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Will PMBOK Ever Be Compatible With Agile?

Will PMBOK ever be compatible With Agile? For the past 5-10 years, I’ve been working on developing an Agile Project Management curriculum. This started out as a graduate-level Agile Project Management course at Boston University and then morphed into a full, seven-course training curriculum that is now offered on two different training platforms plus a variation on those courses offered on Pluralsight. 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
Will PMBOK ever be compatible with Agile?

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:

  • Tacit Knowledge – is “intuitive knowledge and know-how
  • 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. Agile relies more heavily on tacit knowledge:

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

Why Is There Such a Big Difference?

That doesn’t mean that PMBOK is bad and Agile is good which is an inference that many people might jump to. Neither one is inherently good or bad and each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment you’re in. They are just based on two very different process control models:

  • PMBOK is heavily associated with traditional, plan-driven project management which is based on a Defined Process Control Model
  • Agile is a more flexible and adaptive approach and is based on an empirical process control model

Defined Process Control Models

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 Model

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

Empirical Process Control Models

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 Model

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 to make PMBOK(R) more compatible with adaptive project management approaches:

  • PMBOK(R) version 6 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 “Agile Practice Guide” which has a little bit more mention of Agile but is still limited

Almost anything can be adapted to a different purpose but that doesn’t mean it is really optimized for that purpose. Extending PMBOK to be a single knowledge base to cover both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management would be very difficult because of the differences between explicit and tacit knowledge. It 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. For that reason, patching up PMBOK(R) to make it more “Agile” is not likely to be very successful. Agile is a different way of thinking, in my opinion and addressing Agile in a separate document such as the PMI Agile Practice Guide is probably the best solution.

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