Playing games with the PMP Certification

I am writing this blog as a follow-up to a few articles I wrote on the PMP exam. I was also incited to write today by a recent post on the LinkedIn and Facebook pages of a PMI chapter. This PMI chapter is just sharing a blog from another organization under the title: “Take The PMP Exam Now Before It Gets Harder“.

Today’s post is a long article. I could not split into two posts … hope you understand and read to the end.

My Initial Response

My initial response on this post was: “I am really disappointed in this post and the commercial nature of education especially coming from the chapter … How do you know, and who officially said the exam is getting harder? Is there any published PMI information that says this? I know that the PMI Chapter is not the one who wrote this blog post but before the chapter share info you should validate them.”

The Chapter Representative Response

“We appreciate your comments, however, if you read the blog, it specifically related the “Harder” part to “added 589 pages in the 5th edition…..They added an additional Knowledge area of Stakeholder Management…..They added 5 processes… may have to study even longer to learn all the new material…..”. it is just harder in the sense of more material and more time to study”

First, this is an insulting response since the responded assumed I did not read the article. As a professional, blogger, and writer, I do not judge from titles – I read, rationalize, and answer.

Second – in the chapter response – defending the article – it says it is harder because it is longer. Also there are more processes, so now some have to read more content. What a professional response from a PMI chapter. I will detail the fault in such an answer and the blog itself.

My Personal Background Context

I share a brief about myself – so one can understand the context.

  • I have been a PMI member for 15 or more years and a PMP for 15 years.
  • I had been a volunteer with PMI from 1998 to 2008 including global leadership positions, such as Director of Education and Certification (regional), Congress Action Team (global), REP Advisory Group (global), and a graduate of PMI Leadership Institute in 2007 (global).
  • I had contributed to numerous standards
  • My company has been a PMI REP for 10 years and we do offer PMP classes, ethically
  • As a long-term volunteer we do get to know some inside information that might not be published

Now the above does not make me an expert on the exam but we know a bit more than the average member.

The Fault in the Response

 PMBOK History

The PMBOK has been around for many years, in booklet forms initially than in a consolidated version in 1996, where Mr. William (Bill) Duncan is credited as the primary author of this initial PMBOK. That book was less than 200 pages if I remember (my copy is not handy to know the specific page count). That was one of the books I used for my PMP exam which I took in 1998. Notice I said “one of”. Why “one of”, see end of this post.

The next PMBOK – 2000 edition (they did not call it 2nd edition) was longer … the 3rd edition of 2004 was even longer … and 4th edition in 2008 was even longer and obviously the 2012 (actually copyright is 2013) is yet even longer.

Why longer? I am not sure if anyone knows the full answer but there are many factors, such as:

  • More volunteers with every edition and all volunteers are listed in subsequent edition – this adds a few pages (not significant)
  • Since there are more volunteers – more opinions – usually this leads to more pages
  • Project management is expanding so this leads to new pages — for example PMO, Program Management, Portfolio Management, OPM3 … all of these are new topics now added to Section 1 of the PMBOK … these topics were not in the initial editions but added in recent editions. PMBOK 5th edition expanded on these topics
  • This edition split Section 2 – the standard section — so they moved the “standard” content from Chapter 3 and added it as an Annex — this created some more pages since the content of chapter 3 had to be modified and the Annex included some repetition.

To avoid analyzing the changes of the PMBOK here – let us stop with the above (we will have another article on changes).

One More Knowledge Area

One of the arguments in the blog and chapter post (that triggered this post) is that there are 5 more processes and one new knowledge area.

Well – let us go back to history …the initial PMBOK was 8 knowledge areas then Integration management was added. Now we have stakeholder management is a NEW knowledge area. Is it? Is it a new topic? Yes it is a new chapter but it is not a new topic? … anyone who READ the PMBOK, and not titles, would know that a large percent of the content of this chapter was already there. The content was in the communication knowledge area and other chapters as well. It was split to emphasize it.

More Processes

Again – the argument is that there are 5 more processes – but once again yes there are more processes but are these new topics? The 5 NEW processes include two for stakeholders … so let us assume these are new (in another article we will discuss this in more detail). So 2 new, what about the other three?

The other three processes are: project scope management, project time management, and project cost management. All of these were in the 4th edition under Project Management Plan in the integration chapter. For some reasons past editions included a dedicated management plan process for Quality, HR, Communication, Risk, and Procurement but not Scope, Time, or Cost … they had merged these in the PM Plan process in integration – why I do not know. If my memory serve me, past editions (before 4th or 3rd) included an independent project scope management process and was removed.

So in reality most of the content of the 5 NEW processes were there before — but now split – creating more pages, partially due to formatting and of course some more content.

Is the PMP Exam Harder?

The argument by the author of the blog on this topic – and the defender from the PMI chapter is that the exam is harder because there are more processes and pages.

  • Yes there are more pages – and assuming people really study the PMBOK – they will have a few more hours of reading. Unless the English language is changing “longer” is not equal to “harder”.
  • The number of processes has been increasing and decreasing from the beginning – I do not recall all the numbers but this one (5th ed) has 47, the 4th had 42, the 3rd had 44 (more than the fourth) … I cannot remember the other editions. So the number of processes fluctuates +/- 2 or 3 processes. Does this mean the exam difficulty fluctuates with every addition or deletion of a process?
  • There is one more knowledge area – yes – but we already established most of the content was there before.

Now let us ask some controversial questions and add some information that some people might not know or we CANNOT prove.

  1. The PMP has been around for 29 years – if we are not mistake the first PMP was in 1984 – so next year the exam will have 30 years. The exam follows a standard process which mean the criteria for this exam is somewhat stable and has to follow certain standard. It is possible that PMI can make the exam harder or easier and no one knows and PMI will not communicate it … so how can a provider and a chapter claims this?
  2. History again: the last major change to the exam happened in 2005 … before 2005 the exam passing score was 68%. In early 2005 PMI announced the exam will change and the new passing score will be 81%. The result – the number of PMP almost doubled in the world between Jan and Sep 2005 – the date of the change. What happened after Sep 2005? What we know (cannot proof) is that many/most people who took the exam after Sep 2005 failed. PMI came out and gave some statements on why and dropped the passing rate to 61% (106 out of 175). Later PMI stopped giving a score for the exam — and in 2009 (or 2008?) PMI stopped even giving numerical scores for the domains of the exams.
  3. Why the history above? The history is because what we know – is that PMI (un) communicated policy is that about 70% of those taking the exam should pass on the first time. I say this is not communicated publicly but this was a common knowledge within the insiders. The last number I heard from a PMI senior manager was in May 2008 and the 1st time passing rate at that time was 72%. What this means – is that PMI will continue to adjust the exam – harder or easier to ensure the initial pass rate is consistent (+/-). What PMI officially communicates is “Percentage of applicants passing the examination” is “Within percentage recommended by Certification industry best practices (40-75%)” this quotation is from an official PMI publication.
  4. Now some people might not believe what I said above so I ask people to comment. Here is what we need — did anyone took the RMP, Agile or other PMI certification when they first launched? With every new certification PMI does not give pass or fail for the first exam takers until after a while – not immediate. Why? Until they have met a set threshold to determine pass rate on first trial … not giving score for the first takers is a fact published by PMI. I am not sure how many would they need to meet their requirement but they wait to achieve the threshold before they set the pass rate than adjust as they see fit.
  5. Another point here — two years ago the exam changed without a change to the PMBOK – it was in relation to the PM role delineation study. Did the exam became harder or easier? It does not matter … what matters is that the exam changed without a change to the PMBOK … leading to my next and final point.
  6. The PMBOK is only part of the exam: The number we used to hear is that less than 30% of the PMP is from the PMBOK “pure content” since the PMP is mostly about situational questions that people experience in real life. So are these situational question will now change because project scope management is now independent process in the scope chapter and not part of the PM plan in the integration chapter? Would the exam be harder because there is a chapter for stakeholders – which is something we should be doing anyway and was part of the previous edition? See “One Of” at the end for more information.

Is the exam getting harder – if you want to memorize the ITTO – then yes there will be 5 more processes with input – tools and techniques – output for each so there are 15 more sections to study … but we say ignore the ITTO.

Why “one of”

I said earlier that when I took the exam in 1998 I used the PMBOK as “one of” the resources. Why is that? At that time if you go to PMI website and marketplace (books) and check out on what you need to prepare for the exam there used to be a “Full Exam Kit” and a “Short Exam Kit” … the names could have been different but if my memory does not fail me – the full kit was 16 reference books and the partial kit was 10 books. At that time I had bought the full kit and I still have those books. Those books included a book on risk management by Max Wideman, Human Aspects by Vijay Verma and others.

What is the point? The point is in those days – only 15 years ago – to pass the exam and prepare PMI was recommending a set of books that will help a person learn proper project management with a focus on project management and not exam preparation. Today – a large percent of exam prepares wants shortcuts – exam prep book which they might read more than one and practice every exam question they list … so the focus is on passing an exam rather than learning project management. So in my view, as a professional project manager the exam is getting easier for experienced people.

The Games

The above statement is controversial but bring us back to what triggered this blog post. Every time there is a change in the PMBOK, training providers (and PMI) jump for improving short term cash flow. History proves this point and I will show you.

We already stated above that in 2005 – the last time there was a major change the number of PMP doubled in one year. Basically from 1984 to 2004 (21 years) there were an X number of PMP (102,047 PMP from the chart below from my friend Theofanis Giotis – who was one of the team leaders on the 5th edition of the PMBOK). Notice in 2005 (1 year) the number doubled (close to it) and grew to 184,461 (81% growth). In my region the number of PMP more than tripled. Notice from the graph after 2005 the growth went back to normal … but read further.

PMP Growth over the years

If we zoom in within a year – the next major change was in summer of 2009 before the change from 3rd to 4th edition. The next graph shows what happened. Did you notice the jump between March/April and August 2009. Notice there is a drop after that – the number of PMP dropped. Why? People not renewing; usually this is common that people delay or do not renew at all.

Now if we look at the straight line this is the 12 month moving average – notice that it is more linear and stable slope … proving indirectly that the growth is normal but it goes through peaks before the exam changes.

PMP Growth In 2009

We can add another graph that shows the change two years ago due to the change in role delineation study but for this we refer you to another post on this subject that addresses what happen with that  change.


Is the exam getting harder?

No one knows the answer so do not be fooled with commercially driven posts, including from PMI and PMI chapters.

The difficulty of the exam is a function of the person taking the exam – are you a true project manager with good experience? Than reading a few more pages will not make a difference to you. It is likely that you are already practicing what is the PMBOK is now including.

If you are one with limited or no real experience in managing projects and depend on memorization than yes – you need to STUDY more and MEMORIZE more – 15 more sets of ITTO.

The graphs show that these are only games by providers and natural reaction by people who want the PMP. If you are someone interested in the PMP should you “Take The PMP Exam Now Before It Gets Harder“? We say IGNORE this and follow your own schedule. This is a link for another one of our posts on this subject – we encourage you to read it.

Finally, I wish PMI and its chapter will act more responsibly to serve its community and to grow the practice of project management instead of focus on numbers and revenues. Transparency rather than misleading information and hidden agendas is what we need.

Once again sorry for this long article. We realize our direct approach might challenge some people but to protect project management, we hope people can read before they judge.

We want to hear from you.

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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.