Project management is more than a set of processes. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Seventh Edition sets out to codify different areas of what project management involves in eight performance domains.
The book defines a performance domain as “critical for the effective delivery of project outcomes.” In other words, something you must focus on. However, the domains interact and depend on each other. No one goes into work and says, “Today I’m going to manage uncertainty.” Everything you do as a project manager involves leaning into the domains to a greater or lesser extent, as you keep all the project’s balls in the air.
As a set of focus areas, the domains make a lot of sense and add depth to the latest version of the PMBOK® Guide. No one will argue that processes aren’t important, but I have found it helpful to think about processes – and everything else I do – in relation to performance domains that group and align the core activities for project managers.
But what are these eight domains? I’m glad you asked! Let’s look at them now.
While the performance domains aren’t listed in any particular order in the PMBOK® Guide, I think the order the authors have used is a good one. It starts with people: the wide stakeholder communities affected by your work.
What you’re looking for might seem obvious, but it’s often harder than you expect: a good working relationship with all involved, the project sponsor and stakeholders agreeing with the project objectives, and everyone supporting – or at least not disrupting – the achievement of goals.
In my experience, the vast majority of project management is working with people, as it’s people who make projects happen, or stop the work. It makes sense to me for a PM to put a lot of time and effort into this domain.
The project team is a sub-set of the stakeholder community, and I’ve always thought of each of them (and me as the project manager) as a stakeholder. We have a vested interest in the outcome, often beyond simply turning up to do our job, as many experts on the team have to work with the results for years after the project has formally closed.
Within the team domain, you’re looking to create a high-performing team that takes shared ownership of the project.
3. Development Approach and Life Cycle
The PMBOK® Guide doesn’t mandate a particular development approach or method, especially now that PMI actively embraces different delivery approaches. The important thing here is to match the approach to the project in a way that feels consistent. You can’t easily build a bridge in iterations, but software development – to use a classic example – would fit agile ways of working with incremental releases.
The aim of this domain is to challenge project thinking and ensure that the best approach for delivering value to stakeholders is taken. We should make a conscious choice about delivery methods, instead of just opting for what we’ve always done. It’s important to take into account the constraints, certainty level around requirements and scope, ease of making changes, and availability of funding.
Planning is what got me into project management in the first place. It felt like a good job in which I could put my organized tendencies to use! This domain is all about making sure the project makes progress in a structured way, and that plans are fit for purpose. That means spending just the right amount of time on working out what to do for the circumstances: Goldilocks planning.
Planning is a useful communication tool, so along with doing the plan, you’ll be working with others to progressively elaborate where necessary. Finally, this domain also covers change management to enable the team to adapt the work and the approach as required – because as experienced project managers will know, no plan survives contact with the enemy*.
5. Project work
Project Work is a rather vague term that basically means ‘doing the project’. When the team is in place and the work is planned, you have to do the tasks, and tick things off as complete on the schedule. That’s what this domain is all about.
You’ll know you are doing it right when you’ve got the right people doing the right work at the right time, and everyone knows what is going on!
For me, the Delivery domain overlaps with the previous domain. Delivering and doing are surely aligned. However, when you dig into this performance domain, you can see that it’s more about the bigger picture. While Project Work covers doing the daily tasks to advance the project, the Delivery domain is more about advancing business objectives and realizing benefits.
Think of this area of focus as ‘delivery of value.’ If you can align your project with strategic objectives, plan and realize benefits, and get stakeholders to sign off on deliverables because you’ve created what they need, then you’re on track. In other words, this is the domain where quality comes into play: you want what you deliver to be the right thing.
Up until now, the domains have felt like a logical progression through the journey of project management to me, although I know they have not been included in the PMBOK® Guide in any particular order.
The final two domains feel a bit additional: focus areas that cover key project management topics but don’t fit so well in the journey. Perhaps it’s because Measurement and Uncertainty are things that you’ll be considering on an ongoing and repeating basis.
The Measurement domain is about ensuring that performance levels are adequate. Whether you do monthly status reports, a burn down chart, or earned value management reporting, the goal is to ensure you know what’s going on, and what is forecast, so you can course-correct if needed. To do that, you’ll need the right metrics set up from the beginning, so make sure your software tools are going to give you what you need.
In my experience, this domain is where I spend most of my time. Project management is all about handling uncertainty. It’s important to understand the context of the project and available contingency to make the right choices. The discipline of Risk and Opportunity Management is wrapped up in the activity of dealing with uncertainty.
As a team, you’ll need processes in place to anticipate future situations (no crystal balls allowed) as well as a proactive approach to handling risk.
Putting The Domains Into Practice
You might be asking: but what do I do in each of these domains? The PMBOK® Guide does not specify which activities are relevant to each domain – that’s where your professional judgement comes in.
You’ll need to be guided by the organization and project context, the work you are doing, people involved, requirements for governance, and the outcomes expected. Think of the domains as points of focus for your day to ensure you maximize the chances of project success. When you address them all, you’re well on your way to an integrated, successful project with an engaged team.
* A quote attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in 1871.