” but PMI tells us “we do not have a methodology”.
  5. PMI is publishing supplement to the PMBOK Guide; unfortunately there are only three industry specific supplements today (construction, government, and defense) — so PMI (the organization) recognizes that the PMBOK Guide is not enough for all projects and the volunteers contributing to PMBOK Guide say so in their definition of the PMBOK in chapter 1.
  6. There are also numerous “knowledge area related” standards to supplement the PMBOK Guide; like Estimating, Scheduling, WBS, Risk, etc. Why does PMI sponsors these supplemental standards if the PMBOK Guide is enough?

Closing remarks

If the reader noticed, most of our comments above are from PMI and the PMBOK Guide itself and not a personal opinion. Here we must state that if these volunteers and PMI itself are saying we need a methodology, we need industry specific knowledge, we need supplements — then is not this the same thing as the PMBOK is not enough? Sorry for the repetition.

To close, we repeat what we said more than once – the PMBOK Guide is good and an excellent standard. We use it in our company, we use it in our daily life, we conduct training on it, we developed a methodology to align to it, we built a maturity model with the PMBOK Guide processes at its core. So when we say it is not enough, that is not meant as criticism or “putting down” an important standard. We say so, to clarify that to manage the organizational projects effectively the PMBOK Guide is not enough.

The PMBOK Guide design is to be a major and important part of a project management system, to complement other elements, and not to be the “holy book”.

We welcome your thoughts and ideas.

Added Clarification – Post Publishing the Original Post

We are adding this note after publishing the original post. The reason for this clarification is a that someone has taken this post personally and assumed that this post is directed at him. It is not. This post is to address an issue we regularly face in our classes, in our presentations, in online discussions, and in face to face discussions. Although, this post is triggered by a recent online debate, it is not directed to any person that participated in that online discussion.

_________________________

[1] PMBOK Guide is copyright to the Project Management Institute (PMI)