I am in the midst of a PMP prep examination these days, diving deeper into the project PMI’s methodology for project management than I ever have before. Despite more than a decade of working on nothing but project & program teams, I’ve never gone after PMI certification.
True to my affinity for Lean thinking, I don’t put much stock in these type of certifications. The class is bearing out that the intent is simply to pass the test, not build better project managers. Everything is about the test, the test, the test – and there is very little about the development of the principles taught and how they came about. Just. Pass. The. Test. The test is also intentionally deceptive – minor turns of a phrase mean different things in “PMI Land” as the instructors like to call it. A big part of passing the exam is tuning your eye to catch these clever little interpretations and usages – a skill which is useful for only 1 project: passing the test.
It is easy to understand why so many fellow students get frustrated and jokingly state that the exam does not reflect reality. Unfortunately, what seems to get lost, is that it’s not supposed to.
As I study the guidebooks for this class that are introducing us all to the PMI concepts, I am harking back to my Lean training and the years I’ve spent contemplating Operational Excellence through my writings on this blog. In my mind are the oft-repeated Lean-thinking mantras: “Theory guides practice” and “There can be no improvement without a standard.” Thank you, Dr. Deming and Mr. Shingo (and, please, OpEx gurus out there – correct me if I am quoting them wrong.)
I feel lucky to have the benefit of my time spent trying to understand the Lean paradigm because it is offering so much insight into what the PMI framework is trying to do. It is establishing a standard. It is offering a methodology for managing projects against which all other management styles, and outcomes, can be measured. In a way, it depicts the ideal – if all projects, everywhere, operated in the way the PMI describes, then all projects would deliver on time, within budget, and with inputs from all stakeholders at every level of the organization – including customers.
Is that reality? No. Of course not. If the standard was reality, there’d be no need to set up a test for it. A standard is not meant to depict reality. What it does do, however, is give us an ideal scenario against which to judge and measure the current state. How far from this standard are we? Did we make an intelligent deviation, based on detailed analyses of how our environment differs from that depicted in the standard, or did we simply throw up our hands and say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it?” (Or words to that effect, such as “I’ve never seen that” or “That just won’t work here.”)
When theory doesn’t match reality, there are 2 options: Change the theory to match reality, or change reality to match the theory. Those who argue the PMI framework just isn’t reality will be the ones trying to change theory in order to better align with their expectations – nearly all of which demonstrate a daunting tolerance for inefficiency & waste. On the other hand, if you accept that the “theory” is really just a depiction of the ideal – you instantaneously give yourself something to work towards. It is the “true north” of the program & project management world – to have a perfectly managed, documented, planned, monitored, tracked and executed set of activities that are completely understood and performed by all stakeholders.
My advice for those who are poo-pooing the PMI framework as nothing more than an academic exercise designed to pass a test (which, to some extent, it is), is to think of the methods provided within the framework a bit differently. The tools and techniques they teach are not a set of instructions on how to effectively manage projects. Think of them, instead, as a depiction of a perfect universe – and use that depiction to begin thinking about the gaps between your current reality and the PMI’s idealized scenarios.