Ultra Agile
Aligning PMOs using Game Theory

PMBOK Guide: Highway Code or Highway Map?

PMBOK Guide Most people studied the Highway Code before taking their drivers licence exam. They had to learn (enough of) it to pass the exam, but then most likely did not reference it again, except until helping a friend study for the exam. Maps on the other hand, in printed paper form, or digital like GPS, are referenced much more frequently. Maps help us plan, track progress, and get to our destinations and we refer to them often when travelling anywhere new.

So, is the PMBOK Guide like the Highway Code or a map? Do we only read it to pass our PMP exam and then it gathers dust, maybe picked up again to lend to a friend? I think for many this is the case. Maybe for the first couple of projects, people may refer to it for guidance on how to undertake a task or process, but just a soon as people have a few real world examples they no longer refer to the guide.

Recently I have spent hours revisiting Chapter 6, the Time Management chapter as part of the PMBOK Guide v5 update. It has got me thinking about “who reads this stuff?” and I expect mainly people studying for the PMP exam. So maybe some jokes would be in order, to lighten up the learning experience? “We now break from 6.4 Estimate Activity Durations to tell you about the two project managers who walked into a bar…” but I somehow think this would not get past the review committees and proof readers.

Because many people find exams stressful and unpleasant we tend to lump things associated with that stressful experience as unpleasant also. If you pick up a Highway Code book from a dusty bookcase many years after passing your test and leaf through it, it can bring back emotions of learning about road signs and stopping distances. I wonder if this is why many people never return to the PMBOK Guide, too many stressful memories.

So could the PMBOK Guide be more like a map, a useful resource we return to time after time before planning our project journey? How would it need to change, maybe with some checklists and how-to steps? Yet, for an industry agnostic guide aiming to apply to construction projects, IT, and bio science, how could these guides apply beyond the most generic items?

Instead, maybe we develop 50 PMBOK Guides, one for each of the major project types and then you could use the one closest to your domain. Although, given the debate around creating one PMBOK Guide I shudder to think about creating 50. Regardless, I would love to hear your thoughts on how to improve the PMBOK Guide.

The process of creating the PMBOK Guide v5 is really long going through 2011 and 2012 before the edition is out. So I need a way to stay energised. If jokes are out and how-to steps unworkable, what is left? I recently read about a student who hid Rick Astley lyrics in a college paper. Maybe some subliminal hidden humour might work, sounds like I have plenty of time to develop it…

Or maybe move the PMBOK Guide forward a little, beyond a paper book. Perhaps not as much as a collaborative wiki of PM practices, case studies and examples. I tried that with the APLN Leadership Wiki of Knowledge and failed to gain traction. Maybe that was too ambitious, perhaps most project managers would be happier with 1990’s technology. How about resurrecting Clippy in Microsoft Word to help project managers with their everyday tasks?
  PMBOK Clippy

Hmm, Perhaps the hours of conference calls on the PMBOK Guide might finally be getting to me!



The PMBOK needs fewer lists and more context. It's amazing to me how some of the statements can seem so overcrafted and precise yet they are actually quite vague—it's hard to pin down exactly what the sentence is saying. It's like the authors are so afraid that an example won't be exactly relevant to everyone so they avoid examples at all costs. I think your idea of a wiki, or at least a hypertext version that offers more information about specific concepts or examples of sound implementations of concepts would be very useful!


Let me be the devil's advocate. Is the PMBOK still relevant, other than as an examination study guide?

Given the variety of opportunities we all have to learn of project practices and methods through blogs, webinars, other study guides, and our own networks ('social' or 'traditional'), one could ask - Why would a project manager pick up the PMBOK?

Aside from its power as an international standard (which is debatable), if it's only updated every 3-4 years, and does not contain specific examples or application to particular fields, it's an uphill battle to make it a daily reference tool for legions of project managers globally.

I hazard a guess that by 2012 the Communities of Practice online at PMI will have gained a lot of traction, and will be looked to as a main source of best practices and recommendations from a broad swatch of practicing professionals.

Mike Griffiths

Hi Mike,

Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. Given the PMBOK Guide is the basis for the CAPM and PMP exams I think it will always have a prominent place in PM market, but like you say could well get supplanted to some extent by online resources. The quicker updating possible for online resources would be good for keeping things fresh but might be a problem for people studying for their exam!


Roman Heill


I think your analysis of PMBOK is extremly accurate - my personal copy of the PMBOK has been sitting on the shelf for two years now, which is when I did my PMP.
I'd like to see the PMBOK move into a "head first-like" learning experience as it would boost the usability of the book.


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