By Cynthia Snyder Dionisio
July 26, 2023
In Getting to Know the PMBOK Guide 7th Edition, I focused on the structure of the PMBOK Guide – Seventh Edition. Now I want to move into how you can use the 7th Edition. I want to share with you a story that happened while we were adjudicating comments from the public exposure draft of the Standard.
It was March of 2020; I am sure you remember that was the beginning of the pandemic. I was in Alaska volunteering for the Iditarod race. For those of you not familiar with the Iditarod, it is a dog sled event that covers 1000 miles (about the distance from Florida to New York City) across Alaska. I was there for ten days. When I first arrived, COVID was barely a press story. Throughout the time I was there, things started changing rapidly. At the time, these were the facts:
- The competitors and their dogs were on the trail.
- There are a lot of native villages that are cut off from the outside world.
- There is little to no healthcare in the villages and along the trail.
- Nobody knew anything about the virus, how to test for it, how to treat it, how it was transmitted, and how deadly it was.
At this point, the safest and most efficient approach was to continue to finish the race rather than try and collect people and dogs who were spread out across 1000 miles of Alaskan wilderness.
Some of the situations that emerged while I was there included:
- Village checkpoints decided they didn’t want the racers to come into the village due to healthcare concerns.
- Guidelines advising that people shouldn’t be in big groups – impacting the finish in Nome.
- The cancellation of the Awards dinner was due to concerns over gathering groups, with racers asked to return to their homes as soon as they and their dogs were rested, rather than stay for post-race festivities.
I was just a communications volunteer on the midnight shift and not the Project Manager (PM), but if I was the PM and I had the PMBOK Guide – Seventh Edition, these are some of the ways I think it could have helped.
Let’s begin with the principles. You may recall that project management principles are intended to guide the behavior of people involved in projects. They reflect good practices for effective management of any project and provide parameters within which to operate.
For the Iditarod, the first principle that really stands out is Embrace Adaptability and Resiliency – where Adaptability is the ability to respond to changing conditions and Resiliency is the ability to absorb impacts and the ability to recover from setback or failure. The principle is:
Build adaptability and resiliency into the organization’s and the project team’s approaches to help the project accommodate change, recover from setbacks, and advance the work of the project.
You can see how the race, and in fact everything about the pandemic, really required a sense of adaptability and resiliency.
Capabilities that support adaptability and resiliency include:
- Continuous improvement – what do we learn from one check point that can be applied to others further down the trail?
- Diverse team members with a broad range of experiences and skill sets.
- Leveraging new ways of thinking and working. – this could include working with vets, healthcare professionals, village elders, racers, volunteers, etc. to problem solve the emerging issues.
- Transparency in work and conversations.
- Ability to anticipate and prepare for multiple scenarios. Thinking of plan A, B, and C is a necessity any time you are in Alaska in the Winter, especially when you are mushing a team of dogs, there is cold, or hot (-40 to +30), there is rain, sleet and/or snow, vicious winds, and so forth.
- Defer decisions until the last possible moment to remain flexible based on how the situation evolves.
Practices to adopt include:
- Stay focused on the outcome. The desired outcome is to get all racers and dogs across the finish line safely as well as maintain good relations with all the stakeholders along the way.
- Be flexible and willing to change direction as needed.
- Treat setbacks as problems to overcome, and opportunities to get really creative.
- Use holistic thinking, recognizing that one action impacts many people, decisions, and future impacts.
And that leads us to another Principle…Systems Thinking.
A project is a system of interdependent and interacting domains of activity. Systems thinking entails taking a holistic view of how project parts interact with each other and with external systems.
At the Iditarod, the situation required critical thinking and deliberate actions. There was absolutely no room for emotion-based decisions. All decisions needed to be made based on facts, not opinions.
The big picture included that specific race, future Iditarod races, other dog races, public health, sponsor opinions, and more. The whole pandemic challenged people’s assumptions about rthe ace, what was predictable and how to respond.
Some of the decisions and choices that were made influenced the following races. For example, in 2021, because they knew that many of the villages would be concerned about outsiders coming in, they re-routed the race. They also had systems in place to set up checkpoints outside the villages.
I’m sure you can think of ways your organization responded to the pandemic that ignited opportunities that would not have been possible without the pandemic, and without thinking ahead about what this might mean for the future of work.
You can also see how looking at these two principles would lead to thinking about other PMBOK 7 principles such as:
- Navigate complexity
- Optimize risk responses
- Enable change to the envisioned future state
I won’t cover all of the principles, but you can see how they are complementary and interconnected – and how the principles could apply to any project, to different degrees and in different ways.
Let’s move onto the performance domains. Remember, performance domains are a unified whole. They are interdependent and run concurrently throughout the project.
I’m going to start with the Stakeholder domain. There are a lot of stakeholders for this kind of race. For example, dogs, vets, village elders and villagers, volunteers, pilots, press, checkpoint staff, sponsors, mushers, and many more. In this situation I would look through the Stakeholder performance domain and read through information on categorizing and assessing stakeholders and look for some tips and fresh ideas for working with stakeholders. As I read through the chapter, certain things stand out:
- Is there a decision-making process?
- How do we resolve conflict or disagreements?
- What leadership behaviors does the team need to draw on?
- Am I maintaining good emotional intelligence under pressure?
Another domain I would spend a lot of time with given this case study is the Uncertainty Performance Domain. Let’s define “uncertainty” as “a lack of understanding and awareness of issues, events, paths to follow or solutions to pursue.” There was nothing but uncertainty at that time when dealing with COVID! We had very little understanding of the virus, how to treat it, how to immunize against it and so forth.
There was also a lot of ambiguity, which is a state of being unclear, having difficulty in identifying the cause of events, or having multiple options from which to choose.
There was ambiguity for the race in general, but also with each village. Should the mushers camp outside? Be inside the village but isolated? Business as usual?
And Complexity – the characteristic of a project or its environment that is difficult to manage due to human behavior, system behavior, and ambiguity.
Each village has different governance and the ambiguity also contributed to the complexity of the situation. There were multiple stakeholders and systems that were interdependent, but each had different perspectives and priorities, adding a significant amount of complexity to the situation.
Then there’s volatility – the possibility for rapid and unpredictable change. I saw that firsthand and did not know if or when airlines would shut down. It was very tenuous on whether I would be able to get home, because if flights were cancelled, driving across the Alaska highway in winter is a pretty scary thought.
And then of course – the overall risk for the project, even without the pandemic, is pretty significant. Add in the pandemic and you had a lot of high impact risks that could occur.
Looking at this performance domain, I can see there are ways to reduce the uncertainty or at least limit the potential impact. These are some that I saw that would be useful in that situation.
- Prepare for multiple outcomes
- Build in resilience
- Run simulations
- Perform an alternatives analysis
- Respond to both risks and opportunities
Now let’s look at the Planning Performance Domain. I like the intended outcomes for this domain:
- Evolving information is elaborated to produce deliverables and outcomes for which the project was undertaken.
- There is a process for adapting plans throughout the project based on emerging and changing needs or conditions.
For the Iditarod, I think about the planning for the physical resources. Each musher can have 2 sleds and drop bags with food and straw for themselves and the dogs. These supplies must be managed along the trail as some checkpoints open and others close down. All the right supplies have to get to the right musher at the appointed check point. If there is weather that prevents flights in or out of a checkpoint, that could have an impact on the outcome of the race.
Models, Methods and Artifacts
As we move into the section on Models, Methods and Artifacts, let’s start with models. For the Iditarod, I would use the Seventh Edition to refresh myself on some of the complexity models, such as Cynefin and the Stacey matrix. These both provide a framework for dealing with complex situations and how to make effective decisions given the amount of complexity.
As for Methods, – given that uncertainty was the biggest cause of concern, I would have looked through the methods and selected those methods that help deal with uncertainty, such as decision trees, simulations, and modeling.
Looking through the numerous artifacts, I think I would have had my assumption, issue and risk registers front and center throughout the entire race! I know in my area, I felt like there was good communication, but if I think about the race as a whole, and all the stakeholders, a robust communication plan is a MUST have! We had some information radiators in the Comms Room, things like when the first mushers arrive at a checkpoint, when the last one leaves, timing, race stats and so forth. This was really helpful. There is also a diehard group of fans that pay for access to see the location trackers for each of the teams and these are great information radiators, keeping an important group of stakeholders happy, active, and engaged!
What About Organizations?
So that was a brief overview of how I would see using the Seventh Edition on a project – but what about organizations? How can an organization or a PMO use the Seventh Edition to improve outcomes? As each organization is different, I’ll leave you with a few quick ideas to consider.
Use the principles as a way to set expectations for behavior and actions. You can codify them in policies since they are fairly high-level and universal. Think about how the principle of tailoring based on context could become the foundation of a policy around tailoring. You can weave in information from the section on tailoring and modify it to meet the needs of your organization.
The eight performance domains can be used to build a framework or a methodology. Obviously not everything in the performance domains will apply to your organization, but the content is written so that a lot of it will apply and it needs to be tuned to meet your specific needs. You can also use the information to build training, assess individual capabilities and organizational maturity around each domain.
I think the information about the models is a good starting place from which to explore further. There are a lot of models out there, be willing to explore them and figure out how best to utilize them to improve effectiveness. They can be modified to provide a starting place for processes, procedures and even training and improvement. Not all methods are appropriate for all projects, but the methods that are listed provide a solid menu to look at for accomplishing work. Finally, the artifacts are a good place to look for templates and then add, edit, or combine them to meet your organization’s needs.
To summarize, the foundation is the principles that inform behaviors and actions. The project performance domains build on this foundation by providing a framework of eight domains of focus for project activities. Decisions made within the domains should be rooted in the principles while understanding the interrelatedness of each domain. Models, methods and artifacts are selected based on the unique characteristics of the project and its environment.
A final word: neither the Standard nor the Guide are prescriptive. In other words, you will need to tailor the activities in each domain, and the models, methods, and artifacts, to meet the needs of your project.
About the Author
Cynthia Snyder Dionisio is the Practice Lead for IIL’s Project, Program, and Portfolio Management (PPPM) Practice. Cyndi has over 20 years of experience leading international project teams, consulting, developing courses, and facilitating training. She has received several awards, including the PMI Fellow Award in 2018 and PMI’s Distinguished Contribution Award in 2009. Cyndi is passionate about turning chaos in order, engaging with awesome teams, solving problems, and facilitating achievement.
Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.