People, Process, and Business: Why the Linear Approach to Project Management is Outdated

  • 13 July, 2022

For many years, project managers approached the project management lifecycle the same way we would climb a staircase: one step at a time, completing each step before moving on to the next. Project managers have always been known to be methodical, deliberate, and task focused. While this remains a pillar of good project management, the world is changing.

As project environments become global, digitally focused, and increasingly complex, the solely linear approach to project management has become outdated. Often, projects do not follow a "straight line" to success. They may circle back or revisit previous steps or work on multiple things at once. If projects were managed in a way that meant every step was done individually, it would be agonizing to get complex projects done in a timely manner.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) has taken note of this. In their commitment to ensuring that project managers adapt to changing needs, PMI have revised the exam to reflect the ever-changing environment. While the process groups in the project life cycle (Initiating, Planning, Monitoring & Controlling, and Closing) are still emphasized and important to project success, the exam no longer revolves around asking a certain number of questions in each process group. The exam is now focused on three areas: People, Process, and Business Environment.

The 2021 update to the PMP exam was by far the most drastic update in the near 40 years that the certification has been issued. What did the shift in the exam's focus accomplish for project-oriented work? Let's take a look at each of the three exam domains and get a better understanding of how they work in tandem with the project lifecycle.

People, Process, and Business: Why the Linear Approach to Project Management is Outdated

1. Context: Understanding Different Project Management Approaches

This concept is covered in depth on other blog posts, but it is worth providing a brief overview of project management approaches. In order to understand the context of a changing global landscape, the introduction and adoption of agile methodologies are important. Much of the reason for the shift in the PMI mindset has to do with the widespread adoption of agile approaches to project management. The PMP exam, up until 2021, tested knowledge of predictive project environments only. Agile or hybrid projects were not considered. In the revised exam, about half of the questions are on predictive project environments, while the other half cover agile or predictive environments. That is a significant difference and changes the structure of the whole exam.

In short, we no longer live in a world where projects can always be approached in a "plan everything, and then do everything" mindset. Note that this may still apply sometimes; however, it is no longer an assumption. Agile and hybrid projects, by their nature, must consistently revisit their goals and objectives in order to achieve desired outcomes.

2. People

The first domain or knowledge area of the new PMP exam is People, which comprises 42% of total exam questions. If you have heard this phrase before, feel free to roll your eyes along with me: "herding cats is the new currency of project management." If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me that a project manager is a professional cat-herder... well, let's just say that I would have more than one nickel.

Despite our potential annoyance with the phrasing of the activity, there is no denying that project managers spend a lot of time making sure that everyone is on the same page. Communication is considered to be one of, if not the most important aspect of successfully managing a project. Project Managers can only successfully do their jobs if they are:

  • Guiding stakeholders and sponsors to a collective project vision;
  • Mitigating and resolving conflicts;
  • Building a healthy and uplifting team environment; and
  • Providing exceptional servant leadership to people across the organization.

Outside of these examples, there are a plethora of activities that project managers do on a daily basis to ensure that the people on a project have their needs and expectations met.

It must be acknowledged that the act of managing people happens across all five project process groups. As you become more familiar with project management, you will quickly notice that you cannot accomplish very much on a project without great communication skills. A people-focused approach to project management allows PMs to think dynamically about what is best for the project. Here are some examples:

  • If a new stakeholder needs to be added to the project, perhaps some tasks from the initiating or planning process groups would be appropriate to follow.
  • If half of the project team are finishing Phase 1 of the project while half of the team begins planning for Phase 2, tasks from both the Planning & Closing stage of the project will need to be followed to ensure effective communication amongst the team and stakeholders.

Many members of the team may be focused on different activities during the project's duration, which is why it is impossible to fit the "People" domain of the exam neatly into a box and assign a process group to it. You will be tested holistically on all areas of the exam.

3. Process

The next domain or knowledge area of the new PMP exam is Process, which comprises 50% of total exam questions. While soft skills and people management are important, project managers must be very familiar with the foundational aspects of setting a project up for success. Managing process involves following a structured plan and adhering to standards across the board. Here are some ways that a project manager may need to align process on a project:

  • Creating an appropriate vision and project management plan
  • Determining the right approach to the project (predictive, agile, or hybrid)
  • Setting standards for communication, budget management, resource management, change management, schedule management, and quality management
  • Enforcing and following through on best practices
  • Following consistent standards for risk identification and mitigation

Again, notice how "Process" covers all aspects of the project management life cycle. The correct process to follow depends entirely on the needs of the project. It is up to the project manager to determine the appropriate course of action! Think of these first two PMP exam domains as the "soft skills" (People) and the "hard skills" (Process). Process management alone does not ensure the success of a project, but it is an absolutely necessary foundation to align all members of the project and ensure that the project stays on track. People and Process must coexist together to ensure a successful project.

4. Business Environment

The last domain or knowledge area of the new PMP Exam is Business Environment, which comprises just 8% of total exam questions. While the People and Process domains of the exam provide a comprehensive view of necessary project management skills, the Business Environment domain ties the relationship between project management and the real-life business environment together. The outside environment of a project has a direct effect on its priorities, the standards that must be followed, and the priorities of the people affected. Factors that may influence the business environment include:

  • Compliance and regulations
  • Geopolitical conflict and cultural sensitivity
  • Organizational environment and culture in relation to the project
  • Industry standards

For example, the goals of a project may tie in directly with a government requirement that the organization needs to meet to provide users with certain information. If that regulation changes, the project may no longer be necessary. The project will also need to take into consideration how other organizations in the same industry are approaching the problem. It is important for an organization to keep pace with the competition and approach their projects in a way that will give them strategic advantages in the long run.

The three domains of the PMP exam are simple to understand but difficult to master. Considering the complex business world that we face, it is no surprise that PMI decided to reevaluate the linear approach to project management. Keep in mind that projects will still follow a linear approach to some degree - after all, you are still responsible for initiating a project and driving its success through to the closing phase. However, an adaptive mindset is important in order to be a truly successful project manager. Depending on the changing needs of the project itself, the stakeholders, or the business environment, certain activities will need to be revisited throughout the life of the project. The complex task that a project manager has is recognizing when certain activities need to be revisited and keeping the project on track in the face of changing requirements.

Come exam day, you should be able to quickly identify if an exam question fits into the people, process, or business environment domain. However, this is only the first step in successfully answering questions on the PMP. In fact, in order to correctly answer exam questions, you will need to understand how the three domains work together. A holistic understanding of all aspects of project management is necessary in order to pass the exam.

About the Author: Madison Florian

Madison Florian is a content writer for EduMind, certified PMP and PMI-ACP. She received her BA in Economics from the University of Colorado and has experience as a project manager for a wide range of corporations, ranging from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies. In her spare time, she enjoys reading novels by the fire, baking for her family and friends, and traveling to new places in her converted van.

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