Passing the PMP Exam the “Easier” Way

Passing the PMP Exam the "Easier" Way - Overcoming the Iceberg Problem

Any exam is easy when you know the right answers. It’s getting to the stage of knowing the answers that can be either time-consuming and confusing or a logical and progressive journey. Unfortunately, many people make it difficult for themselves by jumping to practice questions much too early when there is a better way.

Don’t get me wrong, using practice questions is great as a final step for confirming your knowledge but is a terrible waste of time and a source of stress when used too soon.

Yet, exam questions may seem a tempting place to start. They are the final hurdle, after all. “Begin with the end in mind” “See what we are up against,” blah, blah. However, we should stop. That’s the Iceberg problem, the pursuit of the visible over the understanding of the more critical, invisible supporting structure.

In my article about agile adoption, we saw how some organizations attempt to copy the visible agile practices without first understanding the invisible, supporting mindset, values and principles.

Agile Iceberg diagram

To the uninitiated, this is tempting. We see what agile teams are doing and copy them in the hope of emulating their success. If you have forgotten about this Cargo Cult problem, here’s a link to the article.

The same applies to preparing for the PMP® exam. Instead of just jumping to practice questions (the most visible part of preparation), first, ensure you understand the exam’s scope and basis. This can eliminate a lot of anxiety because it precisely defines the topics you are expected to know (risk management and agile estimation, for example) and topics that are not in the exam (earned schedule calculations and the theory of constraints, etc.)

Exam Iceberg diagram

Why the Exam Content Outline is Important

The Exam Content Outline document lists the Domains, Tasks and Enablers covered by the PMP® exam. The Domains are the major categories of:

  • People
  • Process
  • Business Environment


Each of the Domains contain Tasks, which are activities project managers are expected to know how to perform. For the PMP® Exam there are 35 Tasks, and they include:

  • Manage Conflict
  • Lead a Team
  • Support Team Performance


Each of the Tasks are illustrated by candidate Enablers. You can think of Enablers as example steps or activities performed towards completing a Task. For example, Task “1.1 Manage Conflict” has three Enablers listed in the Exam Content Outline (ECO), as follows:

  • Manage Conflict
    • Interpret the source and stage of the conflict
    • Analyze the context for the conflict
    • Evaluate/recommend/reconcile the appropriate conflict resolution solution


The number of example Enablers listed in the ECO vary by Task. In the example above, “1.1 Manage Conflict,” we see three Enablers. But the next Task “1.2 Lead a Team,” has seven Enablers listed.

The page header used on shows the 3 Domains and 35 Tasks, with a bar graph of how many Enablers are in each Task. Highlighted in the red box below is the short first blue bar for 1.1 Manage Conflict with 3 Enablers and the longer bar for 1.2 Lead a Team with 7 Enablers.

Page Banner with highlight

Many people overlook the importance of studying the Exam Content Outline (ECO). It describes the scope of the exam with everything that might be tested. If a topic is not listed in the ECO, there will not be any questions on it.

We would not undertake a project without a scope document, statement of work or product backlog listing what we have to deliver. So do not start your PMP® preparation without a good understanding of the ECO – it is the scope document for our studies.

Once we understand the scope of the exam, we can then set about learning the project management principles for those topics. Then the knowledge, skills, tools and techniques associated with all the topics defined in the ECO. Then (and only then) will we be in an excellent position to start with practice questions.

Where do PMP Questions Come From?

The PMP® exam is designed to test the application of generally accepted project management knowledge and skills. So to create valuable questions, PMI needs to understand what the generally accepted knowledge and skills in use by project managers are.  This is achieved by a Role Delineation Study, a survey of practicing project managers that asks them to list the tools, techniques, knowledge and skills needed to complete their job effectively. 

Based on the research and questionnaire findings of the Role Delineation Study an Exam Content Outline of approved topics is created. This filtering of possible exam topics is shown below.

Where exam questions come from

Question writers (known as item writers) write questions based only on the topics in the Exam Content Outline. Additionally, each question has to be linked to two reference publications to help verify it is based on agreed practice rather than the interpretation of the item writer.

So, item writers use the Exam Content Outline as a list of topics and reference publications as the source of truth to create questions for the exam. It is worth noting that typically each of the reference publications contains coverage of topics outside the exam content outline that will not be featured in the exam. Instead, only content related to the exam outline can have questions based on it. This complete process is depicted below:

Where exam questions come from part 2

Why This is Useful

Like running a project, understanding what is in and out of scope is critical for success.  If a topic is not in the Exam Content Outline, you do not need to study it.  It might still be helpful and valuable to you as a project manager, but it will not be in the exam.

This whole topic selection process has been completed recently. Project management professionals were surveyed about the practices and skills they use. The new PMP Exam Content Outline defines the scope of the exam from 2021 onwards.

For more details about how the PMP exam changed in 2021 see this article that explains some of the content changes and the adoption of other question types beyond Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ).

What PMP Questions Test (and What They Do Not)

The science of instructional design often references “Bloom’s Taxonomy” as a framework to describe the levels of thinking and comprehension involved when learning new material. Like many established theories, some researchers criticized it as limited or outdated, but it is still widely used.

Bloom’s taxonomy describes a hierarchy that starts from a base of simple recall and progresses through layers of understanding and application until people can create new approaches based on the underlying ideas.

Blooms Taxonomy

Everybody goes through these stages as part of learning and being able to use new skills. The stages can be divided into two main categories of recall and application.

Blooms Taxonomy - Application and Recall

Effective exams have a combination of recall and application type questions, with a preference for the application of knowledge. An example of a question that tests recall only would be:

A communications management plan is a document that includes descriptions of:

   A) Project-level performance reports

   B) Activity-level status reports

   C) Stakeholder interaction requirements

   D) Responsibility assignments

Correct Answer: C. Here we need to recall that a communications management plan contains information about stakeholder interaction requirements. However, the PMP exam uses predominantly application-type questions that first outline a scenario and then present a question. These elevate the question from recall to application. For example:

Your team planned to complete six stories in the current iteration. But as you reach the end of the iteration, only four of them are done. What should you do?

   A) Return the remaining stories to the backlog for re-planning

   B) Ask the product owner to extend the iteration

   C) Work on the remaining stories when you can fit them in

   D) Schedule the remaining stories at the start of the next iteration

Correct Answer: A. In this example, we have to first interpret the scenario by analyzing the situation, then evaluate the best response. It tests for more than just recall of facts or concepts, instead, it requires us to apply an understanding of timeboxes and backlog prioritization.

The goal of question writing is to test candidates’ application of knowledge, not just recall. For this reason, most questions in the PMP exam are situational. Meaning they present a scenario and question and then ask for the best response for that situation. These types of questions test a candidate at the ‘Apply’ and ‘Analyze’ levels of Bloom’s taxonomy by requiring them to use their knowledge in the setting of the scenario and make connections between topics.

It’s Not So Bad, You’ve Got This

Exams can be stressful, so it is natural to avoid thinking about them too much. However, understanding some of the exam’s design principles can help calm our nerves.

The exam topics come from Role Delineation Studies of real practitioners, not sadistic academics. The whole scope is defined in the Exam Content Outline and does not encompass every project management technique. Questions are based on scenarios to ensure we understand and can apply the concepts, not confuse us with long-winded stories.

Like switching the light on to illuminate the source of a scary noise at night, more information usually reveals less for us to fear rather than the monster we had been dreading. Learning a little about the PMP® exam structure explains a few factors and gives us one less thing to worry about.

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