Tag Archives: project management 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?

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?

Are activities part of the WBS?

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

I got an email earlier today from an IPMA-USA member who wanted an answer to the title questions above. I told him “yes,” and he then quoted my words from the 1996 version of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge back to me:

“The activity list must include all activities which will be performed on the project. It should be organized as an extension to the WBS to help ensure that it is complete and that it does not include any activities which are not required as part of the project scope.” (emphasis added)

To me, this argument is a total waste of time. This is project management’s version of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” If I take the lowest level of the WBS, and break it up into 4 activities, why not just include those 4 activities as part of the WBS? Why maintain two lists? Where is the added value?

Why did I change my position? Actually, I didn’t. The words in the 1996 document represented political expediency. During reviews of various drafts, there were a bunch of people who either (a) confused the CWBS with the WBS, or (b) worked in construction where the prime doesn’t develop a complete WBS. Both groups insisted that activities should not be part of the WBS as they understood it. I accommodated them.

So while the activities may be separated from the WBS on some projects or in some application areas, the split is artificial. You can take the drawers out of your dresser and say that the drawers aren’t part of the dresser. But why?

Some may argue that the WBS contains deliverables which are nouns, while activities have a noun and a verb. True enough, but keep in mind that any deliverable can be described as an activity, and any activity can be converted into a deliverable by dropping the verb.

When we certify at IPMA-USA, we are concerned with whether or not a project manager produces results. Whether you include activities in the WBS or not may be interest to people who are writing trick questions for knowledge-based exams, but we’ll stick to evaluating performance.

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?

Why do we repeat our mistakes?

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

According to research, it’s because we don’t realize we’re making mistakes.


Here’s a quote from the above to whet your appetite:

“[It’s] not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.”

This would seem to explain a lot. In particular, it would seem to explain my prior rant: there are a ton of incompetent project managers out there who just don’t know enough to know that they are incompetent.

Experience does not assure competence. Testing for knowledge does not assure competence. The only way to even have a chance at determining competence is to have someone who is competent assess you. So … sign up today!

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?

Bad question, bad exam

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

I stopped by a website recently whose proprietor specializes in training people to take a certification exam offered by one of our competitors … “That Other Organization” or TOO. Here was the Question of the Month offered by this training provider:

“Ten stakeholders need to receive communications on an important change. You and your team of 40 are concerned that everyone needs to receive these changes. What is the formula to calculate communication channels on a project? How many communication channels are there?

Now, I realize that this is an open-ended question rather than multiple-choice, and so it may not be truly representative of what’s on the actual TOO exam. I also don’t know if this person has attended an item-writing session, so I don’t know what expertise they have to construct questions.

But this question does illustrate some of the reported problems with the construction of other project management certification exams. As a result, it also illustrates some of the problems that you will not have with our Level D exam.

First, the questions asks about an important concept: the fact that the number of communication channels goes up exponentially as the size of the project team increases. However, I could be well aware of this fact and still:

  • Not know the formula.
  • Have forgotten the formula.
  • Recall the formula incorrectly.
  • Do the calculation wrong.

So there is a good chance here that I know the concept and still get the answer wrong. By definition, that means this is a bad question.

Second, has anyone ever used this formula on a real project? I’m going to guess that the answer is no. At IPMA-USA, we try to avoid asking questions that are of academic interest only.

Next, the question itself has an excess of information that does not affect the answer. The first two sentences are completely irrelevant and simply slow the examinee down. Change the numbers from 10 and 40 to 3 and 7. Same question. I’m guessing that the item-writer was trying to provide context, but extra text does not equate to context. Context is when I give you information that is relevant to your choice of an answer.

Now let’s look at the question itself:

  • “Ten stakeholders.” Not clear whether these 10 are part of the team or not.
  • “You and your team of 40.” Are you part of the team? Is the team 40 people or 41?
  • Both NYT Style Guide and the Chicago Book of Style counsel against mixing number forms. So if the first two sentences were needed, they should read “10 … 40” or “Ten … forty” to make it easier to absorb the information.
  • “Everyone needs to receive these changes.” Who is “everyone”? The team? The 10 stakeholders? Some other group?
  • Let’s assume that we want to send the information to the 10 stakeholders. That means there areten channels since this is a one-way push, not a discussion. So the formula may be irrelevant. This starts to sound like a trick question.

Our promise to you: No trick questions. No excess verbiage. No useless knowledge.

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?