A conversation with Nader K. Rad, one of the PMBOK® Guide, 7th Ed. developers, by Kornelia Trzęsowska

How did you get into the project management world? What is your story?

When I was nearly 18 years old, I met a project planner accidentally, and we had a conversation about computer software for about an hour or so. A few months later, and only a week after I entered the university to start my Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering, he contacted me and offered me a part-time job on a new project he had. He had become the head of the project planning unit in a project for building a new airport. He and the five other planners working on the team were all in their 50s, and some of them were not comfortable enough with computers. His idea was to bring me to help them with their computer issues. I happily accepted and enjoyed the income very much. After a couple of weeks, I became curious about project planning, so I bought a bunch of books about it and started learning. With the help of those books and my new colleagues, I started working as a project planner. After I graduated, I decided to work as a freelance project planner instead of a civil engineer and continued my Master’s degree in philosophy of science. I usually had contracts with three to five companies simultaneously, each lasting about two to three years. That helped me gain more experience by working in different environments and projects, ranging from mid-sized construction projects to large process plants and even small IT development ones. I wasn’t happy that the effort we put into project planning and monitoring wasn’t effective enough because it wasn’t integrated into the rest of the project management system. Therefore, I gradually moved into the broader project management domain. My primary mission became helping project managers improve their systems.

You possess a quite impressive experience as a project manager. How has project management developed in recent years?

Thanks for the compliment. Think of yourself or another individual: you’re gradually improving your capabilities, but sometimes you stop and consider fundamental changes. You may start learning something entirely different to incorporate it into your job or even change your career. You’re not progressing, but creating the potential for future progress during that time. Without that, you would slow down after a while. When your experimentation ends, you may start something entirely new, or go back and do the exact same thing you’ve been doing before (because the experiment failed), or most likely, synthesize those two and continue what you’ve been doing before with a broader perspective, new ideas, and potential for faster progress.

I believe that’s what happened to the project management community in the past ten years: experimenting with the agility concept. It was both constructive and destructive. It created interesting new ideas as well as dogmas. Now the community seems to have had enough of it and is slowly moving toward a new era in which all ideas are more or less accepted without considering any one of them as the enemy. Now we can relax and have gradual but continuous progress in our way of doing projects.

Why does project management need standards?

Because it’s too expensive to reinvent the wheel all the time. We package our experiences and ideas into methods and guides and reuse them. While they are being used, we learn more about them and come up with ideas for improving them. We do that, and the update becomes available to the whole community. I think it’s a good approach. Some people don’t agree with this idea, though.

Fot. Nader’s archive Nader explaining project management.

Which approach and kind of philosophy do you agree more with – agile or predictive?

Some people believe that adaptive methods (agile) can be and should be used in every project, and some believe the opposite. The fact is that, in most cases, the best method of developing the product depends on the nature of the product and not the preferences of the people involved in building it. For example – If you want to build a fancy web application for end-users, you really have to be adaptive. Otherwise, the chances of failure would be very high. Yet, even in the IT development domain, if you’re developing a piece of software to be used in a satellite, plane, or hospital equipment, what you need is a conservative, solid, reliable solution that requires a predictive method. Finally, when it comes to some types of products such as buildings, bridges, etc., you simply can’t be adaptive and have only one choice. I should explain, though, that being agile is not about superficial aspects such as having daily meetings, plans on boards, certain labels for people, etc. Being adaptive is about creating a development environment in which you can find your way based on the feedback you generate from your previous iterations, and that must be the feedback you generate from something that you can use to decide how to build the next thing, not the feedback you use to adjust the same thing. Most people work on one type of project and therefore don’t have to decide what the best approach is for each new project, but even for them, it’s a great idea to learn both because you can always be inspired by something even if you don’t use it directly.

You were one of the members of the core development team of PMBOK® Guide, 7th edition. What made you join the team?

I had a couple of comments about the 6th edition of the PMBOK® Guide, and I started contacting various people involved to discuss it. After a while, they suggested I join the team for the next version. When it was time to form the team, there were a number of interviews, and in the end, I was selected among eleven other people to work on the core development team.

What is new in the 7th edition of PMBOK® Guide?

To keep it short, it has moved from a fixed process-based nature into a more general, expandable, flexible principle-based one. In my opinion, the seventh edition is the start of a new journey, and a foundation for what we can create in the future. I think this new foundation works better for our current needs compared to what we had in the previous versions.

Fot. Nader's archive Nader presenting sprint backlog.

What changes in the PMBOK® Guide do you perceive as most important?

The PMBOK® Guide has always been a guide rather than a methodology. It was always made clear in the book itself, warning people not to mistake it for a methodology and use one besides it to take the most advantage. However, its structure led many people to mistake it for a methodology and try to use it as one, which was causing many problems. I think one of the great things in the new version is that no one can mistake it for a methodology anymore! Moreover, the previous versions were focused on what we do, whereas the new version is focused on the outcomes of what we do. This has a great practical impact: When we focus too much on what we do, there’s the risk of having the Cargo Cult effect. I won’t explain it here, but it’s a great concept to read about (check out the Wikipedia record about the Cargo Cult). When you read it, you will probably think of many projects you’ve seen where they think they become agile by imitating the superficial aspects of successful agile projects. I believe the new structure of the PMBOK® Guide lowers the chances of having a Cargo Cult effect.

Why should project managers consider exploring the PMBOK® Guide?

Many people have collected, structured, and improved a body of knowledge for more than 25 years, which they hope would solve other people’s problems in managing projects. To me, it’s hard to imagine a project manager dealing with countless problems without being curious to check it out. There’s, of course, the issue of time and mental energy. A project manager may be so drowned in daily work that they can’t find enough time to read the PMBOK® Guide or any other resources. It’s usually best to invest some of our time for our future by learning things that may help us instead of relying solely on trial and error and focusing on firefighting, which are expensive and slow. Lastly, there’s the issue that the PMBOK® Guide itself may be too dry and hard to understand for a practical person. In that case, there’s always the option to read one of the easy-to-read books written about the PMBOK® Guide instead of the manual itself.

Which project management framework is going to be on top in the nearest future, according to you?

I think there’s a lot of room and demand for “next-generation” methods. I guess that in ten or fifteen years from now, the top methods will all be new ones, especially methods that go beyond the superficial agile/predictive wars. What the market demands is user-centric methods (“users” are the project managers in this context), and because of the diversity in the project management community, it’s necessary to have different types of methods, each targeting a subgroup and trying to serve them best rather than setting out to serve everyone, everywhere.

Could you tell us a bit about P3.express?

Most people use Excel or a spreadsheet application like that. Imagine that we remove that and give everyone a programming language like Python instead. It’s a lot more powerful and flexible, and anything you can do with Excel, you can do with Python. But does that make it a good choice? I don’t think so. In fact, if we do it, most people won’t use Python and will start using calculators instead. A similar thing happens in project management. Most project management systems are like Python: powerful, but useful to only a small subset of people. What we really need is something like Excel that most people can use. That’s why P3.express was created: a project management system designed for typical projects and typical project managers… something they can learn and use with ease. P3.express is minimalist: it forms a complete system with the least number of elements. It’s also not a perfectionist and aims to achieve 80% of the potential benefits of structured project management with 20% of the effort. Another thing that is special about it is that it’s not proprietary… it’s free (both free as gratis and as libre). That’s why it receives a lot of help from the community, and, for example, volunteers have translated it into 16 languages until now, and many more (including Polish) are coming soon. The European Union has recently sponsored it to help with its expansion in Europe, which was a great help. Your interested readers can find it at p3.express and start using the manual, the eLearning course, and everything else for free. Of course, they are welcome if they like to help as a volunteer.

Fot. Katarzyna Mrugala Nader speaking at New Trends in Project Management
conference, Gdansk 2016.

What is your Management Plaza about?

Together with my business partner, Frank Turley, we run a small company called Management Plaza (mplaza.training), where we have the goal of creating the best possible project management eLearning courses. It’s basically how we earn a living when we spend so much time contributing to standards and methods such as the PMBOK® Guide, P3.express, PRINCE2®, etc.

Philosophy is one of your passions. How can it help manage projects?

Philosophy is about asking difficult, fundamental questions as well as challenging the status quo and common sense. Those can be useful in any domain, including project management. My specialty is the philosophy of logic, which has a lot to do with the way logical systems work and the way they are built. I was particularly focused on the practical consequences of various logical systems (e.g., classical two-values logic vs. three-valued logics vs. fuzzy logic). I think that has helped me a lot in my contributions to project management systems.