Thoughts on ISO 21500

With ISO 21500 now in the public domain there seems to be a rush of people wanting to make money out of the document, primarily talking about certification and assessment. People proposing these concepts either don’t understand the basics of project management or don’t care, assuming organisations that buy their services are even less informed.

Whilst anyone can offer a certification based on knowledge of the standard, this will be a simple memory test with no real relevance to project management capabilities for the simple reason ISO 21500 set out what needs to be achieved, not how to achieve it.

This is quite different to the PMBOK® Guide and APM BoK, and other bodies of knowledge that contain a substantial amount of useful knowledge and is the key differentiator between a ‘standard’ and a BoK – standards define ‘what’; BoKs demonstrate ‘how’. The actual ‘ANSI standard’ in the PMBOK® Guide is one short chapter in the 4th Edition and an appendix in the 5th Edition. The balance of the 400+ pages in the PMBOK contain useful knowledge, and therefore by definition, are not part of the standard.

Similarly, because ISO21500 it is a standard, it IS NOT a methodology and bears no resemblance to a methodology. Organisations can build their methodology based on a standard but this involves a lot of work. To understand the differences between standards and methodologies see: and for more on developing a methodology see:

Whilst I’m sure someone will be offering certification options for commercial reasons before long. The processes defined in ISO21500 are at a very high level and certifying that someone has for example ‘developed a schedule’ is next to useless (but this is all ISO21500 will support). A valid certification should look at the quality and use of the schedule not the simple fact a piece of paper called a schedule exists! There are valid assessment models available like P3M3 and OPM3 that are designed to assess maturity; for more on these models see:

Just for the record, ISO21500 was not designed to facilitate certification or accreditation; it has been designed to provide an overarching framework to facilitate the alignment of national standards and terminology world-wide. If it achieves this, the standard will enable the standardisation of the practice of project management globally over time and will have achieved its primary design objective.


6 responses to “Thoughts on ISO 21500

  1. Dear Pat, I fully agree with you and your summary about the uselessness of an ISO 21500 that has no reality based and fundmental standard to offer – something I would put as a layer to build the internally used PM methodologies upon. A standard should put anyone into the same “safe basis” incl. Risk and Change Management basics

    • Edgar,

      I completely disagree with your assertion of ‘uselessness’ – ISO 21500 is a STANDARD. It is not a methodology, it is not a ‘how-to cook book’ and it is not a ‘BoK’. These all exist by the dozen but they are all different,

      Unfortunately a large number of people with no real idea about standards seem to expect detailed instructions on ‘how-to’ solve project problems, possibly confused by the informative sections that make up 95% of the PMBOK. No standard does this!

      The purpose of ISO 21500 is to start to develop a standard approach to project management in a practice that has widely divergent views and practices. It will be a success if the rate of divergence slows and starts to turn to convergence between the 40 countries that participated in its development.

      In the meantime be careful of people trying to profit from selling certification and accreditation.

      • Pat, and there is where the discussion starts and probably never ends. A standard is a framework of processes or ways of communication on which to build. If it is not ripe for any industry, methodology or PM / Software process to be applied upon, it is not a standard in my eyes and should be either renamed or enhanced to actually become what standard means. The fundament. Everything else can be “built around” such standards or addedto them if you will.
        That has nothing to do with countries but non-comparable industries and practices. If there would be country specific changes to be applied, in my eyes these would again not belong to a “standard” or become an industry/ country standard.

      • You may wish to single handily change the world of standardisation Edgar. But until you can convince the standards authorities in some 120 countries to change the practice of decades just get used to the simple fact Standards are not ‘how-t, cook-books’ they never have been and they are very unlikely to ever be.

        The only bit of the PMBOK® Guide 4th Edition that was a ‘standard’ was Chapter 3 – less than 30 pages out of 460. In the 5th Edition, the standard has been moved to an Annex to avoid any confusion as to what part of the overall book is the ANSI Standard and what part is the PMI Body of Knowledge.

        ISO 21500 certainly can be improved and this will happen as part of the normal ISO update cycle. But the improvements will be to the STANDARD, they will not attempt to turn the standard into a BoK or a methodology; they are three very different types of document for three very different purposes – read the links above to see the differences.

        The reason for this post and a significant number of my posts to Linked-In groups is the number of people either through ignorance or wilful misrepresentation who are trying to confuse methodologies, bodies of knowledge and standards and use ISO 21500 for purposes it is incapable of supporting simply because it is a standard.

      • Pat, I agree with you initial assessment of my response. It is the standards authoritities which need some “fresh air”. Until that happens, I apply in programs and projects what is good in my opinion and experience and I leave (or check with peers if it should be part of it) out, what I regard as not convincing.
        The manufacturing ISO standards could be a good example to reflect upon … for mentioned authorities.

  2. Pat, my comment comes in late, but however, here it is. Thank you for hitting the core of the matter. I typed almost the same for my blog and then Googled yours up. Will ISO 21500 help? I am sure it will by establishing a standardized communication framework and that will need time. At this moment, it seems to be helping those who try to make money out of certificate-hungry organisations and people. They have been warned.

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