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The ISO Standard “Guidance on Project Management” from a PMBOK Perspective.

A commentary from Daniel Hendling, PMP, vice president for volunteers and membership for the. PMI Austria Chapter, about the ISO Standard “Guidance on project management” from a PMBOK 4 perspective.


Now it is here, the ISO standard “Guidance on project management” in its final version, I took a closer look and put together the parts which seemed most relevant to me.


As with any standard the ISO 21500 looks at creating a common basis and understanding for project work. This should enable us to work together more effectively – not just in a project team but also between sponsors and project managers. In addition the standard should enable organizations to develop their own project management standards.


The standard may be bought at or at online stores.


The standard contains a not too extensive list of terms and definitions, which should help one understand the document easily. You find a larger list and definition of terms in the PMI lexicon at / PMBOK-Guide & Standards. (


As for the standard each project begins considering the organization’s strategy identifying “opportunities”. These opportunities lead to projects, looking into real business benefits (via business case) and finally realizing them. This “benefits realization” is understood as being in the area of the permanent organization (operations), yet the project manager should consider this topic as well throughout the project (see PMBOK


Project and program management are mentioned very briefly. If you are more interested in these areas take a look into the appropriate PMI standards, generally covering those areas:


The Standard for Program Management, 2nd Edition

This standard provides a detailed understanding of program management, and promotes efficient, effective communication and coordination. It looks into the process groups already known from the PMBOK 4 – Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring & Controlling and Closing as well as the Knowledge Areas: Integration Management, Scope Management, Time Management, Communication Management, Risk Management, Procurement Management, Financial Management, Stakeholder Management and Governance.


The Standard for Portfolio Management, 2nd edition

While the PMI standards for project and program management are looking into “Doing the work right.” this standard is covering the area of “Doing the right work.” by Managing projects, programs & other work to meet strategic business objectives. Here the processes “Aligning” and “Monitoring & Controlling” are defined as well as the knowledge areas “Governance“ (consisting of Identify, Categorize, Evaluate, Select, Prioritize, Balance, Communicate and Authorize) and “Risk Management“ (consisting of Identify, Analyze, Respond, Monitor & Control).


PMI members may access all standards provided by PMI at at no cost. (


Generally the information given on project governance and the structure of a project is as we already know it.


Especially mentioned are the project management competencies, split into technical competencies, behavioral competencies and contextual competencies. Technical competencies include the typical project management skills and techniques. Behavioral competencies are covering the way how you are dealing with other people and the quality of collaboration. Context competencies are looking into the organizational and external environment of the project.


Constraints which need to be balanced are “Scope”, “Quality”, “Schedule“, “Resources“ and “Costs“, while risks, health & safety, the social and ecological impact of the project (this I like) and laws are mentioned as well.


Then the concept of managing a project is split into its elementary processes. Anyone looking at these as someone who has a PMBOK 4 background is likely to be positively surprised. All processes are grouped into five “Process Groups” and fall into one out of ten “Subject Groups”, which might be compared with the “Knowledge areas” in the PMBOK 4. Every process carries a short description and has Inputs & Outputs. The way each process is being applied varies and needs to be individually tailored to the need of each project.


The “Process Groups” are called

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Implementing
  • Controlling
  • Closing


These, like in the PMBOK 4, should not be understood as consecutive or overlapping phases but as groups of processes which span across the project life cycle – in different intensity and iteratively.


In general the overview of the ISO standard’s processes looks the same as the PMBOK’s. I will only focus on the relevant differences and those worthy of mention. I will not mention differences which are just in name (while the content of the process is the same).


Taking a look at these overviews might make it easier to read this article. You may download the PMBOK 4 from



Within the Planning-process “Develop project plans“ (see “Develop Project Management Plan“) there is a distinction made between the “Project Management Plan“ and the “Project Plan“. The “Project Management Plan“ describes the “how” of managing, monitoring & controlling  and contains the appropriate subsidiary plan. The “Project Plan“ is looking into the baselines when carrying out the project (see the baselines within the PMBOK 4).


The Controlling-process “Control Changes“ (see “Perform Integrated Change Control“) looks not just into changes to the scope (some people tend to believe that changes only apply to scope) but all elements of the projects.


“Collect lessons learned” is a separate Closing-process, which is included within the “Close Project or Phase” process (and in others) of the PMBOK 4. Though being part of the “Closing” process group collecting and documenting lessons learned in a structured way happens throughout the whole project life cycle. The Closing-process “Close project or phase” includes also the verification of the scope (see PMBOK 4 “Verify Scope”).



What is mentioned under “Communications Management” in the PMBOK 4 is split into “Stakeholder” and “Communication” in the ISO standard.


Here you find the processes “Identify stakeholders“ (Initiating) and “Manage stakeholders“ (Implementing), while developing a stakeholder management strategy is understood as part of “Manage stakeholders” (as opposed to “Identify Stakeholders” in the PMBOK 4).



The process of collecting requirements (see PMBOK 4 “Collect Requirements“) is part of the “Define scope” Planning-process.


The WBS does not necessarily need to follow a phased-approach but may also be structured in deliverables, discipline or location (just as an example).


The process “Define activities”, which we may know from the Time Management Knowledge Area of the PMBOK 4, is part of the “Scope” subject group in the ISO standard.


“Control scope” (Controlling) is identical to the one in PMBOK 4, though its verification (see PMBOK 4 “Verify Scope”) is included in the “Close project or phase” (Closing) process.



What is understood under “Acquire Project Team” (Executing) in the PMBOK 4 happens during “Establish Project Team“ (Initiating).


“Estimate resources“ (Planning) is part of the Time Management in the PMBOK 4, while ISO sees this as part of “Resource”.


The Planning-process “Define Project Organization” fits to the PMBOK 4 process “Develop Human Resource Plan”.


“Manage project team” is part of the “Controlling” process group (PMBOK 4: Executing) and there is a process called “Control resources”.



As opposed to the PMBOK 4 “Define activities” is part of Scope, not Time. Apart from that the Time subject group can be directly compared with “Time Management” in PMBOK 4.



This Subject Group can more or less 1:1 be compared with the appropriate Knowledge Area in the PMBOK 4.



The subject group “Risk” sees “Identify risks” and “Assess risks” as being part of Planning.


If you are looking for the PMBOK 4 process “Plan Risk Management” you will find this included in the “Develop project plans” process in the ISO standard.


Quantitative and qualitative risk analyses are both done as part of the “Assess risks” process, while planning the adequate risk response (PMBOK 4: Planning) is included in the “Treat risks” process (Implementing).



This subject group can also be more or less 1:1 compared with the appropriate Knowledge Area in the PMBOK 4.



Even though the names of the processes are not fully identical, the processes mentioned in the ISO standard are the same as in the PMBOK 4. The only exception is the PMBOK 4 process “Close Procurements”, which is included in the “Close project or phase” process of the ISO standard.



As the ISO standard splits the PMBOK 4 processes of “Communications Management” between Stakeholder and Communication, here you find the Processes “Plan communications“ (Planning), “Distribute information“ (Implementing) and “Manage communications“ (Controlling).


While “Distribute information“ is mainly looking into making sure that information is distributed, “Manage Communications” makes sure that the quality and communication satisfies all stakeholders’ needs.


Due to the split of one Knowledge Area into two it is not easy to create a distinct 1:1 connection in this area.


The ISO standard also contains a graphical overview of how the different processes of a process group interrelate with each other.


In summary

You will find that the ISO standard 21500 is mainly in accordance to the PMBOK 4. This means

  • If you are comfortable using the PMBOK 4 you will not have any difficulties in understanding the ISO standard.
  • If the company you are working in is applying the PMBOK 4, it will be easy for you to create a compliancy with the ISO standard.
  • If you are working in projects with other companies, which apply the ISO standard, you will be speaking the same language.


If you are not sure why Stakeholder and Communications were split, while one logically cannot exist without the other, think about the following: Via this split the importance of Stakeholder Management is clearer, allowing stronger focus on this topic. Take for instance the principles of sustainable work, looking into ecological, economic and social aspects of your project or product. By making Stakeholders a separate area it will be possible to allow additional knowledge to grow – in both areas.


Well, one question might still need to be answered: What about the PMBOK 5 versus ISO 51200? The answer is easy: It will be similarly “compliant” as the PMBOK 4 already is. And maybe even a little bit more.

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