In my years of training and coaching agile teams, I’ve heard every snide remark you can imagine regarding the Project Management Institute (PMI). I’ve heard it called the Project Measurement Institute, implying that it’s more interested in measuring projects than actually delivering them. Participants in my class have called it the Prehistoric Management Institute, suggesting that only dinosaurs care about its practices and methods. I’ve heard shouts of “YAGNI” when I discussed PMI’s requirement for documentation and process (YAGNI is an acronym for ‘You Ain’t Gonna Need It”). In short, PMI gets a lot of abuse and disrespect from the agile community.

Not that it wasn’t deserved, in some cases. While many PMI adherents remind us that PMI has discussed “rolling wave” planning, which can be seen as a style of agile management, for many years, it’s also true that neither the word “agile” nor the word “incremental” show up in the PM Body of Knowledge as recently as 2004. The traditional, work-breakdown-structure-focused style of project management that PMI espouses in its Project Management Body of Knowledge is often depicted as the opposite side of the coin from light, lean, agile project delivery methods. For many agile adherents, PMI’s process-centric approach to project management represents the ideas they’re rebelling against.

There are flaws in this thinking, however. It’s important to remember that prior to the codification of project knowledge by the PMI, project management was a seat-of-the-pants exercise, with no consistent standards or disciplines, and very little respect. Managers pointed to someone, said “you’re managing this one,” and expected them to automatically display the planning, estimating, risk evaluation, and team skills required to keep a complex and lengthy project on track. There was no mechanism for demonstrating proficiency in project management skills before PMI’s certification came along. There was no way for employers to ascertain whether a prospective project manager (PM) had mastered the basic project management skillset. The professionalization of project management by PMI has been to every PMs benefit.

It’s also critical to acknowledge that most agile shops still employ significant elements of PMI-style, traditional, plan-driven project management, and that adaptivity and hybridization are the norm, not the exception.

We now need to recognize that, with the implementation of the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) exam, PMI has thrown itself into the center of the agile conversation and taken a giant leap towards making itself relevant to the community of agile developers, PMs, and organizations that have eagerly migrated to agile methods.

I spoke with Mike Griffiths, co-founder of the PMI Agile Community of Practice, and the author of the best-selling test prep book for this exam, PMI-ACP Exam Prep. I asked him why agile practitioners should care about an agile test from PMI, with their reputation as the “keeper of the flame” of traditional project management.

“There are other agile certifications out there,” Mike replied, “ScrumMaster being the one held by most practitioners, but that’s obviously focused on scrum. PMI tests a broader set of methodologies, including scrum, XP, lean, and kanban, for example. It has a broader appeal. PMI has credibility in the certification of PMs because it has a defined certification process that requires not only that you pass an exam but that you have 2,000 hours project experience. Finally, PMs should care about this exam because employers will care.”

I reminded Mike that PMI’s history and reputation may be hard to get past for many agile adherents, and he shared some experiences that he’d had with PMI in the early days of agile adoption.

“In the early days there was certainly resistance. Back in 2006  I was teaching at PMI Seminars World and got resistance around getting my curriculum accepted for PDU credits. I had reviewers who said “I don’t see how this supports PMI planning processes,” or “Where’s your work breakdown structure?” By the time we began creating the PMI Agile Communities of Practice, and began talking about certification, there was a recognition that PMI was behind the curve and had to catch up.”

I reminded Mike that PMI is seen by many agilists as the keeper of the flame for traditional, plan-driven project management, and he explained how PMI has attempted to neutralize those objections.

“We formed a steering committee of agile experts not associated with PMI, including people like Alistair Cockburn, Michele Sliger, and Mike Cottmeyer. I probably had the most links with PMI through the Agile Community of Practice. We asked the obvious question; what do agile project managers need to know? Well, they need to know how to plan, how to estimate, how to communicate, deal with risks. We also focused on the soft skills side – how do we build effective teams, how do we coach teams, deal with conflict, build consensus? We created an exam content outline. We debated creating an Agile Body of Knowledge, but, as PMI is not the source of knowledge on this, there’s already a well-established literature and widely applied good practices. We found 11 books, by folks like Jim Highsmith and Mike Cohn, that supported the exam outline.”

Since Mike was one of the developers of the exam, I decided to take a look at his exam prep book and see if I felt it could be useful for PMs planning to pursue this certification. I found it to be an outstanding tool for preparing for the test, and was pleased to see that, rather than the typical “cram book” that’s become the norm in the PMP prep market, Mike’s book is more like an agile text — it actually teaches and explains the concepts and ideas rather than merely listing possible questions and answers.

Mike starts by presenting a bit of history about his involvement with the PMP Agile Community and the development of this exam. He lays out a course of study that guides applicants through the material, with opportunities for testing your strength in the material, identifying gaps, and reviewing the knowledge presented to fill those gaps and pass the exam. In focused sections on such agile concepts as “Value Driven Delivery” and “Adaptive Planning,” Mike illustrates the unique ideas that agile has brought to the discipline, and presents a comprehensive background of both the theory and practice of using those techniques to deliver real projects and client value.

In the 12 short years since the Agile Manifesto, not only has agile become the methodology of choice among the majority of firms (PDF), but it has persuaded PMI to adopt its methods as a standard of project management practice. Now that’s a revolution!