Which project management qualification is right for me?

Those looking for a project management qualification can sometimes get lost in a forest of many diploma’s, systems, schools and possibilities. What are important issues to look out for?

The project management systems

Don’t worry, the list below only includes a few of the many project management systems and schools:

  • IPMA
  • PMI
  • Project-based work
  • Project-based creation
  • A4 Project management
  • TOC
  • Project management at a higher vocational (HBO) or a Master’s programme (university)
  • ISO 21500 project management
  • Systems engineering (V-Model)
  • Value Based project management
  • Earned Value (project) management
  • CAPM: Certified Associate in Project Management
  • CompTIA Project+certification
  • PRINCE2 Foundation/PRINCE2 Practitioner
  • CPMP:Certified Project Management Practitioner
  • Associate in Project Management
  • MPM: Master Project Manager
  • PPM:Professional in Project Management
  • PMITS:Project Management in IT Security
  • Certified Project Director
  • Various general (non-system-bound) project management courses from various schools and institutes
  • Various company or branch-specific systems such as PROBAAT from KPN or ECCS from the European Space Agency. Sectors such as the automotive industry or pharmaceutical companies also all have their own project management requirements

To make things even more complicated, there is also Agile project management, which includes these well-known or not so well-known names such as:

  • Agile
  • Extreme programming
  • Crystal Clear
  • Scaling agile (another 20-odd different systems: Spotify, SAFE, NEXUS, LESS, etc., etc.)

And finally, there are also management systems that touch upon project management, such as portfolio management, programme management or project maturity. Here too, we can provide a whole list of schools, certificates and systems: CMMi, OPM3, P3M3, MINCE, PGM, MSP, IPM, PGMC, APgM, A4-Programme management, PfMfNP, EPM etc.

Viewing this from the outside, one can’t help but come to the conclusion that many people and organisations all want their own project management system. But is one project management system really so much better than another? And do the training courses in all those systems and frameworks to become a project manager really differ so much? Which project management course should you choose?

Considerations when choosing project management education

If you add up all the schools, systems, frameworks and models, you’ll quickly reach around between 50 to 100 different project management systems or frameworks. That’s a huge number, but if you look closer at ‘proprietary’ terms and names, many systems are very similar with regards to their approach and philosophy. In other words: once you’ve followed a good project management course or read a good book about it, you will probably be able to quickly understand the different systems and work with them. It does not matter whether you call a part of your project a “phase” or a “work package”. It always comes down to dividing your work into parts (phases, work packages). All the above project management methods are based on such an approach to dividing the work.

There are however differences between the frameworks:

  • Linear approach or iterative phasing (i.e.: is it ok if the project result changes along the way, or preferably not?): waterfall, agile or something in between
  • How detailed and extensive is a project management system? Is it a multitude of techniques, regulations and procedures (IPMA, PMI) or is the method more focused on ‘keeping it simple’?
  • Is there a lot, a little or no attention paid to the human side of projects? (No attention: Prince2; a little attention: PMI; a lot of attention: Value Based project management)

Too much of a good thing

The theory of project management in general consists of roughly 3 components: Structures of project management (techniques), the organisational side (environment) and the human side (behaviour).

Project Management Elements
Project Management Elements

Examples of techniques are: how to make plans, how to phase a project, how to handle risk management, how to set up a project administration and the like. Examples of the behavioural component are: motivating yourself and your team, leadership, clear communication, negotiation, political issues, dealing with resistance, and so on. The environment concerns the relationship of the project team with the parent organisation and other organisations within the project environment. Some schools pay more or less attention to one or more of the components. PMI is usually more on techniques where IPMA for example pays more attention on ‘human’ aspects of project management. PRINCE2 pays no attention at all to behavioural aspects of people working in projects.

When choosing project management training, the question is therefore: what do you want to learn? The various schools pay more or less attention to these three elements. In any case, you will have to learn the techniques if you want to be able to apply project management. In addition, it is also important to understand the relationship of your project team with the environment. Perhaps the most important thing, but also the most difficult to learn, is the human side of projects.

Doing a project is more than doing a step-by-step plan

Project managers are people who think in terms of structures. This is reflected in the way many systems place the curriculum for project management in a structure: You carry out your project in 7 phases, a risk analysis is done in 3 steps, a meeting goes through 5 phases, a negotiation is done in 5 phases, there are 4 styles of leadership, there are 4 phases of demotivation of people, and so on. You could say that it is an Anglo-Saxon way of thinking that predominates. In particular, the extensive project management schools such as IPMA and PMI have the tendency to make a ‘step-by-step’ plan, Venn diagram, quadrant scheme, flowchart or other scheme, of ‘everything’. Especially when it comes to learning the human aspects of project management, the question is whether this approach is sensible. Human behaviour can hardly be captured in a quadrant or step-by-step plan.

The doctoral research of Nicoline Mulder and the research work by Professor Van Aken of the TUE also show that too much structure in projects only has a counter-productive effect. Nevertheless, the well-known project management schools recommend more structure as a path to better project management. PRINCE2, PMI, IPMA, but also the project maturity systems only seem to prescribe even more templates, models, roadmaps and procedures in response to the uncertainty of projects.

The agilists among us (SCRUM, XP, Chrystal clear) will agree that a project-based approach must be kept simple. The thing is that you cannot apply agile everywhere and if agile projects become big (with a lot of participants), then the extra rules and procedures will pop up again to enable big teams

to work together and communicate with each other.

The threat of superficiality in project management education

The tendency is perhaps to look for the most extensive project management system. The more there is in the system or in the exam, the better, right? This may not be the case. The standard manual for preparation for the IPMA exams is no less than 645 pages thick. The system consists of 29 competence areas, 5 regarding the environment, 10 about behaviour and 14 about the field of project management. An average IPMA course usually lasts about five days. Everything has to be handled in that short time.

How much time and space does that leave for depth? Meeting techniques are dealt with in approx. 3 pages. RET psychology in 2 and a half pages. Planning via the critical path in 3 pages and a bit. Because IPMA encompasses so much and because of the tendency to create a structure everywhere, the curriculum is inevitably reduced to the learning of many diagrams and lists. This is the same with PMI, where the books are possibly even thicker (there is a lot of overlap between IPMA and PMI).

Experience shows that experienced project managers rarely or never use the lists, roadmaps and schedules. Perhaps the substance is useful for beginners, but there is a big chance that people will not recognise the (IPMA and PMI) material in practice.

Project management exams

Anyone unsure about a project management school would be well advised to look at the exams and certificates. For PMI, there are practice exams available on the Internet that consist of 1,000 multiple choice questions. If you can answer them, you are ready for the official PMI certificate. The PRINCE2 exams also consist of multiple choice questions. There are also fewer of them in circulation and officially, they should not be shared outside the recognised PRINCE2 offices. However, a clever person can of course find the PRINCE2 exam questions on the Internet. The following are two examples of PRINCE2 exam questions:

If the project leader discovers a problem where the agreed tolerance of a work package is exceeded, what action should be taken?

  1. Make a note in the Risk Log
  2. Submit a Project Issue
  3. Adjust the Work Package
  4. Draw up a Deviation Report

What is NOT part of the “Adopt Work Package” process?

  1. Compliance with product tolerance
  2. Draft a team plan
  3. Understand the need to report
  4. Draft a Progress Report

Followed by two examples from the PMI exam:

Sending letters, memos, reports, emails, and faxes to share information is an example of which type of communication?

  1. A. Direct
  2. B. Interactive
  3. C. Pull
  4. D. Push

A project charter is an output of which Process Group?

  1. A. Executing
  2. B. Planning
  3. C. Initiating
  4. D. Closing

The (rhetorical) question is: do these kinds of exams create better project leaders? Is their focus not too heavily placed on memorising lists and procedures?

PRINCE2 model. Source: Wikipedia

Recognised project management certificates

Many project leaders in training want a ‘recognised’ training course. The tricky question there is: recognised by whom? There is a lot of choice… Of the many project management schools and systems mentioned above, certificates can sometimes be obtained for project leaders (PRINCE2, IPMA, PMI, DSDM, SCRUM, MSP) and sometimes also for entire organisations (especially the project maturity systems). I would like to say that fortunately, there are also many ‘free’ methods that only describe a system in a book and/or course without a certificate (Project-based work, XP, Project-based creation, etc.), because the costs of certification are rather high. More fundamentally, however, the problem with certificates is that the exams are very strongly focused on reproducing procedures, step-by-step plans, quadrants, flowcharts and diagrams, often in the form of multiple choice exams. If only projects were as simple in practice.


When it comes to choosing a project management training course or system for your organisation, more is often not better. The KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid) certainly applies to projects as well. For most people, general project management training or a few days of project-based work is sufficient to become a project leader. Because the underlying essence of project management in all systems is very similar, a greater degree of interchangeability exists than the multitude of systems and separate qualifications would have you believe. Someone who has taken a course in project-based work will be able to work quickly in a PRINCE2-like environment and vice versa. Only the agile project management approach is fundamentally different and not interchangeable with ‘regular’ project management.

Those who would like to receive certified training mainly have a choice between PRINCE2, IPMA and PMI. Sometimes an organisation has made the choice for you and all project leaders are expected to obtain a diploma in the chosen system.

Please have a look at our  project management training course where we have tried to offer the most essential elements of project management in a compact course.  We also  do offer training courses to prepare you for one of the available (often multiple choice) exams of a certificate. Our own preference for learning how to become a project leader may be clear after this article: keep it simple and essential, that is what usually works in real life projects.

This article was written by Wouter Baars. Wouter is one of the freelance project management consultants at www.projectmanagement-training.net

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