Will PMBOK Ever Be Compatible With Agile?

I’ve been working with Boston University and a number of other universities on developing an Agile Project Management curriculum. In developing a curriculum like this, there are two aspects of the work to be done:

  1. Synthesizing or developing the body of knowledge that you need to communicate, and
  2. Designing the course materials to teach that body of knowledge

If the body of knowledge associated with Agile Project Management were available in some well-documented form like PMBOK(R) that integrated both traditional plan-driven project management knowledge with Agile, the task of developing a course to teach that body of knowledge would be much easier, but I’m not sure if the body of knowledge associated with Agile Project Management will ever exist in that form.

Some books have attempted to map PMBOK(R) to Agile principles and practices (Michelle Sliger’s Book, “The Software Manager’s Bridge to Agility” is an example). Although you can make some general comparisons, it’s like comparing apples and oranges, in my opinion – there may be some similarities, but the whole philosophy behind PMBOK(R) is very different from the philosophy behind an Agile approach which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to combine the two. Here’s why:

The Difference Between Explicit and Tacit Knowledge

PMBOK and Agile are based on two very different approaches to knowledge management:

    • Explicit Knowledge – is “codified knowledge found in documents, databases, etc.”
    • PMBOK relies very heavily on explicit knowledge – it attempts to codify a checklist of things to consider in almost every conceivable project management situation

    • Tacit Knowledge – is “intuitive knowledge and know-how, which is:
      • “Rooted in context, experience, practice, and values”
      • “Hard to communicate – it resides in the mind of the practitioner”
      • “The best source of long-term competitive advantage and innovation”
      • “Is passed on through socialization, mentoring, etc.” – it is not handled well by systems that try to document and codify that knowledge.
      • Agile takes a very different approach which is more consistent with tacit knowledge – instead of providing a detailed comprehensive checklist of things to consider in a broad range of different situations, Agile provides some general, higher level principles and values that need to be interpreted in the context of the situation.

“Source: KMT – An Educational KM Site, http://www.knowledge-management-tools.net/different-types-of-knowledge.html

The Difference Between a Defined Process Model and an Empirical Process Model

That doesn’t mean that PMBOK is bad and Agile is good which is an inference that many people might jump to. That’s like saying “a car is better than a boat”. Neither one is inherently good or bad and each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment you’re in. An explicit knowledge approach such as PMBOK is very consistent with a “defined process model”. A “defined process model” looks something like this:

Defined Process

The characteristics of a defined process are:

  • The process is repeatable and doesn’t change from one project to the next
  • The process is predictable – given a similar set of inputs, it should produce a predictable set of outputs

Agile is based on more of a tacit knowledge approach which is more consistent with an empirical process model which looks something like this:

Empirical Process

The process is intended to be adaptive to fit the situation based on continuous improvement and learning. Scrum is a good example of an empirical process model.

Can PMBOK Be Modified to Integrate Agile Thinking?

There have been some attempts recently to make PMBOK(R) more compatible with adaptive project management approaches:

  • PMBOK(R) version 5 which has been released incorporates some more inclusion of adaptive thinking but it is still heavily oriented around a plan-driven approach
  • PMI(R) has introduced the “Software Extensions to the PMBOK(R) Guide” which has a little bit more mention of Agile but is still limited

I participated in a LinkedIn discussion group some time ago where someone made the comment that PMBOK was very adaptive to an agile approach and challenged me to defend why that was not so. My response was that almost anything can be adapted to a different purpose but that doesn’t mean it is really optimized for that purpose. I could say a piece of sheet metal is adaptable to be used for writing a book because I can write on it like a piece of paper but is it really optimized for that purpose? (I don’t think so) Extending PMBOK to be a single knowledge base to cover both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management would be like modifying a car so that it could also be used as a speed boat. You might be able to do it, but the results are not likely to be very optimal.

Patching up PMBOK(R) to make it more “Agile” is likely to have significant limits for that reason. Agile is a different way of thinking, in my opinion – it acknowledges that we don’t know everything we need to know and puts an emphasis on rapid and adaptive learning.

Will PMBOK® Ever Be Compatible With Agile?

Some books have attempted to map PMBOK(R) to Agile principles and practices (Michelle Sliger’s Book, “The Software Manager’s Bridge to Agility” is an example). Although you can make some general comparisons, it’s like comparing apples and oranges, in my opinion – there may be some similarities, but the whole philosophy behind PMBOK(R) is very different from an Agile approach.

The Difference Between Explicit and Tacit Knowledge

I had an interesting discussion recently with some colleagues I’ve been working with at Boston University on the difference between “explicit” knowledge and “tacit” knowledge. Here’s a good definition of these two different kinds of knowledge:

    • Explicit Knowledge – is “codified knowledge found in documents, databases, etc.”
    • Tacit Knowledge – is “intuitive knowledge and know-how, which is:
      • “Rooted in context, experience, practice, and values”
      • “Hard to communicate – it resides in the mind of the practitioner”
      • “The best source of long-term competitive advantage and innovation”
      • “Is passed on through socialization, mentoring, etc.” – it is not handled well by systems that try to document and codify that knowledge.

“Source: KMT – An Educational KM Site, http://www.knowledge-management-tools.net/different-types-of-knowledge.html

This site goes on to define another category of knowledge called “embedded” knowledge which is defined as follows:

    • Embedded knowledge – “refers to the knowledge that is locked in processes, products, culture, routines, artifacts, or structures (Horvath 2000, Gamble & Blackwell 2001). Knowledge is embedded either formally, such as through a management initiative to formalize a certain beneficial routine, or informally as the organization uses and applies the other two knowledge types.”

Can PMBOK Be Modified to Integrate Agile Thinking?

I really believe that we need to take a broader view of what “Project Management” is that embraces and integrates Agile as a legitimate form of project management along with the traditional plan-driven approaches to project management that have been prevalent for such a long time; however, patching up PMBOK(R) to make it more “Agile” is probably not the best way to achieve that objective. There have been some attempts recently to make PMBOK(R) more compatible with adaptive project management approaches rather than being primarily written around a plan-driven approach to project management:

  • PMBOK(R) version 5 which has been recently released incorporates some more inclusion of adaptive thinking but it is still heavily oriented around a plan-driven approach
  • PMI(R) has recently introduced the “Software Extensions to the PMBOK(R) Guide” which has a little bit more mention of Agile but not much

However, the fundamental problem is that the whole concept behind PMBOK(R) is not very compatible with an Agile or adaptive approach.

  • PMBOK(R) is clearly based on the idea of “explicit” knowledge – it is based on the idea that you can codify a “checklist” of the things you need to do or consider in almost every imaginable project management situation.
  • Agile is based much more on the idea of tacit knowledge – instead of attempting to define an explicit checklist of things to do or consider in every possible situation, Agile tends to define some very broad-based principles, values, and practices that you need to interpret in the context of the situation you’re in.
  • Agile also uses the idea of “embedded knowledge” by embedding knowledge in some widely used Agile processes such as Scrum.

These are very different approaches to how knowledge is managed and attempting to patch PMBOK(R) to make it more “Agile” is probably futile for that reason. The implication of this is that if PMBOK(R) is supposed to be the single repository for everything you could ever want to know about project management; it will be difficult, if not impossible to fully extend it to include Agile as a legitimate form of project management.

Agile is a different way of thinking, in my opinion – it acknowledges that we don’t know everything we need to know and puts an emphasis on rapid and adaptive learning. We live in a different world today. In my last post on “The Future of Project Management“, I provided some references on how the pace of adoption of new technology has changed very rapidly. I really think it will be difficult for a document like PMBOK(R) to keep pace with that rate of change and the whole concept behind PMBOK(R) and the role it plays in defining project management principles and practices needs some significant rethinking, in my opinion.

The Future of Project Management

What is the impact of Agile on the future of the Project Management profession?

  • Does it mean that project managers who are heavily trained in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management will become obsolete over some period of time?
  • What do project managers need to do to adjust their career direction to adapt to the future direction of project management?

I believe that the project management profession is at a major turning point that requires broadening our view of what “project management” is and reshaping the direction of the project management profession for the future to fully embrace and integrate both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as complementary approaches within an overall project management portfolio.

Project Management History

To understand the transformation that is going on, its useful to look at the history of project management and how we got to where we are today:

  • Early History – Project Management could probably be considered to be one of the world’s oldest professions. Think of the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China. The level of “project management” at that time may have been very crude and they probably didn’t call it “project management” at all but large efforts like that don’t just happen without some kind of planning and organization behind them. In the US, the development of the Transcontinental Railway in the late 1800’s is another example of a very large effort that had to have some kind of planning and organization behind it.
  • Scientific Management Approach – Around the turn of the century, along came Frederick Taylor and his co-worker, Henry Gantt. Frederick Taylor started developing new theories on how to organize workers and Henry Gantt created his famous Gantt Charts to describe the order of operations in work.
  • World War II and the 50’s and 60’s – World War II resulted in the Manhattan project which was another huge effort and the 1950’s and 1960’s had more large scale efforts such as the Polaris missile program and the Apollo program to put a man on the moon. PERT and CPM were invented and then in 1969, PMI was founded.

What’s Next? and Why Now?

The general approach for doing project management hasn’t changed significantly since that time and the big question is “What’s next?” and also “Why Now?” Has the project management profession reached its peak or is there yet another major phase of growth that is just beginning to take place? I believe it is the latter. Here’s why I believe it there is some level of urgency to rethink the way we think about “project management” – the diagram below shows how the adoption rate of new technologies has changed over the last century.

Trends

“Source: Mulbrandon, Catherine, Visualizing Economics – Adoption of New Technology Since 1900, http://visualizingeconomics.com/blog/2008/02/18/adoption-of-new-technology-since-1900

This data only goes through 2005, but you can be sure this trend hasn’t slowed down since then. (Think of how quickly smartphones have evolved as an example) This rapid proliferation of new technology calls for a new approach to project management – the traditional, heavily plan-driven approaches of the past can’t keep pace with the speed that technology is changing in many areas.

This dynamic and rapidly changing environment calls for a more adaptive project management approach but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to throw out everything we’ve learned about traditional, plan-driven project management and start over again but it does create some significant challenges for individual project managers and for the project management profession, as a whole.

What’s the Impact on Project Managers?

This “raises the bar” for project managers significantly:

  • In the past, if you had a PMP certificate, that was as far as you needed to go for many project management roles.
  • PMI has now created the Agile Certified Professional (ACP) certification and that’s not an easy certification to get, but that’s only the beginning, in my opinion.
  • I think the ACP exam is good certification but it doesn’t go far enough. It is really mostly a test of terminology – it doesn’t really test whether you know how to integrate Agile and traditional project management principles and practices in the right proportions to fit a given situation and that’s the real challenge for project managers, in my opinion.
  • A good Agile Project Manager also needs to be a strong cross-functional leader – he/she cannot be just a coordinator or administrator. That means he/she needs to have some credible knowledge of the functions included in the project.

What Needs to be Done to Address These Challenges?

This is a huge challenge to transform the project management profession and broaden our thinking of what a “project manager” is and it will take some time. However, I believe that the alternative of ignoring these trends and continuing to think of a project manager in the narrow context of someone who only does traditional, plan-driven project management approaches will seriously degrade and undermine the project management profession over time. Here’s what I think needs to be done to address this challenge:

  • The first step in any twelve step program is to acknowledge that we have a problem – we cannot deny the impact of Agile on the project management profession and think that traditional, plan-driven project management approaches as we know them will go on forever and Agile is just a fad that will go away.
  • There are many stereotypes about what traditional project management is and about what Agile is that we need to overcome and change our thinking to see both Agile and traditional project management approaches as complementary to each other rather than competitive.
  • We have to better define and develop the concept of what an “Agile Project Manager” is and better define the role that an “Agile Project Manager” might play. In my view, an “Agile Project Manager” is not someone who only does Agile projects; it is someone who has a deep knowledge of both Agile and traditional plan-driven principles and practices and knows how to blend them together in the right proportions to fit a given situation.
  • We need to develop training programs and resources to help project managers reach the goal of becoming an “Agile Project Manager”.
  • Project Managers are a product of the environment that they work in. For example, many project managers take a heavily plan-driven approach to controlling costs and schedules of a project because that’s what their organizations expect of them. To change the behavior of project managers, we change the expectations of what companies expect of project managers and that can require some significant changes in organizational culture.

How I’m Trying to Help

I am very passionate about this because I believe it is critical to the future of the project management profession. Here are some of the things I’m doing to try to help project managers address these challenges:

  • I’ve developed a new graduate-level course on Agile Project Management that will be offered at Boston University this Fall
  • I am currently finalizing a new book called “The Art and Practice of Agile Project Management” that should be published in the Fall that will be used as a textbook in the BU course and can also be used by other universities to develop a similar curriculum.
  • I’ve just started doing seminars and workshops with PMI Chapters to make project managers aware of this challenge. I can also work with project managers on corporate seminars and workshops as needed to help address some of the cultural changes that are needed to address these challenges.

I would be happy to make some of the materials I’ve developed available to PMI Chapters to address these challenges. Feel free to contact me if I can be of help.