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How to Use the 8 Project Performance Domains on Your Project

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The new publication from the Project Management Institute (PMI): A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) Guide - Seventh Edition, talks about Performance Domains. The Knowledge Areas from previous editions hardly get a mention. So what are Performance Domains and why do they matter to project managers?

We asked experts to tell us what the domains mean to them and how they are used on real initiatives for performance management.

The 8 Project Performance Domains

The 8 project performance domains are:

  1. Team
  2. Stakeholders
  3. Life cycle
  4. Planning
  5. Navigating uncertainty and ambiguity
  6. Delivery
  7. Measurement
  8. Project work

Let’s look at the role these have to play on how to measure project performance and how you can use them at work.

1. Team

Think of the Team domain as the area for everything to do with the people who are doing the work on the project and the associated team members. They all work together to create something that delivers the expected business value.

Expect to see questions about team roles on the PMP exam. Use a PMP Exam Simulator that includes plenty of test questions to check your understanding of the roles of Scrum Master and project manager before your exam day, as students tell us there are often role-related questions on the test.

“As the project manager, your role is to ensure the team grows into a group that works together effectively and is highly performing,” says Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, and Founder of the Project Management PrepCast. “Have a look at the Tuckman ladder to see the stages that a team would normally go through on its journey through the life cycle.”

Performance measurement for teams often feels quite subjective. You might check how people are feeling during the daily standup meeting or via a team survey. Many agile retrospective tools include informal ‘check in’ questions to sample the mood of the team.

2. Stakeholders

The wider stakeholder community is more than simply the team members. The Stakeholders domain is where the rest of the people are covered. This performance area looks at how to engage and collaborate with stakeholders for effective decision making.

“Project managers have to deliver to stakeholders' expectations,” says Dr Raman K Attri, from XPert Research, “and consider how the project management deliverables could impact stakeholders. Keep all stakeholders on the same page. An essential part of this is to decide the type of communication style required to work effectively with various stakeholders,” he adds.

According to Dr Attri, a project manager is expected to speak the language of stakeholders as well as setting and managing stakeholder expectations. Part of this is being able to handle reasonable and unreasonable expectations from stakeholders. “You need to negotiate with the decision-makers, navigate the complexity of decisions and meet competing or even conflicting expectations,” he adds. “Show partnership with stakeholders to execute the project to success.”

Project performance metrics for stakeholders tend to be difficult to gather, but there are ways to do it. “Look into Net Promoter Score,” suggests Elizabeth Harrin, FAPM, author of Engaging Stakeholders on Projects. “Surveys and informal conversations are also ways to measure how people feel about how the work is being run so you can change up what you are doing to keep it effective.”

3. Life cycle

Contemporary project management has ditched the agile/waterfall dichotomy and is all about tailoring. That’s why there is a whole performance domain related to the development approach and life cycle.

There are several types of PMP exam questions that reflect different life cycles, so it’s really important to understand those for the test. “Students tell us that you may have to work out the approach from the scenario in the question, and that’s a lot easier to do if you have studied this domain,” says Cornelius Fichtner.

Today, you are just as likely to find businesses running hybrid projects, projects with phases and stages as well as teams using predictive and adaptive approaches. The development approach influences how the activity is run and the cadence of delivery. Performance measurement for the life cycle tends to simply be a reflection on whether the right approach has been chosen for the deliverables.

4. Planning

Whole books have been written about planning, so it’s a giant topic. This particular area of project management helps teams to focus on setting up the work for a successful outcome through a structured approach to working out what needs to be done.

There’s no requirement to use a particular planning approach. There are lots of ways to organize work and activities from the very beginning of the idea through to achieving the outcomes and celebrating a job well done. Some work requires a lot of planning; other initiatives can be planned in a morning. Sometimes plans change frequently; sometimes your original plan stands firm and can be used throughout the project.

“Did the team have a proper plan in place for this project? Did they know what to expect? Did they consider all factors before beginning this endeavor?” asks Ryan Fyfe, COO of Workpuls, Inc. “Was there an initial assessment of the success criteria before deciding on the start date? Was there an evaluation at midpoint in order to determine if adjustments were needed or if course corrections were warranted? These are the different ways to evaluate project tasks from a high-level perspective.” He goes on to say that it is important to establish planning metrics from the onset, with subsequent reviews determining whether goal achievement was consistent with expectations based on when these targets were established.

The work of planning involves organization, working iteratively as necessary, coordination and continuous review. Planning is more than simply knowing the dates. It’s also about knowing how the work is going to be done, and that might include a project performance plan, which is a way of ensuring you are on track to deliver something of value.

5. Navigating uncertainty and ambiguity

You could argue that all projects have to navigate through uncertainty, and that would be true. We can’t predict the future, so you don’t know what’s coming next! Your program could go smoothly, or there might be a big market or company upheaval that requires many changes.

However, this domain also deals with uncertainty within the work: the fact that you might not know exactly what the product is going to look like when you start building it. As well as the risk management processes, there are other ways of dealing with an uncertain situation, such as by phasing delivery to spread the risk.

As a team, work together to establish what uncertainty your deliverables are facing and then consider how best to manage that. You may choose to avoid some uncertainty and embrace others.

“When developing the habit of concentrating on the risks that matter most, you will start getting more done than any two or three project managers around you,” says Harry Hall, Founder of the Project Risk Coach. “Use your risk analysis threshold to determine which risks merit a response. For example, all risks with a risk score of 20 or greater are urgent risks that require a risk owner and response plan,” he adds.

Measure your team’s ability to navigate uncertainty by their approach to risk management.

6. Delivery

This domain is what many managers love best: the work of delivering outcomes and seeing the results of our labor. This is a focus area for teams that helps them understand and carry out the work to do with achieving business objectives. It’s the domain that links business strategy to project results. By delivering the right things, we can help organizations move closer to their overall goals.

So what does that look like? “Getting stakeholders involved is crucial for making sure the team delivers the right outcomes,” says Elizabeth Harrin. “When people feel involved, they are more likely to take action, make timely decisions and provide feedback that helps shape the project in a positive way.”

When considering this domain, teams are thinking about how they can run their projects in the best possible way, given the strategic objectives and corporate aims. For example, it might be advantageous to stagger delivery, releasing incremental updates at various stages to capture value as early as possible in the life cycle. Or the right thing to do might be to bundle up changes and release them together as part of a structured organizational initiative. Delivery teams will also think about benefits tracking and how to make sure it is possible to realize and record what the project has achieved, long after they have moved on to other tasks.

7. Measurement

Measuring project performance is essential if you want to know how the work is progressing. However, project performance measurement gives us much more information than simply ‘are we on track’. Measures like Cost Performance Index and Schedule Performance Index provide detailed information that helps teams understand whether they are ahead or behind plan, and crucially, helps them pinpoint why that might be. “Earned Value Management was developed in 1966 and it is still required for the PMP exam,” says Cornelius Fichtner. I created the first video on EVM about 12 years ago and if you watched that video today, it would still be relevant for exam prep.”

Part of project management is ensuring that you select the right approaches for measuring performance - and taking corrective action when the performance you see is not aligned to what was planned, and earned value metrics are definitely a useful part of that. Getting back on track is also part of this domain!

The point of this area is to allow the team to focus on whether what they are doing is going to result in a good outcome: an on time, on budget delivery that meets the client’s expectations (or whatever success criteria or key performance indicators you have decided on during the planning). If not, then the measurement data allows you to change how the team is working to give the project more chance of delivering what is required within the current constraints.

This domain is all about understanding variances - and making sure the team is acting on the information.

8. Project Work

The final domain is Project Work, and that is a broad area of project management that covers everything to do with ensuring projects can operate within the organization. It touches on the processes for running projects, resource management and creating a culture of project delivery within the organization by making sure that project managers have the option to learn from each other and from their projects.

This is the area where strategic alignment plays a big part. And if you have a PMO, their work will shape this domain. From choosing the right project performance metrics to making sure you have the available resources to deliver this year’s strategic priorities, there’s a lot to consider if your organization wants to achieve its goals.

Project Performance Evaluation

So what is the process of project performance evaluation that you should be using for your initiatives? The answer - as with so many things in project management - is “it depends”. The performance domains give you a steer as to the most important factors to take into account as you lead the work. These will also shape how you measure and evaluate the work, from team morale to quality KPIs, from hitting milestones to satisfied clients.

Work together to establish the best ways to measure performance on your work, and use the domains to reflect and consider what areas are most important to your stakeholders.

In Summary

Being able to manage project performance is important, because it’s the key way to know how things are going. The performance domains allow us to reflect on progress in different ways and to ensure we are always, as project professionals, focusing on what matters most.

The contents of the new PMBOK® Guide is not yet reflected in the PMP exam. We expect that PMI will align the PMP exam to the Seventh Edition in due course, but for now, the exam is based on information from the Sixth Edition, which is still available online via the Standards+ pages of PMI’s website.

However, it’s worth being prepared for the update and learning about project performance because even if you aren’t ready for your exam just yet, knowing how to measure performance will help you in your day job as a project manager.

Training for Project Management Professional (PMP)®, PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)®, and Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)®

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