Tag Archives: Advanced PM Certification

Indicators of PM Competence

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

I haven’t been very reliable about posting here regularly. Part of the reason is that I often get involved in LinkedIn discussions about subjects that are near and dear to my heart … like project management competence. So in lieu of copying my comments in here, please take a minute to skim this thread:

What are the true indicators of PM competence?

And don’t forget to pay particular attention to my comments!

Your Comments?

Performance Based Competency

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

I’ve been getting a fair number of questions recently about “performance based competencies,” and it’s been quite a while since I posted anything here, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and post something on the topic. The following text is adapted from the GAPPS Project Manager Framework.

Competent comes from the Latin root competere which means “to be suitable.” In today’s workplace, the term “competent” is generally used to describe someone who is sufficiently skilled to perform a specified task or to fill a defined position — a competent physician, a competent salesperson, a competent plumber. Organizations are interested in assessing the competency of individuals in order to guide employment and development decisions.

Broadly speaking, there are two major approaches to defining and assessing competency:

  • Attribute based wherein personal attributes such as knowledge, skills, and other characteristics are identified and assessed. Competence is inferred based on the presence of the necessary attributes.
  • Performance based wherein work outcomes and performance levels are identified and assessed. Competence is inferred based on the demonstrated ability to satisfy the performance criteria.

At IPMA-USA, we use the latter approach. Performance based competency assessment was invented by the US Army, and today, it is widely used throughout the world. For example, government endorsed standards and qualifications frameworks in Australia (Department of Education, Science and Training), New Zealand (New Zealand Qualifications Authority), South Africa (South African Qualifications Authority), and the United Kingdom (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) are all focused primarily on performance based competency assessment.

Our performance based competency assessment looks at the following two questions:

  • What is usually done in this occupation, profession, or role by competent performers?
  • What standard of performance is usually considered acceptable to infer competence?

We answer these questions by defining:

  • Units of Competency

A Unit of Competency defines a broad area of professional or occupational performance that is meaningful to practitioners and which is demonstrated by individuals in the workplace.

  • Elements of Competency

Elements of Competency describe the key components of work performance within a Unit. They describe what is done by individuals in the workplace but do not prescribe how the work is done. For example, project managers must “define risks and risk responses for the project,” but they can do it themselves or delegate the work to others. In addition, there are many different tools and techniques that they could use.

  • Performance Criteria

Performance Criteria describe observable results and actions in the workplace from which competent performance can be inferred. Performance Criteria can be satisfied in many different ways; there are no mandatory approaches, tools, or methodologies.

  • Explanatory Statements

Explanatory Statements help to ensure consistent interpretation of the Elements and the Performance Criteria by expanding on critical or significant aspects of them to enable consistent application in different contexts.

This approach is both consistent with and compatible with generally accepted practice within the field of competency development and assessment.

The Units, Elements, and Performance Criteria are not linear or sequential: there is no requirement that the work be done in any particular sequence or that the Performance Criteria be satisfied in any particular order. In addition, some Performance Criteria can be satisfied with relatively little effort while others will require a substantial commitment from the project manager over the full length of the project.

Our Performance Criteria address threshold performance — demonstration of the ability to do something at a standard considered acceptable in the workplace. They do not measure superior performance — what the best project managers do. Superior performers should, however, be able to satisfy the threshold criteria without difficulty.

We assess against the minimum number of Performance Criteria needed to infer competence. As a result, a candidate must satisfy all of the Performance Criteria in the applicable Units in order to be viewed as competent. In addition, the Performance Criteria represent different levels of detail. The number of Performance Criteria in a Unit or Element is not proportional to the amount of time or effort that a project manager must spend in that area to be viewed as competent.

Your Comments?

Art or Science?

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.
Once again, from a LinkedIn discussion … someone posted a question. “Is project management an art or a science?” There were nearly 30 comments, most of which argued “both,” and most of which leapt right into the discussion without bothering to define their terms. So here is my post:

As is my wont, I checked the dictionary …
There are two definitions of science: the study of the natural world, and an organized body of knowledge. Project management does NOT meet the first definition; it does satisfy the second. So we can say PM is a science, but not according to the most common definition.

As well, there are two definitions of art: producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power, and skill at doing something. Project management does not meet either definition, although GOOD project management would satisfy the second. So again, we can say that PM is an art, but not according to the most common definition.

More to the point … what difference would knowing the answer make to you when managing a project? I suspect the answer is “none.”

On the other hand (and my biases are showing here) … would you rather hire a project manager who has proven their knowledge of the science of project management, or one who has demonstrated their grasp of the art? Would you rather hire a project manager who has passed a multiple choice exam? Or one whose performance has actually been assessed against a set of defined criteria?

Your Comments?

Ten “New” Rules

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

Hal Macomber writes a lot of good stuff about soft skills in project management. Here’s a link to one of his posts that I like. Stop by and tell him I said, “hi.”


Why did I put “new” in quotes? Because there really isn’t much that’s new in Hal’s list. These are all things that I was taught to do way back in the 1980s and 1990s. So why have so many project managers lost their way?

I think one of the key contributors is our community’s credentialing practices: so many people are cramming for exams rather than learning how to manage a project. And so many corporations are rewarding the successful test-takers with positions of responsibility that they simply aren’t prepared to handle.

That’s just another reason why I like our performance-based assessment process. If you want IPMA-USA to grant you an advanced certification, you better be able to provide evidence that you’ve actually managed a project and managed it successfully.

Your Comments?

GAPPS Program Manager Standard

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

GAPPS is the Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards. IPMA-USA is a founding member of GAPPS, and we continue to be active in supporting their standards development efforts. We also use their standards as part of our implementation of IPMA’s Four-Level-Certification (4-L-C) Program.

GAPPS has recently released an Exposure Draft of a performance-based competency standard (PBCS) for program managers. You can download it here:


Comments are due by October 11.

Your Comments?

The rush to licensure

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

The idea of licensed project managers has been discussed off-and-on for nearly 30 years now. With the Association of Project Managers in the UK apparently on the verge of getting approval from the British government to begin chartering project management, the discussions are heating up again.

In case you’re not familiar with the British system, “chartering” is effectively the same as licensure. Accountants in the UK are “chartered” and this credential is an almost exact analog for the Certified Public Accountant in the USA with requirements a matter of law.

Personally, I’m ambivalent. I think there are arguments for licensure and arguments against.

I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in the topic start by doing a little research. Begin by reading (or at least skimming) “The System of Professions” by Andrew Abbott. Here’s the publisher’s blurb from Amazon:

In The System of Professions Andrew Abbott explores central questions about the role of professions in modern life: Why should there be occupational groups controlling expert knowledge? Where and why did groups such as law and medicine achieve their power? Will professionalism spread throughout the occupational world? While most inquiries in this field study one profession at a time, Abbott here considers the system of professions as a whole. Through comparative and historical study of the professions in nineteenth- and twentieth-century England, France, and America, Abbott builds a general theory of how and why professionals evolve.

Next, dig into both sides of the argument in the Harvard Business Review:



Then — and only then — weigh in with your opinion. This is not about “is project management a profession or not?” where the answer depends solely on which definition of “profession” you use. This is about the future: will the discipline of project management be ruled by elected officials? Or will it continue to be driven by practitioners?

Your Comments?

Can’t anybody here play this game?

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

My Dad always rooted for the underdog. As a result, I hated Casey Stengel and the Yankee’s with a passion … until Casey took over the hopelessly inept Mets, and then he became one of my favorites. The quote above dates from his experience managing the new New York team in its first year. If you google the phrase, you’ll also see that it is a popular heading for columnists ranting against what appears (to them at least) to be willful stupidity.

So … I’m a columnist … and here comes a rant …

Can’t anyone here manage this project?

Why is there so much apparent incompetence out there? I’ve been posting to a variety of LinkedIn discussions lately, and here are a couple of the things that people claim are common:

  • Project managers who reject changes that provide value.
  • Project managers who don’t know the difference between an estimate and a budget.
  • Project managers who don’t know the difference between scope and work.
  • Project managers who don’t understand that fixed price means fixed scope.
  • Project managers who don’t realize that a “construction project” is just one phase of an asset development project.
  • Project managers who think that schedule baselines can be established without considering resource availability.
  • Project managers who don’t know what float is.

I keep hearing that certification provides value by encouraging people to learn the fundamentals so that they can pass a test. Since many of the project managers referenced above seem to have been certified, what’s going on?

It’s really quite simple. Most project management certifications evaluate knowledge rather than performance. Let’s face it: getting the right answer on a multiple choice question is not nearly the same as being able to make the right choice on-the-job. Even those certifications that require experience generally don’t evaluate the quality of that experience. Would you want to hire a project manager who gained their experience delivering projects months late and 50% over budget?

To quote the Case again … “Don’t cut my throat. I may want to do that later myself.”

This is why we certify based on performance. Always have. Always will.

Your Comments?

Designing a Certification Program: How to Certify (2)

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

Recapping from “How to Certify (1)” … certification is about assessing competence. Competence is intangible so it must be inferred from some kind of evidence. That evidence can be input-oriented or output-oriented. At IPMA-USA, we have decided to focus on outputs or results.

Why? Simple logic. If someone has already done the job successfully once, there is a much better chance that they can do it successfully again.

After looking at a number of alternatives, we decided to use a performance based competency standard (PBCS) as our measuring stick. Lots of reasons:

  • PBCS have been around for well over 20 years.
  • They are the preferred approach to competency assessment among most Human Resource Departments.
  • They are used in government-sanctioned competency assessment programs in countries such as Australia and South Africa.

We became a founding member of the Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards (GAPPS) and worked with GAPPS to develop a PBCS that would be compatible with IPMA’s Four-Level-Certification. Some of our assessors were initially skeptical, but they were won over the first time they did an assessment.

Explicit, pre-defined criteria provide a higher degree of validity than any other approach currently in use. A comprehensive set of questions enhances inter-rater reliability.

Not only that, but the candidates themselves were equally delighted. One of my favorite comments came from a Level B (Senior Project Manager) candidate: “Wow! I actually learned something in the process of being assessed!”

The GAPPS standard is available for FREE from www.globalpmstandards.org.

Your Comments?

From LinkedIn: Which Certification Best Represents…

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

This is an extract from a recent post of mine in a LinkedIn discussion group. Thought some of you here might be interested.

The question asked was this: which certification option best represents the holder’s skills, knowledge and abilities as a Project Manager?

Full disclosure … I have not been a big fan of PMI’s certification program since about 1998. Our differences led to a lawsuit in 2000 that cost me over $100,000. If anyone wants details of the suit, please feel free to contact me directly.

To begin, there are really only three internationally recognized options worth mentioning. In alphabetical order:

  • Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards. GAPPS doesn’t actually certify, but it does provide a performance-based competency standard that is used by others.
  • International Project Management Association. IPMA and its member associations have been certifying individuals as project managers since the late 1980s.
  • Project Management Institute. PMI’s Project Management Professional was introduced about the same time as IPMA’s program.

Here’s how I view the various approaches. In the interest of fairness, I’ll reverse the order.

PMI’s approach lacks rigor. The experience requirements are drawn too loosely, and the quality of the experience is never considered. It’s not even clear that someone must have worked as a project manager in order to sit for the exam. The education requirements do not ensure knowledge since it seems that a significant percentage of applicants meet the requirement through exam prep courses which emphasize how to pass the exam rather than how to manage a project. The first time pass rate for native English speakers who take a prep course appears to be well in excess of 90%, so it wouldn’t appear that the wholly multiple-choice exam itself is very difficult either.

IPMA’s approach is far more rigorous. IPMA requires the same amount of experience as PMI, but itrequires that the experience have been obtained as a project manager. IPMA’s exam includes short answer essay questions in addition to multiple-choice. Finally, it also requires a written report describing a project you managed and an interview with 2 assessors that typically lasts about 2 hours. The main weakness in the IPMA program is the lack of defined criteria to justify the decision. IPMA’s assessors are all experienced project managers, and based on what I’ve seen, they do an excellent job, but if anyone challenged a negative decision in court, the lawyers would be the only winners.

The core of the GAPPS approach is the most rigorous with over 50 defined performance criteria that must all be met in order for a candidate to be assessed as “competent.” Another plus is the CIFTER which is used to assess project management complexity. Weaknesses include the fact that GAPPS only requires a single assessor (as opposed to IPMA’s 2), and that it allows the organizations that use its standards to set their own length-of-experience requirements. One more plus: the standard itself isFREE. Anyone can use it.

At IPMA-USA, we’ve blended the GAPPS and IPMA approaches to deliver what I think is the best of both worlds: a challenging exam and defined performance criteria assessed by two experienced project managers.

Your Comments?

Evaluating Role and Rigor in PM Certifications

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff

We have seen a wide range of opinions, analyses, and presentations that fail to clearly show the differences between the Project Management certifications in the USA, and around the World. Certifications from IPMA-USA and IPMA (International Project Management Association) are particularly misunderstood, because they address specific roles and competence-oriented factors that other PM certifications do not. The purpose of this post is to clear up misunderstandings about the IPMA-USA/IPMA PM Certifications, and to clarify how they differ from other PM certifications that are available.

Role of Certificant
When we speak of Role, we are discussing the primary Role of the certification candidate. Entry-level PM certifications use knowledge-based exams about project management, and do not depend on the PM’s Role. Advanced certifications engage professional assessors in interviews to assess performance competence in a targeted Role. Some people fill multiple roles; in that case, the Role is the one selected as the basis for certification. This is only important in the case of Advanced (higher-Rigor) certifications. Continue reading