Project Management

It’s Time for a Long, Hard Look at Processes

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Categories: PMBOK Guide

by Lynda Bourne

Project managers and processes go hand in hand. But are the processes of the past the right ones to guide future projects? And if project management is evolving beyond today’s generally accepted 40 or 50 processes, what should the next version of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) look like?


The Evolution of Process as a Concept

To consider these questions, let’s start by looking at the way processes have evolved. The concept of describing the process needed to accomplish a task emerged as part of the development of scientific management in the early 20th century. Scientific study and careful analysis defined the “one best way” of doing the work and the time it needed. Shortly after, the application of learned experience entered into the equation as a way to improve the current “best method.”

By the 1950s the concept of a process with defined inputs, transformed by the application of defined tools and techniques to produce outputs, was firmly established in quality control and management. Process improvement was central to the rapid development of post-war industry.

During the development of the 1996 version of the PMBOK® Guide, PMI adopted processes as the best way to organize and explain the complex flow of information through the life of a typical project. The PMBOK® Guide came to embody “generally accepted good practices that apply to most projects, most of the time.” Over the years, the 37 processes in the 1996 version of the PMBOK® Guide expanded to 49 in the Sixth Edition (released in 2017). Through the editions, PMI has progressively increased the emphasis on the need to customize and tailor processes to meet the needs of each individual project. But is this enough?


Looking Ahead

The questions I want to ask in this post are:

  • Can a practice as diverse as project management still be adequately described in some 50 processes?
  • If not, how can the PMBOK® Guide be structured in the future?
  • Is a four-year cycle appropriate, or given the rate of change in the profession, should “the Guide” be updated more frequently?

In the past, processes were developed around the concept of transforming specific inputs in a defined way to create consistent outputs. Business processes define how the how work is done within an organization, to meet the needs of its customers. PMI’s approach to generalizing processes across a management discipline adapted this basic concept. 

The idea was powerfully successful when most projects, most of the time, had similar characteristics. They were approved, planned, built and closed. The same approach was used in construction, engineering and most other industries that did projects in the 1990s—and the concept remained largely true for the next 20 years or so.

However, does this generality still apply in the current environment, where some projects still follow the traditional approach (e.g., construction/engineering), others use various iterative approaches, while others take a fully adaptive and agile approach?

Some core objectives are consistent across of all of these approaches. For example, they all use some form of schedule management to get the right people into the right place at the right time, adequately resourced to do the right work. However, the processes applied to accomplish this objective have very little in common. For example, resources are allocated to logically constrained activities by the planner in traditional critical path method scheduling, in agile resources choose which activities to include in their next “sprint.” Similar challenges exist across most, if not all, of the knowledge areas. Has creating processes that can work across all of the different delivery strategies become impossible?


Focusing on the next edition

This brings me to the second question. What should the next edition of the PMBOK® Guide look like?

  • One option would be to significantly increase its size to include many of the alternative approaches as discrete processes.
  • Another may be to produce different versions of the PMBOK® Guide for different approaches to managing projects, expanding on the concept of “industry extensions” that already exist. This may result in a smaller “core document” people could complement by adding on the appropriate extension, or a series of books with a common frame but different processes.
  • A radically different approach would be to create some form of intelligent web-based tool that offers viable combinations of processes across different knowledge areas based on previous decisions.

As our profession rapidly changes and diversifies, it remains central to the development of the world’s economy. So how do you think the PMBOK® Guide can best evolve to maintain its preeminent position as the global reference defining the management of projects?

Your answers will help inform my next post looking at managing the accelerating rate of change in our profession. 

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: January 15, 2019 04:08 PM | Permalink

Comments (19)

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Processes, in the narrowest definition, are things that can be fully coded and automated. This distinction is useful when you're considering some sort of automation.

The more accurate term for most project activities is that they are practices. There is some general agreement of what the inputs and outputs look like, but it is up to the individual and her style to convert input to output.

Further out is art. Inputs are not well defined and outputs are not well defined, either. The closer a project gets to strategy, the more likely it is that the work is best described as an art.

Your definition of 'process' is very limited:
Management processes are defined as: the methods that aid the structuring, investigation, analysis, decision-making, and communication of business issues. BPM, BPR, etc...

Project management processes do this in the project context. They are activities undertaken by people rather than some form of electrical, chemical or mechanical process. The PMBOK at page 22 explicitly recognizes this. However, this sort of definitional semantics does not deal with the posed questions .

Processes and their understanding is the key

good discussion....I don't have much to offer other than I think the Guide is already big enough

Yes, Lynda, you are correct that my definition is limited. I admitted that I was using a narrow definition in my posting.

However, it is not a wrong definition. And it is a semantic distinction that is rich with powerful implications for the present and future of project management. For one example, it could lead to a stabilization and even a shrinking of the ever-expanding scope of the PMBOK Guide. It could lead to a better discussion of the implications of artificial intelligence on the profession of project management. It could show the limitations of worshiping best practices and instead help managers recognize the value of healthy practices, emergent practices, and novel practices.

On the point of best practices, I will mention that there are legitimate places for them. However, that legitimacy is grounded in tightly-constrained and true processes such as a manufacturing assembly line. Your review of the history of process is very much reflective of an aging industrial-age paradigm that that has colonialized the thinking of many project managers.

I recognize that this line of argument is very-much out-of-the-box for traditional project management ideas. However and in keeping with your note on the dynamically-changing world, using overly expansive categories -- ones that miss the nuances of the real world -- are going to lead to an increasingly-irrelevant set of guiding ideas (standards).

Some readers may notice that I've made allusions to Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework.

To your more specific question of what to do with the PMBOK Guide, I would say shrink it radically. Rethink its industrial-age premises to find only the concepts that need to be legacy and preserved for future generations.

Great questions and observations, Lynda. I do not know it but I am confident that the team developing the next edition considers these and other ideas and constraints. Did you consider participating?

I was part of the core team for the last edition Thomas, its time for new people and ideas.

I am guessing that the average PM on this forum uses 10% of the material in the PMBOK Guide...a survey around usage and an application of the results might be useful....

e.g.: Monetary Value Analysis?....
Earned Value?....I have sees this used once in 40 years of projects,
Six Sigma?


One win that I saw coming out of the PMBOK Guide Sixth Edition publication was the simultaneous publication of the Agile Practice Guide. It seems appropriate to extend the model of the Agile Practice Guide’s creation and publication to other PM areas.

You wrote: “A radically different approach would be to create some form of intelligent web-based tool….”
My take: There’s only one direction for PMI to go here - up - given that the current PMI electronic publications are individual, locked PDF files. The ideal would be that the PMBOK Guide is fully online in a format that’s easy to access on web and mobile devices. Looking at the current documents, the Agile approach summary in each knowledge area could link out to the Agile Practice Guide, and vice versa. I am disappointed that this basic level of access doesn’t exist today, even for PMI members. But in short, there’s a great deal of potential for making standards more usable using web-based tools.

Also, calls for participation for standards development and related work need to be well-advertised and broad in order to bring in participants with different perspectives and new skill sets. If I saw such a posting, I'd likely volunteer.

Lynda Bourne/Thomas Walenta,

How does PMI select the team for creating the 7th edition of the PMBOK and other standards? I'm not saying I have the bandwidth or the requisite experience/qualifications to contribute--just curious!

Thanks in advance,

PMI seem to manage volunteer applications through your profile in the member's area of the website - depending on your selection, they email you. The standards part of the website also has information on various development teams and opportunities.

oh yeah....the chapter on procurement?....fixed price.....time and materials?....zzzzzz

Great observation, would also like to see if process and knowledge areas are explained with examples which will make it more interesting

As long as waterfall type projects exist (construction / engineering), the fundamental processes need to remain in the place to be the base line for a PM to tailor and use on a per project basis. Having other options (Agile, ect) available are great to use when / as needed. The next PMBOK needs to keep the long standing basics and include the other options available within the industry. Thank you for the great discussion!

PMBOK offered a guide for PMs to reference at any time while working in a project. The process groups, tools are all practical. Even though projects are of different nature, there is certainly some tools can be applied. Therefore the basics should be kept without a lot of changes. However, fine tuning of the processes and tools to better fit the changing environment is important. Just like in the sixth edition, agile components are added to it due to the changing project nature. As more companies face the issue with the connection between project teams and ongoing support/operation teams, I guess the next success factor for project will be integration of project to operations.

Thanks Lynda for bringing up this interesting discussion.

I particularly like Alan Cornish's suggestion (following on your idea) of making the PMBOK content available live online, with more linkage between sections (there seems to be very little hypertext links in the 6th edition pdf).

I agree with him that making the guide's content more online accessible and usable would be a big step forward.

Thanks everyone for your comments, my second post on this subject will be sent to PMI in the next couple of days.

Some excellent questions and answers- commenting to follow the thread as it develops. My only comment would be that you can have everything you mention and it doesn’t need to be an either/or situation. Also, processes are just an abstract concept in my opinion.

Just announced by PMI: Learn How PMI Standards Are Transforming

PMI standards are transforming. The first standards product to undergo transformation is A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), which includes The Standard for Project Management. Past versions of the standard were developed with a process focus, but the next version will take a principles-based approach. Principles consist of statements that capture and summarize generally accepted objectives for the practice of project management and its core functions. For example, “the project team tailors its delivery approach to the unique characteristics of the project” might be one principle.

Another significant change with this edition of the PMBOK® Guide is that the guide will take a systems view of project management. A systems view recognizes that projects represent a system of interacting, interrelated and interdependent performance domains that form a unified whole.

A workshop is scheduled for the PMI® Global Conference, where attendees will be able to interact with early concepts for the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition.

The tools and techniques for applying the principles within the performance domains will be hosted on a new interactive digital content platform. This will allow for constantly expanding depth and breadth of content to assist practitioners in their daily practice. All of the content is fully vetted with a team of volunteer subject matter experts.

An alpha prototype, known as Standards Plus, is a functioning platform that includes diverse content types by industry and project management approach, as well as keyword search and filtering features. Attendees at the PMI Global Conference will be able to interact with the prototype and provide feedback to inform ongoing development.

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