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Revised Project Management Professional Exam Will Focus More on People Skills

Revised Project Management Professional Exam Will Focus More on People Skills

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Last Updated January 17, 2020

The updated Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam that started in January 2021 puts much more emphasis on people skills than it has in years past.

“The biggest change to me is that PMI (Project Management Institute) has realized that nothing gets done except through people,” said Villanova University adjunct faculty member Jeffrey Brown, PMP, who has been teaching the Essentials of Project Management and Essentials of Business Analysis courses for Villanova’s College of Professional Studies since 2002.

“You can have all the processes in the world, but if people won’t follow, you get nowhere,” Brown said. “PMI has added a lot about people issues. They realized project managers are people managers. That is a new viewpoint. It was always process, what tools do you need. It was assumed you would be able to get people to do things.”

Most people-related issues were just incidental to the process, Brown said. “As a result, we’ve had a lot of dysfunctional project managers. They couldn’t handle people to get the project done.”

Every three to five years, PMI – of which Brown is a member – conducts research to understand how the profession has progressed, the impact of emerging trends and how the responsibilities of project managers have changed. According to PMI, the last round of research was conducted in 2015 and now a new exam content outline has been published to help participants prepare for the updated exam.

Preparing for the New PMP® Exam

Subject matter experts from leading organizations around the world have helped PMI define the project manager of the future. “As this effort advances, [Villanova] will keep students informed on key outcomes and help them prepare for the upcoming changes to the PMP® exam,” Brown said.

In the updated version of the PMP® exam, 42% is devoted to project management people skills, 50% is on process and 8% is on business considerations, Brown said.

Brown offered five suggestions for those preparing to sit for the certification exam.

  1. Look at the outline when preparing for the exam. From that, you can get a feel for what is going to be covered.
    • For example, according to PMI’s Exam Content Outline, “half of the examination will represent predictive project management approaches and the other half will represent agile or hybrid approaches.”
  2. Conduct a self-analysis of your own skill set to see how well you stack up.
    • Focus on your weaknesses, Brown said.
  3. In studying for the exam, hone on concentrations in which you have little experience.
    • For example, if you have never learned how to praise team performance, learn how to do it in preparation for the exam.
  4. Look at the mechanics of taking the exam.
    • “I always found that flash cards work well,” Brown said. “I used those to help me remember certain things, like a list of five things.”
  5. Practice exams can be very valuable.
    • Villanova’s project management courses are maturing with the exam, Brown said. “We talk about how project management has evolved in the past decade.”

The Evolution of Project Management

Project management as a profession is still relatively new, Brown said. It used to be you just became an accidental project manager. Maybe someone was a good engineer or technical person and got appointed to lead the next project, he said.

“The methodologies were typically ad hoc,” Brown said. “There were no books of knowledge or standard practices. Methodologies have become more and more formalized. PMI has been part of that to make it into a profession.”

There are now best practices for project managers. “Many organizations create their own methodologies working off the same best practices, which are typically embodied in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), 7th Edition” Brown said. “People take the PMBOK® as a guide and not so much as the Bible because it does not tell you how to do, but what to do.”

There are still accidental project managers, Brown said, but businesses have come to see the value in having a professional project manager run a project with a specific skill set.

Some organizations require a project manager to have earned a PMP® credential or a similar certification before managing a project. PMI’s Project Management Salary Survey, 11th Edition reported that survey respondents (across 42 countries) who held a PMP® certification reported a 22% higher median salary compared to those without a PMP® certification.

Important Skills for Project Managers

The skills included in the exam are the most necessary, Brown said. Among them are skills to manage people.

  • “One of the best skill sets a project manager can have is how to influence people to get things done when they can’t actually order them to do it,” he said. As a project manager you won’t always be their boss, which makes the job more of a challenge.
  • The ability to communicate the right amount of information in the right format to the right people. People don’t like surprises or to be inundated with data they don’t need.
  • Understand what a project is, that it is a temporary endeavor and that you must know the various steps you have to take to get it done. This is a basic understanding of project management. You must understand how a project runs.

Who is Drawn to Project Management?

Those who typically find their way to Villanova’s Certificate in Applied Project Management are already in management and playing the role of project manager without all the necessary training, Brown said.

“They want to increase their skills to make the project work. Those are typically early- to mid-career people or people switching careers. We do get a wide range of people, from relatively recent graduates who want to get into project management to those who have been around a while and have already been asked to head a project.”

Others might be business analysts who decide they’d rather lead projects, he said.

Every Business Has Projects to Manage

“Projects are implemented in every business you can think of. A project is a temporary endeavor,” Brown explained. “They are one-offs. They are not ongoing operations like an assembly line operation. They are one-off efforts designed to hand over a specific deliverable and they are typically not repeated.”

For example, a company may decide its old finance system isn’t effective anymore, so they decide to create a project to develop a new finance software solution.

Like all such projects, it is a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service or result and it has a defined beginning and end in time and a unique outcome.

Many times, project managers must be jacks of all trades.

“You can be involved in the entire organization. You need to identify stakeholders and go talk to them to get the requirements, find out what is the project trying to do and what it is supposed to deliver.

The methodology determines how much work must be done up front, Brown said.

Often, a Waterfall approach is taken, with five or six cascading steps down, from requirements to design, implementation, verification and delivery.

Sometimes a project is delivered in increments. The Agile process was developed because people realized the client didn’t always know what they wanted until they saw it, Brown said. “The idea with Agile is you deliver small increments of value and let the customer see them before moving to the next step. Along the way, the customer gets value and can change the direction if needed.”

Anyone serious about becoming a project manager or honing skills on the job can find useful knowledge in Villanova’s suite of project management courses, Brown said.  


If you are interested in taking the PMP® exam, enroll in Villanova’s online PMP® Exam Preparation course. The course supports the PMBOK® Guide, Seventh Edition and contains customized study plans, flashcards, practice questions, progress reports and a resource center full of test-taking tips, and feedback links to help students prepare for the exam. If you live in proximity to Villanova University and prefer to take an in-person PMP® Exam Prep course, visit the campus PMP® Exam Prep course page.

For students preparing to sit for the PMP® exam, there may be additional prerequisites needed before you are qualified to take the exam (e.g. hours of project management experience). Visit PMI’s PMP® certification page for more information.

PMP and PMBOK are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.