How useful is the ISO 21500 project management standard?

That’s a question which is frequently asked and an easy one for me to answer as follows: Personally I believe it’s very useful and therefore important.

Do you seriously think that I would have taken the effort of writing a book on it, if I was not convinced that it does make a huge difference? ;-).

But to motivate my answer a bit better, I would like to restate the question and split it up into two new questions:

  1. “How useful is it, to start with managing projects without any reference?”
  2. “But then, which is the’ right’ project management reference for me?”

1. How useful is it, to start with managing projects without any reference?

Let’s start with the first one. Have you ever tried successfully baking a cake, by just throwing together ‘some ingredients’, putting it in the ‘heated’ oven and taking it out ‘after a while’? It’s a very experimental approach, so you should accept failing 9 out of 10 times. But because our purpose is to simply serve a tasteful cake, we don’t experiment but mostly follow a reference, a best practice. In that case it’s the recipe, with ingredients, baking temperature and time.

© Leo Hidalgo

Just following this line of thinking, it’s very unlikely for something which is ‘only a bit more complex’ than that, eh ... let’s take a project for example…, can be completed successfully without any reference at all…

But experience? Isn’t that a good reference then? It surely is! Experience may be regarded as the capability to get things done, based on understanding what to do, when and how. And experience definitely becomes a necessity when projects become more and more complex; I will get back to that later.

But how to gain experience more quickly? Without any reference you will have to learn everything from scratch, simply by trying, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and reusing what is effective. That approach is called evolution and we all know that this ‘learning process’ takes a couple of generations...

So I think we may safely conclude that learning while using references, existing best practices, is a very simple and effective way of increasing the speed of improving our capabilities. When it comes to project management this is not different.

2. Which is the ‘right’ project management reference for me?

That question is a bit harder to answer. Every project has its own challenges, its specific environment, stakeholders, complexity level, etc. So to simply expect, that there should be a ‘silver bullet’ answer to deal with every specific project need, is a bit naïve, don’t you think so?

But lucky for us, over time some project managers made the effort to collect their experiences and drew conclusions from that. About what works for most projects, most of the time, so definitely not always and everywhere! That effort has been made several times on different places in the world leading to different project management frameworks and methodologies. And when it’s applicable for your project and you start understanding and using these references it will save you performing quite some experiments, thus increasing the chance of your success, first time right.

You could say that it’s the ‘one global language’ in project management.

And that’s the keyword for projects. Mostly we only get one chance. And in a limited window of opportunity. So we better be quick then and not waste time figuring out ourselves what others have done time and time again before us.

But how to define what’s best for me? That’s the question for which ISO 21500 may be helpful. Some project management references or best practices are more generic than the other (more a high level approach), some with a more very descriptive nature (more like a recipe), others focusing on another aspect (PM competencies). They all have their advantages and limitations.

But project managers and experts from all over the world using and representing all these different references and best practices jointly defined and accepted that the structure and processes as defined in the ISO 21500 may be applicable to most projects, most of the time. It has thus become the standard which is acknowledged to be the ‘reference for references’ in project management. You could also say that it’s the ‘one global language’ in project management. So if you are in that area, you should definitely make sure you understand it.

And for that purpose we wrote the ISO 21500 Guidance on project management - A pocket guide’.

Photos by Amy McTigue and Leo Hidalgo

Sign up and we'll keep you posted