Five Things You Didn't Learn For the PMP Exam

Five Things You Didn’t Learn For the PMP Exam

I shared coffee recently with a colleague and was so happy to hear that he had passed his Project Management Institute PMP exam.

This was a huge achievement for him and I felt really happy for him. He was super-excited and genuinely pumped about what this means for his career development.  

Right at that moment, he felt invincible – he knew all the important EVM formulae, could recite his Knowledge Areas and knew the difference between a Project Charter and a Scope Statement.

He’s certainly not the only one to feel that way. Check in to LinkedIn, Twitter or Reddit on any given day and you will find excited people around the world, doing exactly the same thing.

For most, the sense of relief is overwhelming and the well-deserved result of hours of hard, serious, grinding study, over many months – books, simulations, flashcards, test exams, discussion groups, boot camps – the list goes on.

All aimed at one thing.  Passing the exam.

But here’s the catch – the PMP doesn’t teach you everything.  Sure, it will give you the technical understanding but it doesn’t teach context. It doesn’t teach you to recognise the subtlety or nuances in conversations, or how to negotiate when your plan is knocked back by your stakeholders.

So what does the PMP leave out? Try these 5 appetisers for a start.

1. Your key documents will NOT be signed off

Your plan will be neat and tidy, with milestones clearly marked and key documents scheduled in an orderly, logical sequence.  A work of art! 

Sadly, many of those key documents will not be signed off on time, if at all.

The reasons are many – your stakeholders will be too busy, the documents will be too ambiguous, your schedule will slip and you will need to crunch the timeline, just to name a few.

Whilst you may thrive on creating a sense of order from the chaos, the hard reality is that your project documents will rarely be completed in such a planned manner.

So be prepared.

Understand the consequences of a delayed document sign-off.

Can your next phase of work continue in some form? Is your funding in jeopardy? Can you engage teams with an approval-in-principle?

Plan your approvals in advance.

If you expect approvals to be time-consuming, then plan ahead – think about long lead times, iterative walk-throughs and “at-risk” agreements.

Agree on an acceptable sign-off outcome.

Do you need a physical sign-off? Will an email, briefing note, meeting minute or a face to face presentation give you the necessary comfort? Don’t tie yourself down to thinking of a physical signature only – use your Quality Plan to agree on sign-offs that work best for your Sponsor and stakeholders.

2. You will NOT get the team that you need

As much as you will want to build the perfect team, with the roles carefully defined and the timeframes locked down, you will NOT be able to pull together your dream team.

The Important People will be constantly in demand – they will be committed to other tasks, their priorities will change and you will be constantly negotiating for short periods of fragmented attention.

Structure your team with this in mind.

Share the key activities across your team, rather than relying on one expert to complete your critical path activity.

Engage consultants and share their knowledge if you can’t get the Important People on your team, then buy them lunch and pick their brains for a few hours.

Build your team skills – recognise the gaps and cover them with expert support, training sessions, quality reviews or external hiring.

3. Not all your stakeholders will support the project

You are excited by your project – the plans make sense, the vision is clear and you can’t wait to jump in and start smashing it. Naturally, you expect that everyone involved will feel the same way.

No. Some stakeholders will resist, try to avoid, feel threatened or just not engage with you.

Your challenge is to invest early time and effort early to understand your stakeholders and develop an engagement plan that works for them.

What are your key stakeholders looking for from the project? Why are they resisting? What are their priorities, motivations and expectations? What value can you bring to them? How can you help them run their business better? How can you create value for them?

A key driver of your project success will be to accept at the outset that a one-size-fits-all stakeholder management approach will not work and instead, be prepared to craft an approach for each stakeholder, that engages them individually and binds them to a single, central message.

Start early and work it often.

4. Your Business Case WILL have holes

When you join the project, you will look to the Business Case as the most authoritative document on which to base your planning. You will also expect the Business Case to be watertight, to present sound, detailed analysis and a robust benefit framework.

Not likely.

In reality, the Business Case is likely to have structure without substance and will not have the lower level detail that you require for your detailed planning. It may have been written by consultants who lack that intuitive, gut feeling for the change initiative, or it may have been written retrospectively to justify a strategic decision or discussion point.

The Business Case will always be an authoritative document and one of your most important resources – just don’t base your plans on it without asking questions and doing your homework first. Before you can baseline with confidence, you need to test the key numbers in the Business Case.

Plan for this during your Initiation Phase activities.

Allocate time to testing the high-level schedule, cost assumptions, scope items, benefits model, resource assumptions, risks, constraints and any other elements that feed into your plan.

5. Not everyone will understand PMBOK

You know the PMBOK Guide back-to-front, right? As part of your study, you have read it from cover to cover and can speak to the key terms with confidence.

Your stakeholders will neither understand nor care what the PMBOK Guide is. Instead, they will want to talk to you in language that they understand.

One of the MOST important things you can do as a newly minted PMP is to not talk to your audiences in PMBOK-speak. I can think of no surer way to cause them to lose interest than to drone on to them about Process Group and Knowledge Areas.

Instead, your challenge will be to think in PMBOK concepts whilst conversing in natural, common terms.

Does the client have a proprietary project management methodology? Embrace it and speak to those terms and concepts.

Do your different audiences think in different terms? Understand their frames of reference and talk in concepts and language that make sense to them.

You will need to embrace the dark art of communicating the same message in different ways, to different recipients. This takes planning and effort so be prepared to invest time and energy from the outset.

Bringing it All Back Home

Obtaining the PMP certification is a worthy achievement – demanding, difficult, rewarding and for all its faults, a must-have for serious, career-minded Project Managers.

But it is not The Answer to Everything.

Project Management demands a commitment to lifelong learning and whilst the PMP is a great foundation step, it is just the start of the journey.

The real value of any study comes when you move beyond the textbook and immerse yourself in real life context. By all means, soak up the PMP goodness but be prepared to then test your new-found knowledge in the workplace.