ISO 21500 – Guidance on project management in 3 minutes 

Author: Anton Zandhuis

Background and purpose

The ISO 21500 – Guidance on project management, has been unanimously approved by 33 countries in an international ballot of participating national standards authorities. ISO 21500 is published as an International Guidance in September 2012. , and later as an International Standard.

The ISO 21500 can be used as a basis for the development of national standards. It is not intended for certification or regulatory purposes, because the current ISO 21500 doesn’t have the structure to certify against (no requirements included). Nevertheless, in Spain ISO 21500 has already been used to issue a national certificationin accordance with the UNE-ISO 21500 standard, clearly using the ISO 21500 as the basic reference. Also in several countries the ISO 21500 is already used as a reference in tenders for awarding governmental projects; the project management practice of the tendering partner must comply to ISO 21500.

Target Audience

ISO 21500 may be of use for different stakeholders:
Project sponsors and Executive management, for understanding of the basic principles of project management to provide better support and direction to projects;
Project managers, project management teams and project team members, for having common language and structure when using different diverse PM methods, tools and techniques;
Developers of standards and methods, for the development of PM standards and methods which are consistent at a core level

Context of ISO 21500
The ISO 21500 is the first of a family of ISO standards for portfolio, program and project management, and Governance. These standards will serve as an internationally recognized overall framework that defines project, program and portfolio management. Also it will define the interaction between PPP processes and the organization they serve, including the governance dimension and the links to ongoing operations. Projects may be organized within programmes and project portfolios. Figure 1 illustrates these relationships.


Fig 1 Projects, programmes and project portfolios

ISO 21500 content and structure

-       Clause 1 Scope, describing the scope of the guideline;

-       Clause 2 Terms and definitions, containing 16 project management terms and their definitions;

-       Clause 3 Project management concepts, describing key-concepts in most projects, Project, Project management, Organizational strategy, Environment, Project governance, Projects and operations, Stakeholders, Competencies, Project Life Cycle, Project constraints, Relationship between concepts and processes.

-       Clause 4 Project management processes, listing 39 processes with key-inputs and outputs

Annex A Process Group processes mapped to subject groups, which gives an example of a possible logical sequence of the processes for a project Definitions and concepts

Definition of ‘project’
A project consists of a unique set of processes consisting of coordinated and controlled activities with start and end dates, performed to achieve project objectives. Achievement of the project objectives requires the provision of deliverables conforming to specific requirements. A project may be subject to multiple constraints.

Definition of ‘project management’
Project management is the application of methods, tools, techniques and competencies to a project. Project management includes the integration of the various phases of the project life cycle (. . .) and is performed through processes.

Project management concepts
Figure 2 shows how project management concepts in ISO 21500 relate to each other.

iso 21500

Fig 2 Overview of ISO 21500 project management concepts and their relationships


Project management Competences,
For structuring competences ISO 21500 typically refers to IPMA’s ICB structure, differentiating between technical competences, behavioral competences  and contextual competences.

Project Management Processes and Process Groups
The structure of project management processes in ISO 21500 is to a large extent similar to the PMBOK® Guide 5th edition. ISO 21500 describes a set of 39 processes, divided into five process groups and 10 Subject Groups, see Table 1 and 2. See Figure 3 for the Process groups interactions and main inputs and outputs.

Table 1 ISO 21500 and PMBOK® Guide process groups comparison:

ISO 21500 PMBOK® Guide
Initiating Initiating
Planning Planning
Implementing Executing
Controlling Monitoring and Controlling
Closing Closing
iso 21500

Figure 3 ISO 21500 Process groups interactions and main inputs and outputs

Subject groups

The term ‘subject groups’ in ISO 21500 is more or less similar to ‘knowledge areas’ in the PMBOK® Guide; see Table 2. Table 2  ISO 21500 Subject groups and PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Areas:

ISO 21500 Subject groups PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Areas 
Integration Integration
Stakeholders Stakeholder
Scope Scope
Resource Human Resources
Time Time
Cost Cost
Risk Risk
Quality Quality
Procurement Procurement
Communication Communication

The main difference from the PMBOK® Guide  is that ISO 21500, as in ISO 9001, does not provide a description of tools and techniques. The description of each process in ISO 21500 consists of a general description and a table containing primary inputs and primary outputs. Compared to the PMBOK® Guide some processes are grouped together in one process and some aspects are described in the ISO 21500 as a separate processes .

The future of ISO 21500

As with every ISO standard and guideline, it is likely that ISO 21500:2012 will be updated in 2016 or 2017 to integrate new developments and best practice in project management. If the market requires it, this next version could have a normative nature and then the certification of organizations might become possible.

As an intermediate step towards organizational certification, a so called ‘self-assessment’ could be developed.

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