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20 February 2017

Systems Thinking: Understanding Consequences of Thought

David A. Zimmer Print

Systems Thinking: Understanding Consequences of Thought

We have all heard of Critical Thinking. While thinking critically, we analyze the current situation, whether it is a problem to be solved, a riddle to be unraveled, or a decision to be made and break it into smaller pieces – we project managers call that decomposition and thinkers call it reduction – to understand what we need to understand. We assume by understanding the parts, we’ll understand the whole. Many times, the assumption is correct, yet we can still miss important aspects of the situation.

System thinking approaches the situation differently. System thinking takes a holistic approach to understanding the interactions between the components, as well as, the interaction of this “system”   with other systems within its universe (eco-system). The Water’s Foundation describes systems thinking as not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework based on the belief the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems. Systems thinking is cyclical rather than linear in nature. (Water’s Foundation systems thinking definitions)

By combining systems thinking and the more traditional critical thinking, we begin to understand the reduced components within their ecosystem and understand how they impact each other and the world around them. In so doing, we don’t accidently create bigger problems or unwanted results while solving the root cause. Or we understand how our decisions impact others in a more complete fashion.

We can define a systems as
Composed of parts,
Can be a part of a larger system,
All parts are related (directly or indirectly),
Has boundaries (encapsulated),
Can overlap other systems (shared parts),
Receives inputs and provides outputs to a larger environment,
Contains processes transforming inputs into outputs, and
Is autonomous in fulfilling its purpose. *

Margaret Rouse in her Systems Thinking article defines it this way:
Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system's constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. The systems thinking approach contrasts with traditional analysis, which studies systems by breaking them down into their separate elements.
According to systems thinking, system behavior results from the effects of reinforcing and balancing processes. A reinforcing process leads to the increase of some system component. If reinforcement is unchecked by a balancing process, it eventually leads to collapse. A balancing process is one that tends to maintain equilibrium in a particular system.**
Systems Thinking: Understanding Consequences of ThoughtRouse seems to indicate systems require a checks-and-balance within it. It is like a balloon filled with
water. Push the balloon in one area and it bulges in another area. The water is kept in check by the boundary” of the balloon membrane flexing to compensate for the water displaced from the area being squeezed. Once the pressure is released, the membrane pushes the water back to its original place (albeit, in some cases, not exactly as it was before due to stretching or other misformation – a topic for another article). We must understand the bulging of the balloon from a systems perspective and not just analyze the bulge as if it were the problem area. Each aspect of the system is related and has bearing on the other system members.

A Systems Thinking Example

Putting this into the context of project management, we see tasks along the critical path slipping moving our project end date beyond acceptable timeframes. Using critical thinking methods, we analyze the situation and determine several of our team members are waiting for materials from the vendor. We call the vendor to understand their situation better and learn they are shipping the materials as quickly as possible. We conclude we must turn our project status to red because of the slipping schedule and simply project a new end date.

Unfortunately, our project is part of a larger program and extending our date impacts other projects and jeopardizes the overall program. We learn quickly from the angry tone of the program manager’s voice our project is part of a system and changes to one part of the system impacts other areas (the balloon effect mentioned above). Certainly, we can explain the vendor bottleneck, but that won’t help the other areas affected by our “bulge”. We need to remedy the vendor situation. Continuing with the status quo is not acceptable.

While working with the vendor, we understand they are also part of a system. We learn our order is just part of their overall workload and a much larger customer decided to put demands on the vendor for more product sooner than the vendor expected. At this point, they are running over-capacity and are shipping to us as quickly as possible to maintain our business, but are hampered by the demanding, larger customer. We realize pushing the vendor or penalizing the vendor will only exacerbate the issue, to our detriment.

To overcome the vendor delay, we turn to our back-up vendor which produces a similar product, which not exactly the same as the first vendor’s product meaning the substitution of product will impact our schedule. Here are some questions to be answered using a systems thinking approach:
Will the schedule delay due to swapping products be greater or less than enduring the current vendor’s delivery lags?
What is the impact to our budget?
If the costs are higher, who will absorb the cost differential?
Will we be able to recover that differential from our current vendor?
Is absorbing costs incurred by customer due to vendor non-performance in the contract?
Will the delay in our schedule from the product swap be acceptable to the other impacted projects within our own organization?
Is there a cascading delay effect throughout all the other projects or will it only impact a few, such that we can absorb the delay as an organization overall?
By substituting the new product into our project, how will it impact other projects, aside from the schedule delay and budget increase? Are other projects dependent upon the first vendor’s product characteristics in a way the new product swap will not support?
And so on….

Had we stayed with the tried-and-true method of critical thinking, we would have solved the problem by either letting the schedule slip occur, forcing the vendor to deliver the material more quickly or by using a second vendor. Any one of those solutions could easily have created larger problems if we did not look  at the problem within the context of the system.

Not an “Either/Or” Mentality

Systems Thinking: Understanding Consequences of ThoughtAs can be seen, we do not simply swap one thinking modality for another. Rather, we combine thinking modalities providing a better understanding of the situation overall. It is not an “either/or” solution. We use multiple thinking modalities to compliment and supplement each other.


Systems thinking gives us an approach to understanding the interaction between components of a system. Everything lives within a system. We call it the “eco-system.” Our project is an eco-system. Our project exists within a larger eco-system (program). Our program is part of an even larger eco-system. And so on. We need to understand the interaction between components within a system and additionally, the interaction of this system with other systems. Understanding the interactions, we can better understand how a change to one will influence another. These influences may create larger problems than the original one being solved. In the case of a decisions, a positive decision may cause negative consequences unforeseen without better understanding the overall system.

When thinking “critically,” be aware of factors surrounding the solution and its effects.

*   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_thinking
** http://searchcio.techtarget.com/definition/systems-thinking

PMBOK® Guide is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute. All materials are copyright © American Eagle Group. All rights reserved worldwide. Linking to posts is permitted. Copying posts is not.

21 January 2016

Strategic Thinking: Creating the Future from the Present

David A. Zimmer Print

Strategic Thinking: Creating the Future from the Present

Can we see the future? Can we predict the future? Those who think strategically come the closest to what we would call predicting the future. Strategic thinking takes the present and creates a future through vision, decision, planning and doing. Strategic thinkers communicate a vision and motivate a team to produce a new reality.

What is strategic thinking?

According to BusinessDictionary, strategic thinking is defined as:
The ability to come up with effective plans in line with an organization's objectives within a particular economic situation. Strategic thinking helps business managers review policy issues, perform long term planning, set goals and determine priorities, and identify potential risks and opportunities.
In layman’s terms, Strategic thinking is planning towards some objectives considering risks, opportunities, priorities, short and long term goals to change the present into a desired future reality.

11 Critical Strategic Thinking Skills

According to J. Glenn Ebersole in his articles, “Strategic Thinking: 11 Critical Skills Needed”, strategic thinkers use these skills (my distillation of what Ebersole stated):

Skill My Interpretation
1. Use both sides of brain Left side for analytical thought, right side for creative thought.
2. Clearly defined and focused vision Provide detailed visual, emotionally stimulating, rationally acceptable and humanly achievable vision of future.
3. Clearly defined objective Provide a clear “why” and significance to the vision.
4. Design flexibility into plan We can’t predict the future 100%, so flexibility is required as more clarity dictates.
5. Amazingly aware and perceptive Strategic thinkers are aware of trends in their and other industries, broader factors that may impact the vision and competitors who could quickly take-over the market.
6. Lifelong learners Strategic thinkers are perpetually curious, voracious readers and processors of information.
7. Take time out for themselves Personal and professional development is a requirement in life for reflecting, planning, reminiscing and dreaming.
8. Committed to seeking advice from others Above all, strategic thinkers realize they don’t have all the best and brightest ideas - those come from working with others.
9. Balance creativity with reality Dreams without a base of real-ness are simply fantasies.
10. Non-judgmental Do not allow themselves to be held back or restricted by judging their own thinking or others during the initial development of ideas. Do not quickly dismiss ideas of others or themselves without due diligence of consideration.
11. Are patient and don’t rush to conclusions and judgments It takes time to analyze and synthesize information from a variety of sources.  “It takes time to build a fine wine.”

 3 Steps to Critical Thinking

In her Inc. article “3 Essential Steps to Thinking Strategically”, Lauren Perkins stated “to think strategically requires founders and key team members to continually assess their business and industry, and to apply new business insights.” She listed 3 steps to effective strategic thinking:

Step 1: Do research, connect dots of information, take time to reflect/ synthesize
Strategic thinking is not a session where we pull our key players into a room and simply think strategically.  It is a life style. It happens all the time. Although we might have concentrated periods were we spend more time thinking and planning for the future, we spend most of our strategic thinking time over a period of time.

It reminds me of a book I read by Gerald Weinberg concerning a method he uses to write a book. He called it the pebble approach. He would decide on a topic for his next book and, in preparation, would pick up “pebbles” of information pertaining to that topic.  Some people call them tidbits of information. Weinberg would jot ideas, information sources, articles, etc. on pieces of paper and put them in a folder concerning that topic. Over time, he had the information he needed, synthesized the information into a “story” and then would begin the writing process.

Strategic thinking is very similar. Researching current trends, market factors, customer requests and other information provides the basis for the formulation of the vision. The research provides the substance for the vision. The information must be synthesized into a cohesive thought from which the vision is born. Without the research and information basis, the vision will not have any foundation on which to stand.

Additionally, without a basis of information, when the vision is challenged, and it will be challenged, it will collapse. The data, information, experience and input from others forms a more solid and stable vision. As questions are asked, the strategic thinker can defend or amend the vision as needed. The information base provides the flexibility needed to shape a more viable vision.

A form of research strategic thinkers conduct is reading. They read articles inside and outside of their industry, books and novels of various genres, news articles, etc. Reading a variety of works provides insights into many aspects of life. As strategic thinkers, they see the relationships and similarities between disparate sources which become useful as they plan future endeavors. This uncommon trait of seeing the similarities and analogies helps articulate potential risks, opportunities, plan changes, etc.

Step 2: Go with the flow (strategy changes), act quickly, set road map, communicate strategy
Strategy is never perfect. It changes. It morphs. It evolves. Since we can never see all aspects of the path to the future, we must be flexible and nimble to execute around the bends and curves of our plans.  Just as in the days of yore, when we traveled by road map from one destination to another, we determined the path we were to take. The paper map didn’t tell us of construction zones, bridge outages, road closures, etc. As we drove our intended route, we would have to take detours and sometimes, re-plan our route because of these unforeseen issues.

Continuing to borrow from the road trip analogy, our GPS systems today do forewarn us of impending route changes. Where did that information come from? From others and staying attuned do our directional system. Strategic thinking is not a sole practitioner exercise. As Ebersole stated above (Skill #8), strategic thinkers are committed to seeking advice from others – not just at the beginning of the journey, but all the way through. The advice can help us to act quickly as mentioned by Perkins. And once the change is made, a strong communications strategy helps all others involved to navigate the bends and curves as we head towards our future.

Step 3: Decide wisely, prioritize, delegate
The Gallup Organization hosts a website called Strengths and published a book, Strength Based Leadership, which rates your leadership strengths from 34 perspectives. If you have not taken their assessment, I highly suggest it. Here are some excerpts from their characterizations of Strategic Thinkers:
  • Notice new, as well as, unusual configurations in facts, evidence, or data. Customarily pinpoint the core problems and identify best solutions
  • Eliminate distractions
  • Transform obstacles into opportunities
  • Design innovative plans
  • Entertain ideas about the best ways to reach a goal, increase productivity, or solve a problem
  • Chose a path to the solution
  • Continually watch for alternative paths and quickly calculate if an alternative path is better than current path
  • Delegate to others with stronger skills tasks to maximize productivity
Strategic thinkers, as you can see, are action-oriented people based upon reasoned and information-supported plans.


Strategic thinking: the process of planning toward some objective (new future) considering risks, opportunities, priorities, and short and long term goals to change the present into a desired future reality. It is a collaborative effort whereby a strategic thinker builds relationships, accepts advice and information from others, considers options and determines a course to guide others to achieve the end result. It is a not a one-time experience but is a continuous process of improvement of the original plan, taking into consideration greater clarity from experience, new information and collaborative input from others. The Strategic thinker inspires and motivates others in a team environment.

Strategic Thinkers are not “pie-in-the-sky” dreamers, but people who are very practically minded providing long and short-term milestones so the vision is believable and end result achievable.

PMBOK® Guide is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute. All materials are copyright © American Eagle Group. All rights reserved worldwide. Linking to posts is permitted. Copying posts is not.

18 January 2016

Visionary Thinking: Alternative Futures

David A. Zimmer Print

Visionary Thinking: Alternative Futures

Visionary Thinking Components:

Visionary thinking consists of the following components:
  • Creativity (creative thinking),
  • Futuristic, progressive ideas,
  • Directional path(s) to the future state, and
  • Tangible concepts others can grasp and accomplish.
Check any book discussing leadership and one core competency always mentioned as needed by leaders is vision.  A good leader has a vision. Vision is the ability to see into the future, determine a destination and communicate it to those around. It is a direction; a purpose. Vision provides motivation for what we do and where we spend our time. As the proverb states, “Without a vision, the people (the followers) perish.”

There is nothing worse than a person in charge wandering through the wilderness of business leading his or her people nowhere. The people dutifully follow only to find themselves in the same spot after much effort and struggle. Eventually, the followers wander off to another leader.  Those who stay behind feel down-trodden, defeated, miserable and trapped. Many gripe and complain souring the entire environment.

The leader needs visionary thinking, which is the ability to see alternate futures, determine a course of action, define a path to reach that future and inspire others to aid in the effort.

Marcia Wieder, CEO of Dream University, a personal transformation expert and a former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners stated, "A visionary has a big dream, articulates it with clarity so people get it, and expresses it with passion so others can feel it and get excited with them. Most importantly, a true visionary has mastered the skill to inspire, invite and enroll others."

Defining Visionary Thinking

Let’s define visionary so we can understand visionary thinking.  According to YourDictionary.com:


1. (adj.) The definition of visionary is someone or something that thinks about the future or advancements in a creative and imaginative way.
2. (noun) Definition of a visionary is someone with unusual or progressive ideas about the future or advancements.
And finally, a comment to a posting asking what is a visionary:
3. I think a visionary is someone who sees what things could be and motivates others to make changes that make it possible.
Let’s explore the components of visionary thinking.


Creativity comes from creative thinking. Although we further define creative thinking in its own article, let’s provide a brief overview here for context:
  • Allows for as many ideas as possible,
  • Permits wild and crazy thoughts, which initially may be too extreme but enlarges the boundaries of the possible,
  • Encourages daydreaming and “playfulness”,
  • Consents to making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, and
  • Provides a more relaxed environment.
Therefore, visionary thinking requires many ideas which push the limits of today’s possibilities using daydreaming and mistakes to define the path forward in a relaxed environment.

Futuristic, Progress Ideas

Visionary thinking describes a state that does not exist. When solving a current problem, visionary thinking comes into play as we envision a state when the problem no longer exists.  Depending on the situation, rather than simply fixing the problem to get us back to the current state, we take the opportunity to resolve the issues so they don’t continue to exist.

For example, let’s say the current situation requires manual review and transcribing data into a report. An obvious fix might be to simply automate the report generation. Using visionary thinking, we should take the opportunity to not only automate but to determine a future state we really want and bypass the current report structure to something which provides more useful information.

By way of a tangible example, one of our clients was tracking issues associated with products in the market. They used a slide deck that was manually created and maintained. Quarterly, several senior managers would meet to update the slide deck in preparation for the executive committee meeting. We developed an automated system using a Microsoft SharePoint List and an export to Microsoft Excel. Using VBA macros, we created a report format containing additional information the original report did not have, plus we added pivotal tables and charts analyzing  information about issue lifecycle, categories, etc.  The additional reports did not take us much time, but provided the client with clear examples of what can be done now the data is stored in this new system. The addition of pivot tables and charts provided progressive examples in a short time frame. It showed what was possible.

Many years ago, we published articles about futuristic concepts for the telecommunication industries. While technology at the time did not permit implementation of those ideas, today we enjoy the use of smartphones, apps and services that employ many of those ideas.  When the articles were published, they were progressive.  If published today, they would be considered old news.

Paths to the Future State

As the saying goes, there is more than one way to solve a problem. Visionary thinkers mentally analyze various paths to the future weighing the risks and advantages of each.  Very akin to strategic thinking in that multiple paths are considered, visionary thinking doesn’t necessarily take the path definitions down to the detailed levels strategic thinking would.

Referring to the telecommunication evolution example above, we defined multiple paths the transformation could happen. We discussed wired networks, wireless and mobile needs, use of various existing standards and the need for new standards, a variety of user modalities, and more.  Each aspect was discussed in lesser detail at times because the technology to support the concept didn’t exist. So defining the various paths users might consume the services, products and devices, we enabled others to develop the technology to produce the results we see today. The visionary thinking pushed the envelope of the possible to the impossible for the time making them a reality today.

Tangible Concepts

We didn’t just throw pie-in-the-sky concepts into the air expecting someone else to make them tangible. We had to come up with specific useful examples whereby those with the ability to make them reality could catch our vision. Here are some examples:
  • Our concept was a single source whereby the user/consumer could carry all their contacts’ information, messaging, calendaring, personal artifacts such as photos, music, videos, etc. either with them or access them in a single location from multiple devices, whatever they had handy. At the time, tablet computing was very much still in the visioning stage, computer screens were still primarily character based, the internet was only in the hands of the military or some universities, the world-wide-web didn’t exist and wasn’t even discussed and cellular phones were the sizes of bricks or had to be mounted in your car. Yet, we drew screenshots of a combined interface similar to what we have in smartphones today.
  • We discussed the ability to have “coupons” fly into this mobile device or interface to your personal information whereby merchants offered discounts for food, movies, entertainment, tickets, etc.  Today, we download apps onto our smartphones which notifies of various specials at local merchants. We can easily locate a fast food restaurant near our current location and check for coupons at the same time.

Effective Visionary Thinking

How do we make our visionary thinking effective? We’ve defined visionary thinking. We’ve broken it into components. But without getting others to accept and adopt our vision, we are simply dreaming. Here are some steps we gleaned from a variety of sources (articles from Inc.com, Forbes.com, Linked-In.com and others):
  1. Build rapport – leadership is all about relationship. Without relationship, others won’t accept the vision.
  2. Describe the Future – vision speaks of the future. Set the vision within an obtainable timeframe but not so close as to not requiring stretching Build Value – value comes from utility. If those hearing the vision can’t grasp the value gained, they will lose the motivation to achieve.
  3. Develop Tangible Concepts – fantasies are made of pie-in-the-sky thoughts. Add weight to the dreams by providing tangible, comprehensible concepts or examples.
  4. Create Excitement – enthusiasm and energy helps others to overcome their natural tendency to reject change. Vision means change.  Excitement urges others past the rejection stage and into the execution stage.
  5. Overcome Obstacles – be honest. Be transparent. Recognize and acknowledge the obstacles. Obstacles don’t disappear by ignoring them but by facing them. Overcome them. Make others aware, setting their expectations properly and engaging them to solve the issues around the obstacles.
  6. Secure Agreement – involve others in the vision and solution. As they buy into the plan and provide support, the vision will begin to take shape.


Visionary thinking is looking into the future and bringing it into the present. As the saying states, “All roads lead somewhere, but without direction, you will end up somewhere and not necessarily where you want to be.” Visionary thinking puts direction into our paths. Visionary thinkers bring others with them into the future through relationship, energy and clarity.

PMBOK® Guide is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute. All materials are copyright © American Eagle Group. All rights reserved worldwide. Linking to posts is permitted. Copying posts is not.

13 January 2016

Think About Thinking: 9 Thinking Modalities

David A. Zimmer Print

Think About Thinking: 9 Thinking Modalities

Have you ever thought about thinking? Probably the most impactful statement said to me in my life was from a gentleman whose name I don’t remember.  He remarked, “You think the most important thing in life is faith. I think the most important thing in life is to think. Most people never think about thinking. Think about thinking.” I still think the most important thing about life is faith, but I sure have thought a lot about thinking these past 30 years since he made that comment.

I ponder thinking while I sit, mull over it as I drive, contemplate it while riding the train, consider it while walking, ruminate when standing in line; in fact, I never stop reflecting on the different modalities of thinking.

The genesis of this article started when my boss told me I needed to sharpen my critical thinking skills. I thought his remark was interesting. I worked exclusively at a client site with no interaction with or oversight by him.  He really had no clue what I did from day to day or what my critical thinking skills were or even if I used the skills at all. It seemed his remark was just the standard corporate line I hear in almost every company: We must improve our critical thinking skills.

My boss, not knowing I had attended a webinar the day before about conducting training concerning critical thinking, was not ready for my response.  I said, “I would be happy to improve my critical thinking skills because I am always looking to learn. But just so we are clear what I am to improve, I need to know which of the four different definitions of critical thinking skills we are discussing?” He was silent. I continued.  “In fact, I have a sign above my desk here that lists nine different thinking modalities. I review that list several times a week and especially when I am tackling a difficult problem because I want to consider several perspectives so I don’t miss a subtlety. Would you like to know the other eight thinking modalities?” He coughed, sputtered and said, “No, that won’t be necessary.”

Having been a sole practitioner consulting with clients at all levels of the organization, I have been hired to pioneer creative solutions to their thorniest challenges. I have learned over many years solving a problem only using critical thinking skills – one of the nine modalities we will discuss – misses many clues or opportunities hidden within a problem. By looking at the same problem and employing several, rarely all, of the thinking modalities, I arrive at a more complete and comprehensive solution.

In this article, we will introduce the nine modalities followed by more in depth articles per modality later.

And so we are clear and not misleading, let’s state upfront, the nine modalities are not exhaustive. We continually discover other modalities but have chosen to limit ourselves at this point to the nine. Once they are documented and as we learn more about the others, we will add those to our compendium of thought process.

The nine thinking modalities are

  1. Visionary – forward looking with alternative futures,
  2. Strategic - the generation and application of unique insights and opportunities intended to create a desired outcome,
  3. Systems - holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way constituent parts interrelate, work over time and within the context of larger systems,
  4. Creative – the method of considering problems or situations from fresh perspectives which might suggest unorthodox solutions,
  5. Analytic or Critical -  the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication,
  6. Lateral – out-of-the-box - solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious, reframing questions to elicit different approaches,
  7. Structured - a process of putting a framework to an unstructured problem,
  8. Conceptual - the ability to understand a situation or problem by identifying patterns or connections, and addressing key underlying issues, and
  9. Visual or Spatial - the ability to visualize special patterns and mentally manipulate them over a time-ordered sequence of spatial transformations.
As one can see, there is overlap between the modalities, or stated another way, each modality is related to the others.  At any given time, a thinker may employ several thinking modes while following a prescribed method, such as Structured or Systems thinking. By understanding an individual mode, we can better understand how to use them individually and in combinations with others.

These articles are not intended to be the ultimate guide to a specific way of thinking. The intent is to introduce the method, provide some cursory information and give some guidance. We will have met our goal if you simply consider the various modalities of thinking when encountering your next problem to solve.

Follow us as we explore the different thinking modalities. Challenge our thinking and let us know what you think.

PMBOK® Guide is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute. All materials are copyright © American Eagle Group. All rights reserved worldwide. Linking to posts is permitted. Copying posts is not.

12 January 2016

Is it QA or QC? What’s the Difference?

David A. Zimmer Print

Is it QA or QC? What’s the Difference?

PMBOK® Guide Definition:

Quality Assurance (QA): The process of auditing the quality requirements and the results from quality control measurements to ensure the appropriate quality standards and operational definitions are used.

Quality Control (QC): The process of monitoring and recording results of executing the quality activities to assess performance and recommend necessary changes.

Practical Definition:

Quality Assurance (QA): The processes of comparing the project activity results against the Quality Plan requirements to determine if the outcomes are within the acceptable quality tolerance ranges and creating the plans to align out-of-spec results within the tolerance ranges.

Quality Control (QC): Monitoring the project work results to determine if they comply with the quality standards set out in the Quality Management Plan.

What is Quality?

During my classes while instructing students in the ways of project management, we discuss the topic of Quality.  I become amused by the responses to my various questions as I set the students up to debunk their current thoughts on quality.  From TV ads, conversations with others and general impressions of various products or services we experience in life, the students generally develop a definition of quality.

Their definition is based on a set of perceptions.  I ask for their definition of quality.  Most usually shrug and say they can’t describe it but they know quality when they see it.  I ask, if you can’t define it, then what is your standard by which to determine if something is of quality when you see it? I am usually met by blank stares.

I lead into the discussion on quality by asking them, “Who makes a higher quality hamburger: McDonald's or Five Guys (a fast-food chain which makes tasty, juicy hamburgers)?” The response is immediate and unanimous usually accompanied by a chuckle: “Five Guys.”

Then I go into a long question and answer period where we discuss the various ingredients and methods of cooking of the hamburgers. Finally, I ask, “When you go to McDonalds, does the hamburger look, smell and taste the same?” They answer yes.

“When you go to Five Guys, do the hamburgers look, smell and taste the same?” They answer, “They taste much better but sometimes the burger is a little bigger or smaller than another location.”

To which I answer, “And therein lies the definition of quality.”

Both companies have a set of procedures, processes, measurements and results, and yet, McDonald's hamburgers are the same no matter where you go, while Five Guys has a greater variance in results.

Quality is about Specification, not the Material Used

Quality is a set of specifications while grade is the characteristics of materials used in developing the project’s deliverables. Quality is planned in advance and documented in a quality plan. The plan is used by both Quality Assurance and Quality Control in determining the project's results adherence to the plan. Grade is specified during the planning processes and the right materials are procured.

McDonald's state their hamburgers are 100% beef. Beef comes from cows.  What part of the cow? Any part.  So, from which parts of a cow are McDonald’s hamburgers made? The average consumer doesn’t know. Anyone who has had beef in their lives knows there are better cuts of beef and less tasty/desirable cuts of meat.

As stated on their website, Five Guys hamburgers are made from 100% ground chuck meat – a tastier cut of beef resulting in better tasting and more appealing hamburgers. Ground chuck is a higher grade of meat than the beef used for McDonald's burgers.

We often confuse grade with quality. Remember, quality is the degree to which we meet our quality specifications. The higher the quality, the more closely we match our pre-determined, pre-defined specification.

It has nothing to do with the materials something is made of.  It is not the taste of the burger. So, in reality, McDonald’s has a higher quality hamburger than Five Guys because the consistency of the overall product is the same no matter where you go.  Five Guys has a better tasting burger because they use a higher grade beef. Although I prefer a Five Guys hamburger over McDonald’s, I know the burger is “lower” in quality because there is not as much consistency in one location versus another.

What Says The PMBOK® Guide?

The PMBOK® Guide (5th edition) defines three processes concerning quality: Plan Quality Management, Perform Quality Assurance, Control Quality. Note: The PMBOK® Guide is not the quintessential authority on quality. There are more authoritative manuals, but for us project managers, we need to know enough about quality to understand what the various quality folks are doing. The PMBOK® Guide provides the level of information we need.

Plan Quality Management is the process we use to plan not only how we will manage our quality efforts but also define what the quality specifications are.  If we are manufacturing ball bearings, we need to specify the size and material. Let’s say the bearings must be round with a diameter of 1 mm plus or minus (±) .02 mm with a rejection rate of less than 0.1%.  A bearing will be placed inside of some housing. If the bearing is too big, say 1.03 mm in diameter, it will be too tight in the housing. If it is too small, say 0.97 mm, it will be too loose.

At some point, the ball bearing will have to be measured so only properly sized bearings are sent down the line to be placed in the housing.  The rejects are collected and re-processed.

Let’s say we are manufacturing 1000 bearings per hour. The reject rate should be fewer than 1 per hour. If we achieve that, we are meeting our quality specifications.

Quality Control

Quality Control is based on the activities we perform to inspect, measure, weigh and from there we determine if we are meeting the quality specification.  QC folks inspect the outcome of our practices to determine if we are in spec.  We can do QC on not only the results of our project activities, but our project management practices.  Very common inspections for projects are “on-time, on-budget, within scope.”

We use many different methods and tools to determine if our results are outside the specified bounds of our quality plan.  We might use run charts, statistical analysis, inspection of results, numerical analysis, Gantt charts, budgeted values versus actual costs, etc. Anything we can measure and have a specification for in the quality plan needs to be monitored for compliance with the plan.

Quality Assurance

Performing Quality Assurance relates to the activities we do to ensure we are meeting our quality specifications and determining the adjustments needed to get us back within the specification’s tolerances. Quality assurance typically follows the cycle popularized by Dr. W. Edward Deming known as the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

In the Plan stage, we determine the course of corrections needed to get our results back in line with the quality specifications.

In the Do stage, we implement our plan of action.

In the Check stage, we look at the results. If we meet our quality specifications, then our plan worked and we move onto the next issue outside our quality boundaries.

In the Act stage, we determine the areas that are still not within our quality specifications and act upon those items following our Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle until we are satisfied our processes, practices, results, etc. are within our quality guidelines.

Quality Assurance personnel take the results found in Quality Control and monitor them for quality compliance and variances.  As you can see, Quality Assurance is the bridge between the Quality Planning efforts and the Quality Control results.


Quality Control and Quality Assurance are not the same.  They are very different functions on our projects. Quality Control (QC) inspects results and reports if the results are within the ranges as specified in the Quality Plan. Quality Assurance is the function that determines how and what adjustments can be made to bring our results into the acceptable tolerances and align with the quality plan.

Meeting the quality plan ensures we meet the customers’ expectations and requirements. According to the PMBOK® Guide, a project that meets or exceeds the stakeholders’ expectations is called successful.  And isn’t that what we want as project managers: a successful project?

PMBOK® Guide is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute. All materials are copyright © American Eagle Group. All rights reserved worldwide. Linking to posts is permitted. Copying posts is not.

01 March 2015

WBS: Work Breakdown Structure or Wild Bovine Secretion

David A. Zimmer
David A. Zimmer, PMP
Chief Project Professor
American Eagle Group

WBS: Work Breakdown Structure or
Wild Bovine Secretion

PMBOK® Guide Definition:

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): A hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.

Work Package: The work defined at the lowest level of the work breakdown structure for which cost and duration can be estimated and managed.

Work Breakdown Structure Component: An entry in the work breakdown structure that can be at any level.

100% Rule: The total of the work at the lowest levels should roll up to the higher levels so that nothing is left out and no extra work is performed.

Practical Definition:

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS):  A deliverable-oriented, hierarchical decomposition of the project. Deliverables (work packages) create the results of the project so the project objectives are met.

Work Package:  The project deliverables defined so they can be accurately scheduled, resourced, and budgeted. They are described as the “nouns” of the project – tangible project results. Also known as work packets.

Work Breakdown Structure Component: A component of work in the WBS; may be at any level.
100% Rule: The WBS contains all the work and nothing but the work required to complete the project.

8/80 Rule: The level to which we decompose the WBS structure representing nothing less than 8 hours and nothing more than 80 hours of effort to complete that WBS components.

1/10 Rule: The level to which we decompose the WBS structure representing nothing less than 1% and nothing more than 10% of the estimated project duration to complete that WBS components.

Introducing the Work Breakdown Structure Concept

To many, the abbreviation WBS expands to Work breakdown structure. To many others, it means wild bovine secretions and a lot of extra work.  Yet unknowingly, many project managers and teams develop a work breakdown structure without formalizing it. After managing several projects of similar types, teams realize they must consider many perspectives, define the high-level categories of work and break them down to bite-sized pieces to meet the project objectives.

The teams will gather in a room, brainstorm the various steps needed, order them into a plan and then attack the project work.  Ask the same team to put it into a formal structure or follow a defined process, they bulk at the “extra” work which they have already completed 90% of it. Interestingly, by documenting their effort, they can save themselves a lot of effort in future projects by simply using the previous “WBS” and modifying it with updates pertinent to the current effort.

We learned this while consulting to a large telecommunications company. We were hired to manage a large-scale introduction of services to the telephone network. Although we had managed many projects of similar nature throughout our careers we, like most, had no formal education in project management. We learned our lessons as others had: School of Hard Knocks and watching other people.

The magnitude of this project was very large. Our immediate team exclaimed, “Where do we start?” Our response was, “Well, let’s start here” and proceeded to list the various components of the system on the board. The components essentially represented the various divisions which needed to be involved: Product Management, Product Marketing, Sales, Billing, Provisioning, Customer Service, Operations and Maintenance, R&D, etc. Those divisions became our top level of what we learned later was called the work breakdown structure. We further refined our divisional listing into smaller pieces and applied names to the “boxes” so we could contact those people to learn more about what they needed to do on the project in order for us to be successful. For many on the team, this was the first time they had “seen” such a structure of a telecommunications project. Years later, several team members contacted us to let us know they were still using the model.

What did we do? We defined the project in terms of company divisions. We represented the project by listing those who needed to be involved and learned from them the work necessary to accomplish the project goals.

Defining the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

The WBS is a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be completed to accomplish the desired results of the project. Stakeholders have expectations on the project. The WBS gives us the ability to systematically break the project scope into smaller pieces using a graphical format. When finished, the work breakdown structure represents all the work to be accomplished on the project and includes no work that should not be done. We like to say the WBS is the contract between the project manager and sponsoring company. If the work is represented in the WBS, project managers are contractually obligated to perform it. If it is not in the WBS, we are contractually obligated to not perform it. By sticking with this hard line, project managers begin to control scope creep, which is implementing work not formally approved for the project.

Once created and approved, the work breakdown structure helps direct the project work. It can be changed through proper change control so additions to the WBS can be fully understood. We must understand the impact to the schedule, budget and resources before we implement the change.  If we don’t perform this analysis, we severely impact our project results, especially the “on-time, on-budget and on-scope” measurement.

We decompose the WBS to the work package, a.k.a., work packet, level. Decompose is a fancy term for breaking the problem into smaller pieces for better understanding. Work packages represent the deliverables of the project. We can determine the schedule (duration), budget and resources required to complete the deliverable. As we complete each deliverable, we can calculate the earned value of the project and determine the state of the project. See our Earned Value Management article series for a complete understanding of Earned Value Management. When all the deliverables, or work packages, are complete, the project is complete.

So, the Work breakdown structure is a hierarchical decomposition of the project to the work package level. It represents the entirety of the project.

Work Breakdown Structure Example

Let’s say, we are remodeling a room in the basement. The current room’s condition is

  • Concrete floor which causes the room to be chilly and damp
  • Walls currently insulated and dry-walled, previously painted but some water damage at bottom
  • Suspended ceiling with damaged tiles – must decide to keep or replace with dry-wall

The remodeling goal is to provide a den for children and their friends. Room should be comfortable and inviting. As an added bonus, room should easily convert to man-cave once children leave the nest.

Below is a simple work breakdown structure of the four major components of the project:

  • Ceiling
  • Walls
  • Audio/Visual
  • Floors

The WBS decomposes to 13 work packages outlined in red dashed lines. Each work package is considered a deliverable in the project. The cost to produce the work package will be tracked through receipts for the materials. Labor is being provided by the home owner, so no charge.
Here is a hierarchical graph representing the project:

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) - Decomposing project work to project deliverables
Work Breakdown Structure in graphical format
Placing the WBS in Microsoft Project, we see an outline format.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) - Decomposing project work to project deliverables
Work Breakdown Structure in Microsoft Project
Each indented level in Microsoft Project represents the successive levels of the WBS. At the top in the Project Summary Task, we see Basement Den Remodeling Project just as we see it in the WBS. The next level of indent list Floors, Walls, Ceilings and Audio/Visual represent another level of decomposition in the WBS, and so forth. Finally, the work packages are listed with their associated time estimates and costs. In Microsoft Project, we would further decompose the work packages into the activities or tasks required to create the work package (deliverable).

For example, under Walls, we see Paint. Here are the activities associated with painting walls:

  1. Wash original walls to remove dust and dirt
  2. Spackle and patch dents, holes, scratches
  3. Remove light switch and outlet covers
  4. Tape around anything where paint should not go
  5. Paint
  6. Cleanup

The WBS does not contain the activity list.  It decomposes to the work package level and stops.

WBS Dictionary

An important piece of the work breakdown structure is the WBS dictionary.  Each WBS component, especially the work package, should be further described in the WBS dictionary, which is a document. Just as a word dictionary provides the definition for a word, the WBS dictionary provides the definition for the WBS component. The WBS dictionary definition should include the following for each project deliverable:

  • WBS code (code of account identifier)
  • Description of the work component
  • Responsible organization for component completion
  • Schedule milestones
  • Resources required – special skills, number of resources, etc.
  • Cost estimates
  • Quality requirements
  • Acceptance criteria
  • Duration estimates
  • Other pertinent information, such as risk factors, dependencies on other components or organizations, etc.

As can be seen, the WBS dictionary contains a thorough understanding of the respective component it describes. And yes, it can be a lot of work. Better upfront planning and understanding has proven to save execution time and rework costs many times over. Plus once established, this information can be valuable and re-used in similar future projects.

WBS Code

Each WBS component is numbered for easy reference and look-up in the WBS dictionary, uniquely identifies it in the WBS graphic and ties the component to the accounting chart of accounts. This code is called the WBS code and the collection of codes is called the code of accounts.
For example, the top level component which contains the project name is numbered zero (0). The first level down, from left to right, the components are number 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc. For our example, our four top-level components would be numbered:

1.0  Ceiling
2.0  Walls
3.0  Audio/Visual
4.0  Floors

The next level down is numbered consecutively as a sub-value of the level above:

1.0  Ceiling
    1.1  Ceiling Lighting
    1.2  Ceiling Decision and Selection
    1.3  Ceiling Installation
2.0  Walls
    2.1  Theme Decision
    2.2  Paint
    2.3  Trim

By looking at the code, we can easily tell a component whose code starts with 1 belongs to the Ceiling deliverable. Any that begins with a 2 falls under the Walls. The next level down would simply add another layer of numbering to it. So for our example, the complete set of codes is:

1.0  Ceiling
    1.1  Ceiling Lighting
        1.1.1  Lighting Selection and Order
        1.1.2  Lighting Installation
    1.2  Ceiling Decision and Selection
    1.3  Ceiling Installation
2.0  Walls
    2.1  Theme Decision
    2.2  Paint
    2.3  Trim
3.0  Audio/Visual
    3.1  Audio
        3.1.1  Audio Equipment Selection and Order
        3.1.2  Audio Equipment Location Decision and Installation
    3.2  Video
        3.2.1  Video Equipment Selection and Order
        3.2.2  Video Equipment Location Decision and Installation
4.0  Floors
    4.1  Subfloor
        4.1.1  Floor Insulation
        4.1.2  Floor Underlayment
    4.2  Carpet
        4.2.1  Carpet Selection and Order
        4.2.2  Carpet Installation

We used a simple coding system here.  Companies may use more elaborate schemes whereby the project name, department or division name, product name, etc. may be encoded in the WBS code so it becomes easily identifiable in their accounting system for cost tracking. Regardless of the complexity or simplicity of the code, it must uniquely identify the WBS component in the Work breakdown structure, the WBS dictionary, the code of accounts and the accounting chart of accounts.


To many people, the WBS represents wild BS and yet, they eventually develop it. As can be seen from this article, a methodical and standardized approach to developing the Work breakdown structure is foundational to a well-planned, well-understood project. Although some may consider this work appropriate for only waterfall planning and not applicable to Agile projects, the WBS provides the structure of project planning so the final results matches what the customer envisioned and wants. Agile projects can easily benefit from its guidance as the sprints are concluded and modifications are made.

Yes, the WBS represents additional work for projects, at least initially. Once built, the information can be re-used in similar projects. While not all details may be applicable to the next effort, the high-level structure ensures project aspects are not inadvertently left out of the planning process. As we experienced in managing telecommunications project introducing new features into the telephone networks, the same divisions were involved and much of their work was repeated regardless of the service being deployed. Divisions appreciated the fact we could hand them a “template” of activities making their planning processes easier, shorter and more comprehensive.

So, does WBS really stand for the decomposition of work, a.k.a., the Work breakdown structure or does it really mean just some wild bovine secretion? Only you can decide, but we bet, if you are doing any type of planning, you are creating the breakdown structure in some way.

PMBOK® Guide is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute. All materials are copyright © American Eagle Group. All rights reserved worldwide. Linking to posts is permitted. Copying posts is not.

04 February 2015

Understanding Earned Value Management: Part 5 – Earned Value in the Bigger Picture

David A. Zimmer
David A. Zimmer, PMP
Chief Project Professor
American Eagle Group

Understanding Earned Value Management:
Part 5 – Earned Value in the Bigger Picture

PMBOK® Guide Definition:

Earned Value Management (EVM): A methodology that combines scope, schedule, and resource measurements to assess project performance and progress.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): A hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.

Work Package: The work defined at the lowest level of the work breakdown structure for which cost and duration can be estimated and managed.

Practical Definition:

Earned Value Management (EVM): A set of mathematical formulas for determining current project performance and progress and used to forecast anticipated results; strikes the greatest fear in PMP® aspirants seeking certification.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS):  A deliverable-oriented, hierarchical decomposition of the project. Deliverables create the results of the project so the project objectives are met.

Work Package:  The project deliverables defined so they can be accurately scheduled, resourced, and budgeted. They are described as the “nouns” of the project – tangible project results.

Note: This article is the fifth in a series of articles describing Earned Value Management (EVM). The first article used a conceptual model describing the current state of a project. The second article used a conceptual model describing the forecasting of the project. The third article defined the mathematics behind the current project state conceptual model of the first article. The fourth article put the mathematics behind the second article’s conceptual model for forecasting the project. This article provides the bigger picture of Earned Value Management within the context of the overall project.

What is the Purpose of Earned Value Management

When we ask our students what they think the purpose of Earned Value Management (EVM) is in a project, most simply wince and shrug their shoulders, clearly indicating it is a pain subject to be memorized and endured to pass the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification. Some will spew out a few formulas, others state it provides status information about a project, but most don’t understand how it ties to anything else discussed while learning project management. They see it simply as a stand-alone, torture chamber of memorization.

In fact, we felt the same way while studying for our PMP® exam. Only after teaching it several times and spending effort to understand it better did we see the light.

Leveraging the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and the associated work packages (sometimes referred to a “work packets”), we can see, as we complete work packages, the “earned value” we’ve achieved.

In the previous four articles, we established a conceptual and mathematical model for EVM. We can understand the mechanics for smaller, home-based projects (our example used). Yet, how do we apply this to larger, corporate initiatives? How do we begin to calculate EVM for million dollar projects or larger?

We are making a wild assumption in this article that the project actually followed reasonable practices in its journey from inception to the current point in the project. We are assuming the project was conceived, determined feasible and cost-effective, and the organization’s risk-tolerance to launch the project effort. We assume the project charter was written to authorize the project’s expenditures of funds and use of resources to accomplish the project’s goals and objectives. A project manager was assigned and recommended practices followed; two practices in particular: requirements gathered and documented, and a work breakdown structure and WBS dictionary constructed. Earned Value Management ties directly to the work breakdown structure.

Let’s say, we are remodeling a room in the basement. The current condition is
  • Concrete floor
  • Walls currently dry-walled with insulation with some water damage at bottom
  • Suspended ceiling
The remodeling goal is to provide a den for children and their friends. Room should be comfortable and inviting.

Below is a simple work breakdown structure of the four major components of the project:
  • Floor
  • Ceiling
  • Walls
  • Audio/Visual

The WBS decomposes to 13 work packages outlined in red dashed lines. Each work package is considered a deliverable in the project. Once the work package is completed, it has an Earned Value. The cost to produce the work package will be tracked through receipts for the materials. Labor is being provided by the home owner, so no charge.

Earned Value Management - Work Breakdown Structure
Basement Den Remodeling Project Work Breakdown Structure (click to enlarge)

Placing the WBS in Microsoft Project, we see how it represents the WBS and estimated total time and cost.

Earned Value Management - Work Breakdown Structure in Microsoft Project
Basement Den Remodeling Project Work Breakdown Structure shown in Microsoft Project (click to enlarge)

We can see the indented levels in Microsoft Project represent the successive levels of WBS. At the top in the Project Summary Task, we see Basement Den Remodeling Project just as we see it in the WBS. The next level of indent list Floors, Walls, Ceilings and Audio/Visual represent the next level of decomposition in the WBS, and so forth. Finally, the work packages are listed with their associates time estimates and costs.

At this point in the project, 5 work packages are completed:

Work Package Earned Value Actual cost
Floor Insulation
Floor Underlayment
Lighting Selection and Order
Audio Equipment Selection and Order
Video Equipment Selection and Order

The project is scheduled for 33 days. So far, we have completed 9 days of efforts. Here are our EVM numbers:
  • BAC = $8,350.00
  • EV  = $4,575.00
  • AC  = $4,775.00
  • PV  = $4,575.00 (same as EV since we completed the work packages on the scheduled days)

Calculate the Current State of Project

Using our current state equations from the third article:
  • CV = $4,575 - $4,775 = -200
  • SV = $4,575 - $4,575 = 0
  • CPI = $4,575 / $4,775 = .96
  • SPI = $4,575 / $4,575 = 1
We see on all counts, we are within tolerable limits of an on-time, on-budget project even though we are slightly over-budget (found an excellent sale on audio equipment but we were suckered into a larger screened TV than planned and didn’t estimate too well on insulation, underlayment and lighting).

Forecasting Project Values

For this project, the forecast numbers and the current state numbers will be close because of what we learned above – on-time, on-budget.
  • EAC = BAC / CPI = $8,350 / .96 = $8,698
  • ETC = EAC – AC = $8,350 - $4,775 = $3,923
  • VAC = BAC – EAC = $8,350 - $8,698 = -348
  • TCPI = (BAC – EV) / (BAC – AC) = ($8,350 - $4,575) / ($8,350 - $4,775) = 1.06
As we see from our example, each work package completed increases the earned value of our project. If we mark the work packages completed in the WBS, we can visually see the work completed versus the remaining work.  Even if we don’t remember the EVM formulas, we can more easily understand the current status of the project and future overruns.

Earned Value Management - Work Breakdown Structure illustrating completed work packages
Basement Den Remodeling Project - Work Breakdown Structure
illustrating completed work packages 
(click to enlarge)

When Does Earned Value Management Not Work

Companies try to implement EVM within their organization in hopes of improving project performance. They develop the documentation, train the project managers in its use, and wait for the results to come.  Sometime later, results are the same or worse than before EVM implementation and project managers wince at the additional burden of calculating EVM for their projects. Why didn’t EVM produce the results the companies wanted?

In many cases, EVM is implemented in a vacuum. It cannot stand alone or be implemented in an immature environment. Fundamental project management practices must be in place such as proper portfolio management providing solid project selection methodologies, project charter development so project managers understand the purpose and authorization of projects, formal scope development with robust requirements, work breakdown structure decomposition, and so forth.  In other words, the project management practices must be developed and followed, project managers trained, expectations set, and so forth.  If the engine does not work and the transmission is shot, fixing a burned out turn signal bulb is not going to make the car run.  EVM is a tool which measures the maturity level of project management practices as much as it measures the current state of a project. Implemented by itself is a waste of time, money, resource, moral and so much more.


This article concludes the five part series which explains Earned Value Management. The first article conceptualized the current state of a project without delving into the mathematics. It illustrated many of us practice EVM without necessarily calculating the formulas and results. The second article showed how we forecast a project in our heads without running the numbers. The third article applied the mathematical model to concept of determining the current state of the project. It formalized the concept described in article one. The fourth article added the mathematics to the forecasting model described in article two. We concluded the series by describing how EVM applies to real-world applications if the projects are developed using proper practices, especially the work breakdown structure.

Earned value management is a powerful technique for understanding project performance. Aligned with mature project practices, EVM delivers valuable insight into a project and gives guidance for correcting wayward projects. Used properly, it becomes invaluable to organizations.

PMBOK® Guide is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute. All materials are copyright © American Eagle Group. All rights reserved worldwide. Linking to posts is permitted. Copying posts is not.