The PMBOK® Guide, brought to the world by the Project Management Institute (PMI)®, is a seminal resource in project management. Since its introduction in 1996, it has undergone numerous revisions, the latest one in 2021 being particularly transformative.
The 7th edition represents a monumental shift, addressing significant changes in project management over the past two decades. The recent edition has enhanced its relevance, making it an invaluable tool for project managers.
Whilst another article compares PRINCE2 and the PMBOK®, this article will explore some of the main improvements in the PMBOK® 7th edition, and how it has stolen some of the clothes of its closest rival, PRINCE2.
Standard for Project Management
The PMBOK® 7th edition retains its association with the Standard for Project Management which comes in three parts:
This introduces foundational concepts associated with projects, programmes, and portfolios.
This expounds on the importance of value in organizational contexts and highlights the roles that contribute to this value generation, especially in projects.
Project management principles
This sheds light on 12 fundamental principles that guide strategies, decision-making, and problem-solving in projects.
Read together, these three sections lead nicely into the PMBOK® itself and sets the context for the remainder of the PMBOK® itself.
Inside the PMBOK® 7th edition
The structure of the latest PMBOK® edition is segmented into four primary sections and five appendices:
Details the changes in this edition and its alignment with the Standard for Project Management.
Project performance domains
This introduces the eight project performance domains, a revolutionary feature of the recent edition.
A detailed exposition on customizing project management, governance, and processes in tune with the specific project environment.
Models, methods, and artifacts
Gives a panoramic view of popular models, methods, and artifacts and their applicability in different performance domains.
Appendices X1 to X5
Highlight contributors, responsibilities of project sponsors, the role of a PMO, insights on product development, and the update evolution of the Standard for Project Management.
The inclusion of agile and iterative approaches showcases the PMBOK® Guide’s adaptability and modern outlook.
Whilst other project management approaches such as PRINCE2 Agile addressed agile concepts and iterative projects a decade ago, the treatment of agile in the PMBOK® 6th edition was tiny, and wasn’t even mentioned in the 5th edition.
Even its 6th edition, the PMBOK® addressed agile as something to be aware of but did not place it central to the project management approach. The PMBOK® 7th edition finally does place iterative project life cycles at the heart of the book.
Principles over processes
For me, one of the problems with previous PMBOK® versions was its prescriptive processes. To overcome its previously prescriptive approach to project management, the 7th edition introduces a set of 12 new principles. These principles should be used to guide the behaviour of those individuals on the project management team within the 8 project performance domains.
The 12 principles are broad-based which means there is a lot of flexibility in the ways that organizations can align their project behaviours with the principles. The principles are also aligned with the values described within the PMI® Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.
The details of the principles are described within the Standard for Project Management and are referenced consistently throughout the PMBOK®.
In my opinion, it seems that the PMBOK® has stolen some of the clothes of PRINCE2 by introducing the new principles, because PRINCE2 has contained its own set of principles since 2009.
Emphasizing outcomes and value
I think one of the biggest problems with earlier versions of the PMBOK® was its focus on project delivery at the expense of understanding how project delivery fitted into a wider context. By following the PMBOK® closely, project managers could easily be seduced into thinking that the project was an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.
For many years, a key strength of PRINCE2 has been its focus on the business justification for a project. Lose sight of why an organization is investing in a project often means the project becomes a waste of time and resources when the business context changes. The PRINCE2 business case practice 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 of the PMBOK® now very closely aligns itself with PRINCE2 in its discussion of products (deliverables) and outcomes. The PMBOK® however uses agile’s narrower concept of value whereas PRINCE2 uses the broader concept of benefits.
Project management roles
One significant limitation in earlier versions of the PMBOK® was its inadequate coverage of project management roles. The PMBOK® predominantly concentrated on the project manager and project sponsor roles. This oversight remains uncorrected in the 7th edition. However, the Standard for Project Management does outline several roles (or ‘functions’) associated with a project.
Those familiar with PRINCE2 recognize its comprehensive delineation of responsibilities for its nine project management team roles. While the 7th edition of the PMBOK® introduces these ‘functions,’ it stops short of specifying their responsibilities. Yet, a detailed look suggests that these ‘functions’ align quite closely with many roles defined in PRINCE2.
Process groups removed
In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with earlier PMBOK® editions was their overemphasis on the processes within the 5 process groups. Since its inception, most discussions about the PMBOK® have revolved around these 5 process groups, which, up to the 6th edition, depicted the project life cycle. It’s refreshing to see their exclusion in the 7th edition. This change is crucial because while these groups may align with a linear predictive (waterfall) life cycle, they are ill-suited for adaptive (agile) or hybrid life cycles.
Another tiresome aspect of past PMBOK® editions was the redundant, detailed descriptions of the inputs, tools/techniques, and outputs (ITTOs) for each process. In comparison to the more straightforward PRINCE2 processes, PMBOK’s approach felt overly intricate. Those who’ve studied for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam, based on the PMBOK®, can attest to the dreariness of trying to remember these ITTOs.
The departure of the process groups and processes in the 7th edition was unexpected, but I, for one, am glad to bid them farewell.
Project performance domains
The 7th edition introduces the concept of project performance domains. Comprising eight domains, this new concept signifies a transition from a process-driven standard to one grounded in principles.
These eight project performance domains encompass activities vital for the successful realization of project outcomes. They represent interactive and mutually dependent areas of focus that work together throughout the project to achieve its desired outcomes.
As an individual with a PRINCE2 project management background, what stands out to me about the 7th edition is its seeming incorporation of numerous concepts directly from PRINCE2. This similarity is especially evident in the characterization of the 8 project performance domains, with each domain closely aligning with one or more of the PRINCE2 practices.
However, the PRINCE2 business case practice doesn’t find a counterpart among the project performance domains. If the authors of this new edition had introduced a domain mirroring the PRINCE2 business case practice, the PMBOK® Guide might have too closely mirrored PRINCE2.
Planning performance domain
A welcome improvement in the latest edition is its departure from the assumption that every project requires a work breakdown structure (WBS). While a WBS may be typical for a predictive (waterfall) life cycle, the new edition illustrates how iterative or incremental approaches tend to prioritize high-level epics. These epics can then be broken down into features or user stories, which become items on a backlog.
Planning in these approaches often involves timeboxing strategies, such as sprints, where prioritized items are systematically pulled from a backlog. These iterative development approaches, along with concepts like epics and user stories, have their roots in the agile realm. Their integration into the PMBOK® underscores the authors’ intent to encompass all life cycles, moving beyond just the waterfall approach.
Measurement performance domain
Another area where the latest edition of the PMBOK® mirrors PRINCE2 is in its adoption of the concepts of tolerance and exceptions. While these notions have been central to PRINCE2 for nearly 30 years, they’ve only been incorporated into the PMBOK® with its 7th edition.
The PMBOK® now details how tolerances denote allowable deviations from a baseline, beyond which proactive steps are taken to address the situation. When such deviations occur, an exception plan outlines the agreed-upon actions to manage the anomaly. This further emphasizes the growing convergence between the updated PMBOK® and PRINCE2.
While the concept of tailoring was introduced in the PMBOK®‘s 6th edition, its application was somewhat restricted. A notable enhancement in the 7th edition is the central role tailoring now plays throughout the PMBOK® Guide. Tailoring refers to the intentional adaptation of the project management approach, governance, and processes to cater to the specific demands of a project. Given that every project operates within its unique internal and external context, it necessitates a customized approach.
This emphasis on tailoring brings the PMBOK® Guide even closer in alignment with PRINCE2, which contains its own tailoring principle. This principle in PRINCE2 is formulated to steer clear of a rigid, one-size-fits-all or “manage by template” approach in project management.
Having been a PRINCE2 trainer since 2006, I’ve delved deep into various project management frameworks, standards, and methodologies. This led me to familiarize myself with the PMBOK® Guide as early as its 3rd edition.
Reflecting on the transitions from the 3rd to the 4th, 5th, and 6th editions, I’d characterize them as repetitive evolutions. Each was lengthier, more challenging to navigate, and even more cumbersome to apply than its predecessor.
It perplexed me to hear the widespread praise for the PMBOK®. However, over time, I discerned that the enthusiasm wasn’t so much for the PMBOK® itself, but rather the personal accomplishment and bragging rights associated with clearing the challenging PMP® exam, despite it being based upon such challenging material.
With the advent of the 7th edition, my perception has shifted significantly. For the first time since ever, I genuinely believe the PMBOK® Guide is an indispensable resource for project managers. It effectively captures contemporary project management trends and integrates some of the best concepts from PRINCE2, enhancing its value proposition.
Now, in 2023, I can wholeheartedly endorse the PMBOK® Guide to any project management enthusiast. It stands as a resource that not only equips individuals with practical management tools but also broadens their perspective on projects and project management at large.