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In Defence of the Project Management "Perfect World"

~ By Carl Pritchard

Team of people circle the earth solving problems

One of the most common challenge questions I get when teaching PMP Exam Preparation courses is "Why doesn't PMI make the test more real-world? Why do they insist on testing for a world that no-one really lives in?" Over the years, my response to that question has evolved, but the more the question comes along, the more I realise we don't insist on the perfect world often enough.

At different times in history, there must have been push-back on any variety of steps forward in human progress. Some folks found the notion of indoor plumbing repulsive. (You'd actually do that? In your house?) Seat belts were seen as clothes-rumpling traps that might pin us in the car in an accident. Thomas Watson, when president of IBM, said, I think there's a world market for about five computers.

We look at a different world, a future, perfect world, because it is where the promise is. Science fiction is a popular genre in movies and books because it opens the eyes to what is possible. Since I was in my teens (quite a few years back), I've seen movies featuring flying cars. Do we have them? No. Do I hope we do some day? Sure! Is there some scientist somewhere trying to make it happen? I certainly hope so. We step into the future thanks to people who envision the world as it could be.

On the project management certification exam, many of the questions focus on an understanding of the world as it should be in project management. A few examples:

  • Senior management writes and signs chartering documents.
  • Procurement departments deliver what we ask for in a timely fashion and help us craft better contracts.
  • Human Resources departments provide skilled resources on demand with the properly qualified skill sets.
  • Management understands that range estimates are more honest and realistic than single-data-point estimates.

Is this the world as it is? In most organisations, no. And yet, if you hope to pass the premier certification in project management, this is where you need to be. Does that make the exam wrong? No! In fact, it means that the professional association of project managers recognises that there is, out there, as Ronald Reagan put it, a shining city on a hill. There is an ideal. There is a standard to which we should try to hold our organisations. There can be better and more effective project management if we are willing to acknowledge that business as usual is not business as it should be.

Suppose the certification exam's "perfect world" started becoming reality. The changes in the project management environment would be dramatic.

  • Every project would have a clear business case and a defined priority within the organisation.
  • Resources would be respected when they provide estimates, rather than forced to create padded estimates that hide reality.
  • Risk contingency budgets would be overt, with clear tracking systems for when they're drawn down upon.
  • There would be a consistent moment in time when project managers would answer Microsoft Project's "save with a baseline?" question in the affirmative.

In the June 4, 2008 Washington Post, the front page of the newspaper included an article by Dana Hedgpeth about Lockheed Martin and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). POGO had unearthed a Defence Contract Management Agency report that cited the huge defence contractor for failing to track and manage their projects properly. The article specifically called out failings in earned value management systems.

Lockheed got the attention because of the leviathan proportions of their contracts with the government. But how many smaller, leaner organisations are guilty of the same shortcomings? The argument is made that earned value and other rigid, rigorous processes of project management are too weighty. It's suggested that they're not worth the return. I doubt very much that Lockheed would agree right now. Rework is almost invariably more expensive than doing it right the first time.

Which brings us back around to PMI, the certification, and the perfect world. What good is a certification that says that every process needs to be followed every time in a consistent fashion? It sounds very good to me. And it also provides a jumping-off point to take steps toward that perfect world. As more and more organisations demand certifications, they afford the perfect response to management seeking to shortcut process.

  • Management: Stop bothering the client with all of those change orders for little stuff. We're building goodwill here!
  • Certified manager: It's part of best-practice process.
  • Management: It's not best practice if it costs us a client!
  • Certified manager: If everyone is consistent, it won't.
  • Management: But everyone's not consistent.
  • Certified manager: You're telling them all to get certified to make them consistent. And the certification exam says we do this consistently, with the paperwork.

Granted, too many conversations like that and you wind up working on your resume, but…

The point is that we need to acknowledge that PMI and the other certifying bodies are working toward an environment where we have consistent best practice. They have to test to the ideal, or else the ideal will never be achieved. In working on the team to generate the fourth edition of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, I was occasionally surprised to hear arguments about real-world versus perfect-world project management within that group. As an ANSI standard, that book needs to reflect the ideal environment for project success. And that's an environment we should all strive to embrace.


Carl Pritchard is the lead chapter author for the Risk Management chapter of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fourth Edition with a release scheduled in late 2008, early 2009. He teaches risk management and PMP exam preparation in public session and for organisations around the world. He welcomes comments at carl@carlpritchard.com or www.carlpritchard.com


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