ISO 21502 replaces ISO 21500 – A new perspective

Before talking about ISO 21502, it is important to understand its background. Because until 2012, there was no international standard for the management of projects. Only one addition to the quality management standards with a guideline for quality management in projects was available until then, namely ISO 10006.

Therefore, an international call was launched in 2007 for the development of a first comprehensive project management standard within the framework of the ISO International Standardization Organization. The Project Committee (PC) 236 brought together experts from more than 40 countries and developed the then unique ISO 21500 in three working groups over a period of five years. The aim at that time was to create a process-oriented standard based on three basic documents, the British BSI 6079, the German DIN 69901 (Part 2) and the process part from the American PMBOK Guide. The aim of ISO 21500 was, on the one hand, to provide internationally active companies with a standard that would make it easier to coordinate different project management processes. On the other hand, national standards bodies, industry-specific and international project management associations were also to be encouraged to adopt terminology, the conceptual framework and processes of ISO 21500 in their standards and thus to harmonize project management globally.

Much has happened since the publication of ISO 21500. The Technical Committee (TC) 258 has published a series of other standards, including standards for program and project portfolio management, for the governance of projects, programs and portfolios, and for the related terminology. The competency-based IPMA Individual Competence Baseline (IPMA ICB) version 4.0 and the IPMA Organizational Competence Baseline (IPMA OCB) are based on these ISO standards. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has abandoned the process orientation of the American PMBOK Guide and will be releasing a principle-based standard in 2021.

ISO TC 258 set out to revise ISO 21500, and has now published it as ISO 21502. Instead of the former ISO 21500, there will be an overarching standard in future that will show the connections between project, program and project portfolio management from a strategic point of view. The following changes are important from the previous ISO 21500 to the new ISO 21502: 

  • The concept of project management has been expanded to include project-related oversight and direction activities of the sponsoring organization
  • Information about how projects can deliver outcomes and enable the realization of benefits has been added
  • Consideration of the organizational context of projects has been added
  • Descriptions of additional project roles and responsibilities have been added
  • New topics have been added, such as creating a project environment that is conducive to success, project life cycles, decision points and gates, and additional project practices, such as benefits management and change control, to reflect current practices in project managemen
  • Pre- and post-project activities have been added
  • The format has been changed from process-based to practices and narrative-based

The former ISO 21500 had a narrow focus. The new ISO 21502 goes beyond these narrow limits and incorporates the context much more strongly. This refers to the pre- and post-project phases, the overlaps with operations in a company, the overarching programs and project portfolios, and the influences of governance on the project. A distinction is made between the “integrated project management practices” that are directly essential for the management of an individual project and the “management practices for a project” that go beyond this. In an appendix, these are referenced with the processes of ISO 21500.

The stronger inclusion of the context and thus the better interlinking of roles and responsibilities is positive. Also with regard to the pre- and post-project phases. In addition to the deliverables and the outputs, there is also significantly more emphasis on the outcomes and benefits. Unfortunately, the “soft side” of project management is again given far too little attention in ISO 21502. While the definition of project management in ISO 21500 still included the application of competencies, this has completely disappeared from the definition in ISO 21502 and is only worth twelve lines in the standard. In projects, many different social processes overlap and must be organized and managed towards the objective. There is little mention of this in ISO 21502. I would have expected much more here. The practitioner is left with the parallel application of several standards at the same time, i.e. ISO 21502 for the practices, ICB 4.0 for the competencies, in particular in the areas of people and perspectives, and perhaps further standards for governance, project leadership, etc.

Therefore, I see the necessity of the internationally active project management associations, such as IPMA and PMI, to coordinate better and to develop a holistic vision for modern project management and to contribute it to the standardization work of ISO. They would have the influence and resources to do so. Unfortunately, they are often still more concerned with themselves and with securing their business with certification. In the meantime, agile approaches are outpacing conventional project management, and the associations are in danger of losing further relevance in the society.

Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Management Consulting

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One response to “ISO 21502 replaces ISO 21500 – A new perspective”

  1. Mohammad Usmani says:

    Thank you for providing latest and updated standard.