PM Articles > Carl Pritchard > In Defense of the Project Management "Perfect World"

In Defense of the Project Management "Perfect World"

by Carl Pritchard, PMP, EVP

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 realize 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 organizations, 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 recognizes 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 organizations. 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 organization.
  • 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 Defense Contract Management Agency report that cited the huge defense 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 organizations 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 organizations 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 organizations around the world. He welcomes comments at or

PMI® and PMP® are all registered trademarks of the Project Management Institute of Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Until Copernicus came along, a lot of effort was spent on developing increasingly sophisticated models to show how all the stars and planets revolved around the earth. This was the "ideal", and the observed facts had to be made to fit it. As it turned out, however, the "ideal" was wrong and didn't match the real world.
We shouldn't automatically discount those who question the real world value of current PM methodologies unless we have solid, research-based evidence that these techniques or tools really are "best practice". In the project world, it is virtually impossible to run controlled experiments to prove that doing - or omitting - something really makes a difference in project results, so we often rely on common sense, anecdotal evidence, or the assumption that correlation equals causation to justify the use of a process. Just because successful organizations are doing something, doesn't necessarily mean that it is really adding value for the project organization or, especially, for the client.
So let's continue to question and demand evidence that what we're doing really does work.

When I was working on my MBA, I once told my professor that this business class was too theoretical. I have been in the business world for 20 years and this is not what is happening out there. His response mirrored what you have said in this article. He said if you don't know what the "Ideal" condition is, you will not be aware of how to strive to attain it.
I certainly agree with PMI on this subject.

Excellent article, well-stated and supported points.

There are many theoretical frameworks for project management, quality, general management, etc. I'm convinced that above a particular threshold, all of them are nearly equally valid.

The important thing is that you embrace a theoretical framework that can be used to guide strategic and tactical decisions. It doesn't really matter if it's a pure form from the original source, or a modified version, etc.

Josh Nankivel

A very good article giving strength to certified PMP and Quality professionals. I believe that while following a framework of best practices, the processes should be flexible enough to accomodate the project obectives and critical parameters/priorities for each individual project. When the project is able to tailor the process from the organizational asset repository, and pick up the set of best practices appropriate to its critical parameters, better efficiency can be acheived. Most often, it is time constraint and bulk of documentation which bothers the management, clients as well as the team. Following tips may also be helpful
a. Involving clients in the kich-off or milestone meetings and educating them proudly on the corporate standards and best practices
b. Growing the PM asset repository with suitable templates and project documentation from the past and re-using assets
c. Minimizing documentation while complying to the standards, where it can be helped.

Quality Professional & Certified CMMI ATM

Hi Carl,
It is funny to hear that folks still insist that PMBOK Guide practices represent the "perfect world". Do they really believe that an industry standard that comes out every five years represents best practices or the "perfect world"?

If so, they're in for a rude surprise w/r/t customer expectations. For our organization, PMBOK-based practices are simply the foundation for our minimum standards.


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