PMI-ACP® Exam Outline Explained by Agile Certified Practitioners

The Agile Certified Practitioner is PMI’s fastest growing certification, and it’s not surprising. As more and more businesses want to adopt proven ways to deliver incremental value faster and with greater customer satisfaction, agile is the way to go.

The PMI-ACP exam outline covers a huge range of agile topics and practices. If you want to pass the PMI-ACP exam and show that you have a competitive edge in the marketplace when it comes to delivering agile projects, you’ll need to fully understand all the relevant domains.

We hear time and time again that a PMI-ACP exam simulator is the tool of choice to help candidates pass the test successfully because it helps you focus on building your skills across a range of relevant agile topics. It’s the perfect supplement for your PMI-ACP course.

But what is covered by the examination? What topics will you be questioned on by a simulator and on your test day? In this article, we’ll answer the question: “What should I study for PMI-ACP certification?”

What is the PMI-ACP® Exam Format?

The PMI-ACP exam format is a three-hour computer-based test made up of 120 multiple-choice questions. The questions are mapped to the exam content outline domains.

Twenty of the questions are not scored and do not contribute to your test result. These are called pre-test items and are questions that PMI is testing. You won’t know which questions count towards your mark and which are the pre-test items, so answer every question as if it matters because it does!

PMI-ACP® Exam Syllabus

The exam covers 7 agile domains. These domains are:
  1. Domain I. Agile Principles and Mindset
  2. Domain II. Value-driven Delivery
  3. Domain III. Stakeholder Engagement
  4. Domain IV. Team Performance
  5. Domain V. Adaptive Planning
  6. Domain VI. Problem Detection and Resolution
  7. Domain VII. Continuous Improvement (Product, Process, People)

We’ll review each of those domains in more detail a little later in this article.

All the domains are covered by the exam, but the coverage isn’t equal. Certain areas cover more weight than others. You can expect the questions on your test to be broken down as follows;

Agile Principles and Mindset
16%
Value-driven Delivery
20%
Stakeholder Engagement
17%
Team Performance
16%
Adaptive Planning
12%
Problem Detection and Resolution
10%
Continuous Improvement (Product, Process, People)
9%
In other words, you’ll get more questions about value-driven delivery than anything else. Continuous improvement is the topic that’s likely to come up the least (although you’ll still want to spend time revising that domain so you are ready for the questions that do appear!).

A Detailed Look at the PMI-ACP® Syllabus

Any good PMI-ACP study guide should include each of the 7 domains. Let’s review them now and see what they cover.

Domain I. Agile Principles and Mindset

The first domain focuses on building and fostering agile principles and the mindset to work in an agile environment.

It’s all about advocating for agile principles and supporting the team to use appropriate methods with a common understanding. You can demonstrate a facilitative, collaborative, servant leadership style at work: that’s what this domain seeks to explore and assess.

The agile principles form the foundation of the mindset. Mohammad Alharbi, PMP, PMI-ACP says, “I would recommend you focus on the 4 values and 12 principles by investing most of your preparation effort and time in trying to ingrain, absorb and understand them but more importantly how to practically use them and put them in the right context.”

The important behaviors to reflect on as your approach your examination include:

  • Enhancing visibility of real project progress by using transparent and trusted information radiators to share status
  • Influencing processes and behaviors to encourage change at all levels of the organization, with a view to improving efficiency
  • Using common terminology and making sure people understand what those agile terms mean in your organization
  • Allowing team members to experiment with new techniques and ways of working, and then learning from mistakes
  • Fostering self-organization and empowering the team to act.
“Just correlate relevant tools back to the corresponding agile principle, rather than digging further in the tool’s attributes and parameters,” adds Mohammad. “The exam doesn't test your knowledge of the tools and techniques themselves but where to put them in the big picture.”

Domain II. Value-driven Delivery

“Value-driven delivery is about delivering the highest-value portions of the project as early as possible,” says Jeff Furman, PMI-ACP, PMP. There are two reasons you want to focus on prioritizing value:
  1. Customers can begin benefitting and profiting early from the features most valuable to them, long before the project ends.
  2. There will be stakeholder satisfaction early, generating buy-in and engagement throughout the project lifecycle.

“At the heart of this domain is the ability for the team to provide incremental delivery, where working features are delivered to the customer one set at a time,” adds Jeff.

The PMI-ACP certification exam will test you on the key tools and techniques to consider in this domain. They include:

  • Test-Driven Development (TDD): This involves writing the tests first, then developing the code to match those tests.
  • Refactoring: This means improving already-working code to make it more efficient and maintainable. You’ll hear it summed-up in the phrase: “Red, Green, Clean!

Jeff also says it is important to understand how to prioritize work to ensure the portions that deliver the most value get pushed to the front of the project. “Prioritization is aided by specific techniques, such as MoSCoW (Must have, Should have, Could have, Won’t have) and Kano analysis,” he says.

The knowledge and skills required by this domain relate to being able to track progress and ensure the deliverables are fit for purpose.

There are four areas Jeff recommends knowing in detail for the PMI agile exam:

  • Frequent verification and validation
  • Cumulative flow diagrams
  • S-curves
  • Story points.

Frequent verification and validation

“Frequent verification and validation is performed on the deliverables, to prevent the Gulf of Evaluation,” says Jeff. “That’s the difference between what the team thinks the customer wants and what they really want.” This is the process of regularly checking that what is being delivered is in line with the customer’s expectations.

Cumulative flow diagrams

Cumulative flow diagrams are also known as stacked area graphs. “They are used to represent progress graphically, showing work as in progress, remaining, or completed,” Jeff explains. The graphs are a good communication tool, serving to show what work is still outstanding.

S-curves

“The popular Waterfall skill of earned value management is used in Agile development,” Jeff says, “but is represented visually by S-curves instead of text reports.”

S-curve data is driven from the amount of scope delivered compared to actual spending. You’ll also use lines for projected progress vs projected spending. This data is helpful to compare how the team is doing compared to how they expected to progress through the project.

If you are already a Project Management Professional (PMP)®, then you’ll be familiar with the concepts and calculations of earned value analysis, and that will help you grasp this skill.

Story points

The S-curves provide lines that describe the scope built, calculated in story points. Story points are used to estimate the difficulty associated with implementing a user story. The higher the number of points, the harder it is to deliver that user story.

Domain III. Stakeholder Engagement

The stakeholder engagement domain is about how you work with other people throughout the project.

Two of the four values of the Agile Manifesto reflect stakeholder engagement in agile approaches. These are:

  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

“In Agile, continuous stakeholder engagement throughout the project life cycle is central to project success,” says Stas Podoxin, PMP, PMI-ACP.

“Unlike traditional (predictive/waterfall) projects, where stakeholders are typically engaged at milestones or gates such as project initiation, kick-off meeting, requirements collection, the start of project execution, project status meetings, handover to operations or customer, closure, and so on, agile projects promote continuous stakeholder involvement and feedback.”

Key activities relevant for this domain include:

  • Iteration planning meetings
  • Iteration reviews
  • Retrospectives
  • Day-to-day project status sharing in the form of information radiators that are displayed for everyone to view.

You’ll use all of those, and more, as you work with stakeholders on a daily basis, so they are concepts to understand for your job, as well as for your PMI-ACP exam prep.

Interpersonal skills are also important: conflict management, cultural awareness, negotiation, and socio-political awareness will help you build better working relationships with the people on the team and the wider stakeholder community for your project.

“Project deliverables are produced in short cycles via iterations or sprints, so stakeholder involvement happens on a much more frequent basis,” Stas adds. “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. Stakeholder feedback is incorporated as it's received.”

Domain IV. Team Performance

Over recent years we’ve seen an important shift in the way the Project Management Institute -- and all project management thought leadership -- thinks about teams and stakeholders. The leadership role of the project manager is acknowledged and expected, and that’s a good thing!

Leadership skills can help in agile projects, and there is also a focus on collaboration, cooperation and facilitation.

“This domain is about team formation, empowerment, collaboration and commitment,” says Jonathan Hebert, PMI-ACP, PMP.

A core value in the Agile Manifesto is the importance of individuals and interactions, says Jonathan. That’s why it’s important to adequately prioritize the people and how they work together. “Agile projects optimize for delivery,” Jonathan adds, “instead of worrying about resource utilization. We empower the team to do their work by removing roadblocks.”

Key tools and techniques to consider for this domain include:

  • Facilitation and communication
  • Cross-skilling and upskilling individuals so they can contribute in broad generalist roles
  • Velocity tracking to better understand the capacity of the team to complete work
  • Forecasting and estimating tasks.

“Another important area is to make sure the team has a workspace that suits their needs,” says Jonathan. “That could be in the office or virtually.” Fishbowl windows are a technique to support virtual working. “The team opens a video conference screen in the morning and leaves it running all day,” Jonathan explains. “It makes it easy to talk to each other without having to open up another tool.”

Remote pairing works in a similar way. Colleagues can share screens and work collaboratively despite not being in the same room.

Servant leadership is discussed in detail in the Agile Practice Guide, and while it is not specific to agile approaches, it’s particularly appropriate for agile leaders. “Servant leadership is a way of better understanding how the team is working and making it possible for them to excel,” says Jonathan. “That could be through finding a different tool, identifying causes of conflict, coaching and promoting a culture of trust and respect. It’s whatever the team needs to perform to the best of their abilities.”

Domain V. Adaptive Planning

The Adaptive Planning domain covers three main areas:
  1. Levels of planning
  2. Adaptation
  3. Agile sizing and estimation

Levels of planning

“Planning happens on multiple levels, for example strategy at company level, project selection according strategy at portfolio level and managing the project properly at project level,” says Herbert Gonder, PMP, PMI-ACP. “Planning results should be visible and encourage stakeholders to engage and support the work.”

Adaptation

“Adaptation means to react to developments over time and adapt to changes in needs and expectations,” adds Herbert. “Your actions are based on retrospectives with the objective of delivering the maximum possible value.”

Agile sizing and estimation

Agile sizing and estimation refers to how you plan and estimate the work. Techniques like progressive elaboration to determine the size of tasks will help manage the team’s velocity and keep the project moving forward.

It’s also important to take maintenance and operations work into account when planning the project, and capacity planning becomes an important tool for the team.

“I think the key tools and techniques are adaptive and servant leadership, reviews and knowing how to apply them, and all kinds of feedback mechanisms,” says Herbert.

The important skills to consider as part of this domain include:

  • Facilitation skills
  • The ability to analyze and decompose data with a continuous focus on delivering value
  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Leadership.
“I would advise students to think about how they could manage a project without interfering,” says Herbert, “but always be looking for feedback, listening and understanding, and focusing on continuous improvement. That will help you know what kind of tools and techniques to apply.”

Domain VI. Problem Detection and Resolution

A lot of the effort in an agile project revolves around finding a sustainable working ‘flow’ as a team, and that’s what the sixth domain covers.

“There are frequently things that disrupt that flow,” says Antje Lehmann-Benz, PMP, PMI-ACP. “This exam domain takes a closer look at what kind of problems that could be, how to find out that they are indeed occurring (as it's not always obvious) and what the causes could be.”

That activity gives you information about problem detection, and there is another aspect to this domain: thinking about problems before they happen.

“Another important topic in this domain is to foresee and maybe prevent certain problems before they occur, or to at least have appropriate responses planned if they do,” adds Antje. “It's the agile version of the risk management domain, if you will.”

The domain also looks at which roles on agile teams are responsible for which aspects of this process, and in which way.

The key tools and techniques practitioners use include:

  • Metrics like defect rate
  • The risk-adjusted backlog
  • Variance analysis
  • Root cause analysis
  • Problem-solving techniques.

“Look at the metrics in this domain, such as defect rate, number of escaped defects and cycle time and think about how they relate to the creation of value,” advises Antje. “The higher the first two are and the shorter the third one, the better we are in our value creation while serving our stakeholders. But it also needs to be sustainable and balanced out with effort and cost for implementation.”

This domain does have some overlap with the next one, because the natural outcome of solving a problem is to implement the improvement activity.

Domain VII. Continuous Improvement (Product, Process, People)

This domain is about tailoring and improving the processes and work environment to increase team efficiency. It’s the area of the syllabus you’ll be tested on the least in the exam, but it is still important.

“Learning from past experience to incrementally improve your process, products and services is such a critical component of agile and PMI-ACP, says Yazmine Darcy, PMP, PMI-ACP. “We use this knowledge and skills not only to pass the exam, but in our day to day work.”

Key activities and tools related to this domain include:

  • Product surveys and demonstrations
  • Root cause analysis via tools like the 5 Whys and fishbone diagrams
  • Lessons learned and feedback mechanisms
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Value stream analysis.

All of those help the team to better understand the work they are doing and how they are doing it, so feedback can be used to improve.

“We take time to reflect on lessons learned via formal retrospectives or through more informally asking what we did well or examining areas where we can do better,” says Yazmine. “That means we can be ever more excellent at what we do and offer our customers.”

You can review the whole syllabus in the exam content outline which is available from the PMI website.

The exam syllabus is wide-ranging because it challenges practitioners to show they can work with a number of different tools and techniques. Agile practices are diverse, and you need to have a toolbox of options from which to pick the right tools at the right time in your project. Earning your certification will show employers that you have the skills to help them deliver projects in a versatile way.

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