What Project Managers Need to Know About ISO 21500


The role of a project manager is to create a framework to aid the accomplishment of business goals. The task also involves ensuring all the standards and best practices are applied effectively on the organization’s portfolio of projects. This office is mostly underestimated, but it can be the driving force behind all the company operations.

The discipline purposely aims at achieving specific objectives and expectations by motivating, organizing, planning, and controlling business resources. This makes it efficient when it comes to handling complex operations.

Smaller organizations require relatively less bureaucratic project management approaches. They may also need a different set of tools and not the traditional solutions designed for large to medium-sized projects.

ISO 21500 was released in September 2012 as a project management blueprint for different organization types and varying project sizes.

Defining ISO 21500:2012, Guidance on Project Management

Established by the International Organization for Standardization, the international standard offers generic guidance and defines core principles and all activities that constitute project management best practices. The development period took five years, spanning from 2007 to 2012 when it was released.

The standard is the first in an organized family of standards and was designed to work with others such as ISO 10007:2003, ISO 10006:2003, ISO 10007:2003, and ISO 31000:2009. It also aligns with several industry-specific sectors such as IT and aerospace. 

ISO 21500 guides project managers on implementing the best approaches to improve their performance and the project management team. ISO/TC258, ISO’s technical committee, creates the program, project, and portfolio management standards alongside other related topics.

Overview of ISO 21500

The ISO 21500 international standard works for different organizations, whether private, public, or community-based. It also works for different types of projects regardless of their size, duration, or complexity.

It’s important to note that other standard bodies like PRINCE2, APM (Association of Project Managers), PMI (Project Management Institute) also cooperated with ISO to ensure that the standards they’ve already established correspond with those provided in the ISO 21500 series. This helps ensure no cases of conflicting standards, and the industry advances consistently and cohesively.

The standard describes the crucial facets and processes that entail project management in its entirety. However, it offers general management topics that are limited to appropriate management aspects. Projects are in the context of project portfolios and programs, but the standard doesn’t provide detailed guidance on managing the two.

You can consider ISO 21500 to be a culmination of project management best practices, and the industry uses it as a global standard.

What Is a Project?

The standard describes a project as an activity that encompasses a unique process comprising controlled and coordinated activities with a beginning and ending date to accomplish project undertakings.

What Is Project Management?

On the other hand, project management refers to the different approaches of applying tools, methods, competencies, and techniques to projects. The process covers integrating the project lifecycle’s different phases, spanning the duration from the project’s start to the end.

Project Management Concepts

This ISO 21500 clause defines the primary concepts that apply to a majority of projects and contexts. Here are the main project management concepts, as highlighted by the international standard:

  • Project
  • Project environment
  • Project management
  • Project governance
  • Competencies of project workers
  • Operations and projects
  • Project and stakeholders’ organization
  • Project life cycle
  • Project limitations
  • Relationship between the conc3epts and processes of project management

Project Management Processes

The international standard clause recognizes the project management process for the respective phases, the entire project, or both. There are two different perspectives for viewing program management processes. These include:

  • Process groups – project management
  • Subject groups – collection of processes according to subject

All process groups and subject groups comprise processes that are appropriate for any project or project phase. Each process is independent, defined based on the description, purpose, and principal inputs and outputs. These groups are not determined by industry focus or area of application.

Relationship Between ISO 21500 And Other Industry Standards and Approaches

ISO 21500 also links with standards and approaches of project management like:


Projects in Controlled Environments (PRINCE2) is a popular methodology established by the United Kingdom government. It suggests a process-based strategy in managing any project.


Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) represents a range of project management standard guidelines and terminology. The guide is currently in its fifth edition, published by the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 2013.

It shares several similarities with ISO 21500. Both follow the structure of stages and topics of project management.

ISO 10006 – Guidelines for quality management in projects

Before ISO 21500 standards were released, ISO 10006 was the only standard for handling projects. The international standard offers guidance on quality management application during projects. But it doesn’t serve as a project management guide.

With the above knowledge, project managers and departments can ensure that they comply with the ISO 21500:2012 standards.


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