What’s New in Project Management

by Matt Wickey

I recently attended a conference on agile software development. It was a well-attended event with interesting breakout sessions and renowned keynote speakers. There were talks on radical management techniques, post-agile software delivery methodologies and related experiences “from the trenches.” All of this was interesting but one of the most interesting tidbits I picked up there was that PMI now offers an agile project management certification.

What is PMI you ask? It is the Project Management Institute—the organization that provides the primary professional certification for project managers. This certification, called the Project Management Professional (or PMP) is the acknowledged gold standard for professional project managers in a number of fields.

To be fair, PMP certification is not required to be a successful project manager. And the PMP certification process is not as rigorous as for other professional certifications like that of a CPA. But it does convey an understanding of a body of knowledge that represents the current state of the art in project management. In fact, the knowledge required to pass the PMP exam is called the Project Management Body of Knowledge or PMBOK.

The history of PMP certification is that it was meant to promote the application and standardization of project management techniques across the industries where this type of management is beneficial. Software development is one of these industries—but so is building construction. One unintended consequence of this standardization is that, for years, software projects were executed a lot like building projects where the required steps are performed in a well-defined, sequential order. This is the old waterfall model we all know and love.

It’s not that the waterfall model is bad per se. It still does perform very well in the construction industry where project steps are well defined and the sequential order is necessary. However, the experience with waterfall projects in the software world is quite spotty and is highlighted with projects that run long, bust budgets and under deliver functionality. Let me be clear, there is nothing in the PMI certification regimen that dictates the waterfall methodology must be employed. But, for whatever reason, the image of PMP project managers leading waterfall software projects is engrained in the minds of many in the software community.

On the other hand, agile software development methods are seen as the antithesis of waterfall and, in turn, to the PMP. It pays to remember that agile techniques were developed by software developers for software developers. They are rooted in the belief that if managers (especially project managers) get out of the way and let software teams do their best work, then software will be created more quickly, it will be of higher quality and it will be more in line with the desires of the users. More generally, agile software methods (Scrum for example) codify the belief that project managers do more harm than good. In fact, Scrum projects are designed to work without project managers. There is the role of a Scrum Master. But, as someone who has performed both roles, I can tell you they aren’t the same thing.

So, all this history takes me back to when I first found out the PMI is now offering a PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) SM certification. I see this as something akin to dogs announcing that they want to be more cat-like. I can tell you for sure there are many agile software developers who have no interest in certifications or project managers at all. So how is it that PMI can figure that offering an agile certification will fit its mission? Aren’t they polar opposites?

This offering by PMI is a combination of two themes, one purely pragmatic and one that is in keeping with their mission.

From the pragmatic standpoint, even PMI admits that the majority of software development organizations today are, to some extent, agile. In fact, the advent of these methods is recognition that software projects and building projects are not the same. And, since software is one of the core industries served by PMI, there is no way the organization could ignore the agile revolution and remain current. In other words, PMI is offering an agile certification because they have to. Without it, they would become irrelevant in the eyes of the software community as a whole.

As for the mission, remember the PMBOK that represents the Project Management Body of Knowledge? When studying this, it is explicitly stated that this body of knowledge is not static. And no one version of this book will represent all there is to know about project management forever. Project management is a dynamic field where new techniques evolve and the body of knowledge must evolve as well so that it always represents the state of the art. As such, PMI is adding an agile offering because it is part of their core mission to do so. To continue to deliver value to their constituents, they cannot ignore a movement as significant as agile.

For me, the interesting question is where will PMI go from here? Will these agile methods migrate from a secondary certification to part of the PMBOK as a whole? Could the PMBOK make these changes and still adequately represent cross-industry project management? Or are agile methods so distinctly software-based that they must diverge and form a new “software only” PMBOK? What we’re watching is the evolution of project management before our very eyes. I, for one, am interested to see where this will all lead.

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