The 5 project management process groups explained

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5 process groups. 10 knowledge areas. 49 processes.

All sliced and diced and mixed together in a slurry of business-speak that mere mortals struggle to understand.

If you’ve ever picked up a copy of PMBOK (or spent much time reading primary sources from its publisher, the Project Management Institute), well— it can be a lot to digest. Especially when as a client services business your day-to-day focus is something quite different. sits at the intersection of client operations and project management, so we get it. That’s why we’ve put together this quick guide that covers the five process groups and 10 knowledge areas — plus how they work together to help you get projects done.

Understanding the PMBOK process groups and knowledge areas

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Understanding how process groups and knowledge areas work together requires just a bit of backstory: both concepts are defined in the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (The PMBOK Guide or simply PMBOK®), so we need to talk about that book and the people who maintain it.

PMBOK is the definitive work in the field of project management. It’s managed and updated by the Project Management Institute (PMI), the foremost organization in the field with roots that date back to 1969, and it provides both process groups and knowledge areas as a sort of matrix structure for categorizing processes.

PMBOK defines a process group this way:

“A logical grouping of project management processes to achieve specific project objectives.”

On the other hand, knowledge areas are key areas of technical project management knowledge that project managers use in their work.

Why are project management process groups important?

These groupings matter because they provide structure to a wide-ranging discipline. Each grouping contains a distinct, usually unchanging set of processes that can help you achieve specific objectives and that don’t cross over into the other process groups.

The 5 project management process groups

While PMI makes clear they view the five project management process groups as independent from the project life cycle, they follow the project management lifecycle quite closely both in name and in content.

In other words, if you know of the five phases of the project (or of project management), you already have the framework for the project management process groups:

  • Initiation

  • Planning

  • Execution

  • Monitoring and controlling

  • Closing

Just don’t confuse the two, says Steven Goeman (founder of The Project Management Mentor and GAPS BV):

“There are still . . . some fellow project managers that make use of PMI’s process groups as a kind of project life cycle. It seems they didn't observe the word ‘IN’ when reading the PMBOK's statement that process groups are INdependent from the project life cycle.”

Instead of considering these process groups to be a sort of project management workflow, think of them as buckets for the various processes that exist within a specific phase or function of a project.

1. Initiation

The initiation process group contains processes related to the beginning of the project. These include the development of the project charter, identifying project stakeholders, assigning a project manager, and defining the rough outline of the project scope.

The knowledge areas at play here include project integration management and project stakeholder management. Depending on how frontloaded your project process is, you might also include project scope management.

2. Planning

By far the largest process group, planning touches all 10 knowledge areas and over 20 processes. This process group includes developing all these elements:

  • Project management plan

  • Project scope

  • Project budget

  • Resource management plan

  • Communication plan

  • Risk analysis and response

  • Stakeholder engagement 

And that’s only a representative list.

This process group is vital to get right because you don’t want to end up in a situation where no one engaged in risk management, for example, until the risks are already becoming reality in a later phase. 

Can you do a risk analysis and come up with an on-the-fly response plan while the project is on fire? Yes, but you shouldn’t — and you shouldn’t have to. Identifying that building a risk management plan is a part of the planning process group (and then doing it at the right point in the project) will save you headaches and crises down the road. 

3. Execution

The execution process group contains all the processes you’ll run as the work of the project gets going (you might even say all the work of the project execution phase). Seven of the knowledge areas are represented here (three are missing because the scope, schedule, and budget are already set).

Here, you’ll direct and manage project work, manage project knowledge, and acquire, develop, and manage the team. This is also where you begin implementing all the other plans from the previous process group (communications, risk response, stakeholder engagement, and so on). 

4. Monitoring and controlling

Let’s picture execution as knocking over the first domino or dropping the marble into the maze. 

If we keep that analogy going, then the monitoring and controlling process group contains all the processes related to:

  • Making sure the dominoes and/or marbles are proceeding as they should (monitoring).

  • Getting things back on track when needed (controlling).

That perfect project plan never survives first contact with the client. The resource projections don’t line up with reality (especially in creative contexts!). Project deliverables receive unavoidable scope changes.

Since anything and everything can change during project progress, all 10 knowledge areas may be needed here.

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5. Closing

The closing process may be the smallest process group and the shortest project phase, but project closing is no less vital for ongoing success.

Only one knowledge area — project integration management — is usually involved here, and usually, there aren’t all that many processes. In fact, in many of PMI’s examples, there’s only one: “close project or phase.”

The 10 PMBOK knowledge areas

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Now that we’ve covered the five process groups, let’s take a look at the 10 knowledge areas as defined in PMBOK.

These knowledge areas are categories of technical knowledge needed at various points in a project (and in various processes and process groups). These aren’t intended as a way to categorize tasks or processes in any kind of logical workflow. Instead, they provide a way to think about related knowledge concepts in more definable chunks.

On a more practical level, PMBOK uses these knowledge areas as chapter groupings, devoting a chapter to each area. 

1. Project integration management

Project integration management is the knowledge area covering everything a project manager needs to know to begin or initiate a project and then guide that project through the entire life cycle. 

Project managers must coordinate resources, tasks, stakeholders, and more, and they must identify, define, and coordinate all the processes and activities that go into a successful project.

Because it touches every part of a project, project integration management shows up in all five process groups.

2. Project scope management

Project scope management includes the technical knowledge and processes that ensure projects stay within their scope (and that they include everything the scope requires). 

Project scope management shows up where scope-related processes do: in the planning, monitoring, and controlling process groups.

3. Project schedule management

Also sometimes called project time management (the 2017 6th edition PMBOK introduced the current term), this knowledge area covers everything required to ensure that the project finishes on time.

Included here is estimating the project’s duration, the resource hours required, building a project schedule, and then (within monitoring and controlling) ensuring team members are adhering to the schedule.

The exact ways you think about and build project schedules will depend on the project management methodology you use. Regardless of whether you’re using traditional, predictive, agile, scrum, hybrid, or any other methodology, there is a body of knowledge and a set of processes that come into play and can be categorized here.

Like the previous knowledge area, project schedule management shows up in two process groups: planning and monitoring and controlling.

4. Project cost management

The processes and knowledge that deal with budgets and costs all fall into this area. This includes planning, estimating, budgeting, and funding a project, along with controlling costs and managing spend along the way.

Exactly how much budgetary control the project manager has will depend on numerous factors, from the size of the project to the size and culture of the organization (or your agency). But, like with many aspects of project management, the PM is responsible for managing and corralling responsible parties in key areas, even when the PM doesn't have the final say.

Like the previous two knowledge areas, project cost management shows up in two process groups: planning and monitoring and controlling.

5. Project quality management

Project quality management is again similar to the last three, dealing with one specific element of the project: its quality. This knowledge area helps project managers ensure that a project will succeed in terms of quality (will it satisfy its own objectives?).

Project quality must be planned, managed, and controlled.

There aren’t as many processes involved here, but they do spread across the middle three process groups: planning, executing, and monitoring and controlling.

6. Project resources management

Prior to the 6th edition, this knowledge area was called project human resources management. It’s been broadened in part to recognize that not all project resources are people, and the project manager is just as responsible for nonhuman resources (desks, computers, intellectual property, software licenses) as human ones.

All processes and technical knowledge relating to resources and resource management fit here: planning, estimating, acquiring, developing, managing, and controlling.

Project resources management processes are spread across the middle three process groups.

7. Project communications management

Managing communications within a project and project team is equal parts art and science. This knowledge area focuses on the science side, including processes related to planning, collecting, creating, storing, distributing, and managing project information and comms.

Communication happens across every part of a project, but formalized project communications management processes are spread across the middle three process groups.

8. Project risk management

Managing risk within a project requires specific technical knowledge and involves a range of risk-related processes.

You’ll likely create a risk register and risk responses as a part of these processes, though what this looks like probably depends on how complex your project is (and how formal or developed your project management approach).

Project risk management processes are spread across the middle three process groups.

9. Project procurement management

“Procurement” looks wildly different at a creative agency than, say, a commercial construction project. But it still exists: instead of procuring lumber and steel, you may need to procure outside contractors, software licenses, hardware, and so on.

Of the 10 knowledge areas, this one may be the least significant in the agency world.

Project procurement management processes are spread across the middle three process groups.

10. Project stakeholder management

Identifying the right stakeholders, communicating with them, creating buy-in, understanding and meeting their expectations, and just plain managing them (keeping them off the backs of the doers and fending off their scope changes) all fall within this knowledge area. 

You’ll engage in project stakeholder management in at least the first four phases (and it’s certainly not unheard of for stakeholders to poke their heads in around project closing!).

Empower your project management processes with

Getting a handle on the five process groups and 10 knowledge areas takes time and experience. 

But putting all that knowledge to work in a way that generates results? That requires more than time and experience. It requires the right set of tools. is powerful operations and project management software trusted by thousands of businesses and client services organizations for managing, tracking, and customizing projects of all complexity levels. Whether you’re running short, Agile sprints or building immaculate Gantt charts, has the power and flexibility you need.

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