Is a common language in project management a reality or wishful thinking?

There are too many debates on social media, especially LinkedIn, and by subject matter experts and even thought leaders in project management about the need to have a common language.

One of the justifications for documents like the PMBOK Guide, the ANSI approved PM Standard, ISO 21500, and many other resources is a common language.

Well, is this a myth? Is it even possible to have a universal – global – worldwide – one-language in project management?


We all know the differences in the English Language between North American English and British English. We are sure there are similar differences in the French Language, Portuguese Language, and my native language, Arabic.

In the Arab World, the language and dialect change from one country to another. Even when we use the same words the way we say them could be totally different to the point where a Moroccan might not understand a Palestinian and vice versa. Even from one village to another sometimes we have different words.

Common Language

I am a huge supporter of a common language. In my workshops, I always take precautions of explaining some differences in the use of terms such as output vs. outcome, shareholder vs. stakeholder, and product scope vs. project scope. I have even recently recorded a few short videos on these topics and others.

However, being a realist, is a common language in project management even possible or a wishful dream?

Charter or x?

Let us start with a simple example.

Those who study project management from the PMBOK Guide, they learn the term charter. Outside PMI world, other terms that may refer to the same thing could be Project Authorization Document, Project Initiation Document, Project Approval, or other terms.

Well, let us ignore the differences between the term charter and the other terms and stay within the PMI World. Many PMBOK Guide “students” KNOW that the charter is the output of the first process. However, do they really know what it means, its purpose or content?

  • Many practitioners will say yes, they know the purpose of the charter and it is a document that authorizes the project. Is it? Or it is the document that authorizes the project or phase?
  • Who develops the charter? The project manager or the sponsor? Or is it the PM writes the charter and the sponsor signs it and issue it?
  • What is the charter content? The PMBOK Guide offers the main topics to include – but each of these topics could be one sentence or 2 pages, which is it? For some organizations, the charter is One Page – High-Level Summary, even on a 1 billion US$ project. For others, it is a Scope Statement and a PM Plan that could be 10 to 20 pages, even for a small project.

What I am trying to say is the following: even when we agree on a term, we might not agree on its purpose, content, ownership, and other attributes.

Other Terms

There are numerous other terms we do not agree on or we have differences of opinions on their purpose. We will list without discussions:

  • Quality versus Grade
  • Risks (as threats and opportunities) or risks as threats only
  • Project life span or project life cycle
  • Knowledge area (PMI) or subject area (ISO)
  • Implementing (ISO) or Executing (PMI)
  • Monitoring & Controlling (PMI) or Controlling (ISO)
  • Expectations vs. Requirements
  • Development as in Development Projects vs. Development Phase in IT Projects
  • FEED, FEEP, Process Design, or Preliminary Engineering
  • Executing Phase or EPC Phase or Implementation Phase
  • EPC or D/B (EPC = Engineering-Procurement-Construction; D/B = Design / Build)
  • Phase or Stage — and Phase-Exit or Stage-Gate
  • Product Scope vs. Project Scope or Work Scope?
  • Work Scope or work-scope
  • Fixed price or lump sum
  • Cost plus or cost reimbursable

Should I go on?

Once again, a common language and terminology would be wonderful and helpful. Those of us who are passionate about project management must share our knowledge and understandings to help raise the level of competence and performance. However, unless all of the project management organizations and associations in the world unite – and we end up with one universal language, is it even possible to unify the Project Management Terminology?

The Solution?

There is no universal solution. The only solution we can think of is for organizations, conglomerates, governments to establish their project management systems; through a cPMO, ePMO, or a National PM Authority.

In their OPM (Organizational Project Management) systems, there has to be a section on terminology, a glossary of terms defining what they use. In the system, they can decide on the use of project life span or project life cycle, phase or stage or both.

Should the terminology be ACADEMICALLY correct?

It would be nice but academic in relation to which authority?

In my world, I use the term Risk to refer to uncertain event that if it occurs, it could have a negative or positive effect. So, a risk and risk management is about threats and opportunities. If a client wants to use risk to mean threat only is that a problem? Do I tell them they are wrong? No, I tell them, use whatever terms you like as long as you understand you should manage both threats and opportunities.

In my world, the focus is on the purpose. The purpose is to deliver projects successfully! So is project success restricted to those who use the term ‘phase’ only, or it is open to those who also use the term ‘stage’?

Closing Remarks

In this post, I do not intend to critique the concept of a unified language. Again, would love to have a common language but I understand reality. This reminds me of the famous cup – half-full, half-empty. Optimists see it as half full, pessimists see it as half empty. Well, realists see it as “is it enough to satisfy my thirst? Is it fit for purpose? Would deliver what I need?

This reminds me of the famous cup – half-full, half empty syndrome.

Optimists see it as half full, pessimists see it as half empty. Well, realists see it as “is it enough to satisfy my thirst? Is it fit for purpose? Would it deliver what I need?

I welcome a challenge to my position and I know many who will challenge it.

This entry was posted in Applying Project Management, Project Management Terminology and tagged , , , , on by .

About Mounir Ajam

A Project Management thought leader, who believes that project management touches all people, in all aspects of life; personal and professional.Initiated and led the formation of SUKAD Corp to develop the Uruk PPM Platform.An advocate of real-world, practical and applied project management.Champion of adaptive project management, tailored methods, and organizational project management.Available anywhere in the world to advise executives and organizations on the strategic value of project management. Ready to help organizations build and sustain the Project Management Function and the capacity to lead projects successfully.