The PMP and Reality – Art, Science, and The Fuzz In Between

Recently I have been studying for the PMP, a certification exam for Project Management Professionals.

Like many people considering the exam, I was initially unsure about whether it would be a pointless cred, mind-blowing info that would turn me into a ninja PM, or something in between. The truth tends to lie in the gray area – the third option – and I’m happy to report it’s turning out be more useful than not.

The main benefit from studying project management as a discipline is that you discover many of the phenomenon you encounter day-to-day on the job is an actual thing.

Take communication for instance. For the 5 or so projects I’ve been working on of various sizes, it seems “duh” that some of these will require more, or more complex, communication. After all:

More client or internal team members = more stakeholders = more communication = more complexity = more risk.

I know this intuitively, but the PMP takes this concept and actually turns into an objective formula, given by:

# of Communication Paths = N * (N - 1) / 2  where, N = number of stakeholders for a project.

Simple, but comforting. Because now it means I can reasonably project the amount of communication a project will need, rather than wait for it to show up at my door.

This is not in some vague way like, “Oh yeah, we’re working with a large team/ a big enterprise client.” What does that even mean? How large is “large”? How big is “big”?

Now it means that you can look at team size – both yours and the clients – and mash that together to figure out how much complexity to expect, and how much extra time you’ll need, because you know the total number of communication paths for things like emails, IMs, meetings and followups.

Another example is performance. How do you know you’re doing a good job, making progress, and delivering value? For large projects especially, its easy to get stuck on the hamster wheel delivering incremental changes everyday (i.e. “doing some work”), without taking a step back to see whether the work translates into value as planned.

Here’s a neat PMP formula that helps with that too:

Cost Performance Index = Earned Value / Actual Cost   where, EV = Percent Complete * Budget At Completion and AC = sum of all the individual costs thus far

The Cost Performance Index thus gives you a number. If the value of the number is less than one means that money is being spent inefficiently on the project. So a CPI of 0.85 means that for every $1 spent on the project the client is getting $0.85 of value. A CPI of exactly one means that you’re perfectly on track.

It’s easy to see how calculating this index regularly would help a PM figure out whether they’re delivering just “some work” or real value.

To sum it up, studying for the PMP has been, surprisingly, a validating experience. While you can’t put projects in a box and account for all outcomes with formulas, you can certainly use a few quick tools to get a sharper sense of what your project looks like and plan accordingly.

And while being a PM isn’t sexy, it helps to know others have been down this path before and have been kind enough to assign names and processes that tie together all the balls in the air. This helps with pattern recognition across projects – being able to step back and say, “Okay, so this is what’s happening here”, and identify what you see as either a problem or just part of the process.

Finally, for all the formulas in the world, project management is a true blend of art and science, and I love that. It means that a robot can’t take my job, and that even though PMs increasingly use things like online software and messaging to get the work done, we still have to work outside the spreadsheets with people–complex, nuanced, frustrating, wonderful people– every single day. At the risk of sounding simplistic, that makes me happy.

And, it keeps me human.