If you search on Google for “project management books,” you will find almost two billion results—no, really. That’s a lot of books by anybody’s reckoning, and you’d need many lifetimes to read them all.
And then, to complicate matters, nine of the first ten results provide lists with brief reviews of books: 128 of them. (The tenth result was an Amazon best sellers list.) Even after accounting for the duplicates across the nine lists of books, that still ended up at around 100 titles. So where do you start?
We took a closer look at those duplicates and found success almost immediately.
The manual of project management
One stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). Published by the Project Management Institute (PMI), this book has a fascinating history.
First published in 1996, it was always intended to provide a snapshot of the accumulated knowledge in the field of project management. While that sounded great in the beginning, it became somewhat unwieldy over time. The sixth edition was published in 2017 and ran to an eye-watering 756 pages.
At that point, the publishers decided something needed to change, and for the latest edition, some excellent editors were employed. The PMBOK Guide's seventh edition, published in 2021, is a far more manageable 370 pages.
A mixed reception
The changes didn’t go down well with everyone. At least not initially. One exception was The Everyday PM Podcast, on which host Ann Campea discusses it with two other experienced project managers (PMs), and the trio agrees it is complementary to the previous edition rather than a replacement for it.
Brian Summons says “PMBOK used to be exclusively for PMs and those who aspire to be PMs. But now, it provides essential knowledge for everyone, from a novice to an experienced PM or even a contributor to a project.”
Christina Olivarria notes that “PMs are typically process-oriented,” and that’s what the sixth edition provides: everything you need to create and implement the processes. But the seventh edition focuses PMs on delivering value rather than just being process-driven, she adds.
The bottom line, says Ann Campea, is that “the sixth edition is the ‘how-to’ manual while the seventh edition provides the ‘why’ along with information on the different approaches used to manage projects these days.”
With that assessment comes useful guidance. The PMBOK Guide sixth edition is not for beginners. It uses terminology and describes concepts that only experienced PMs will grasp. Newbies are advised to go for the seventh edition or something else written in plain English.
For the beginner PM
With so many books on project management from which to choose, the approach for this article was to lean heavily on the opinions of project management specialists. We also did what any potential customer these days will do: we consulted online reviews (and ratings). This research helped us to choose the books and assess each one.
Project Management for The Unofficial Project Manager by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore, and James Wood
According to the marketing blurb, this book offers “practical advice and real-world insights for effective project management and guides you through the essentials of the people and project management.” That’s not a typo: The authors explain that “people are crucial in the formula for success and, therefore, a critical component to consider in projects.”
Glancing at how Amazon customers view it is instructive. At the time of writing, there were just less than 2000 ratings of the book, 70% of which give it five stars and 21% award it four stars. That didn’t leave much room for negative reviews. Reviewers on Goodreads value it almost as much.
Some comments stood out when browsing the more recent reviews:
- “An excellent introduction to project management. I liked how it gave real-life examples to explain concepts. Also tied topics into PMBOK without drowning you in information or jargon.”
- “This book provides a simple yet highly effective framework for learning and teaching project owners the leadership side of managing teams. Excellent quick read.”
This book is perfect if you’re struggling to keep your projects organized or find yourself managing projects without formal training in the discipline.
Project Management for Non-Project Managers by Jack Ferraro
Writing on the website of digital skills provider, Simplilearn, Nikita Duggal reports that “the title describes this book perfectly.” She adds that it “encourages functional managers to jump into the project management space by arming them with critical project management skills.”
While it doesn’t appear to be a bestseller on Amazon (we only found 18 reviews), the majority are positive—76% of ratings were four or five stars. On Goodreads, this book has 25 ratings, with a similar weighting to four and five stars.
Some of the associated comments are useful:
- “Having never formally studied project management and yet asked to lead business projects as part of previous roles, I can look back and wish I’d read this earlier.”
- “I found it to be very useful for teaching project management to executives and program managers who supervise project managers.”
- “The author lays out project management principles, with examples for implementation and everyday use by non-project managers. I can see where my project planning has missed some critical steps that resulted in missed deadlines and blown budgets. This book will help me manage projects better.”
Project Management: Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Greg Horine
Now in its third edition, Jose Maria Delos Santos reviewed it for project-management.com. He writes that “it uses a teaching style to review essential project management techniques and skills and presents the material in an easy-to-read and practical format.”
That description tallies with the customer reviews we found on Amazon and Goodreads. Of 299 customers on Amazon, 73% gave it a five-star rating, while 107 readers on Goodreads were more thoughtful in their response: 89% of readers gave it three stars or more.
Of the many comments in the reviews we looked at, one jumped out: “It is a required textbook in a class I’m instructing. Some students are overwhelmed by it, and others say they love that it has all the details they can access later when they are more experienced.”
For the working PM
The intermediate category was tricky. These people usually have project management experience but few or no recognized certifications. For them, beginner books are too simplistic, but the heavy-duty works for fully-qualified project managers are a bit of a reach.
Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management by Scott Berkun
This book was published in 2008, and even then, it was an update of an earlier work by the same author: The Art of Project Management. The big difference is that the later book made bestseller lists, and for good reason.
Elizabeth Harrin of A Rebel’s Guide To Project Management (RGPM) reviewed it shortly after it came out and ended her review with these words: “The bottom line is that if you work with projects, you need this book on your shelf. It’s the book I wish I had written. Ten stars for Berkun.”
More than 5,000 customer ratings on Goodreads support that view, with 89% of readers giving it three stars or better. And on Amazon, 85% of the 286 reviews gave it four or five stars. Some of the comments in the reviews are also interesting:
- “It's a book about how to approach a project, get it done correctly, and how to work with other people through its different phases.”
- “This book focuses on the essence of project management: allowing a group of people to work together to accomplish some goal. It's not tied to any particular technique or methodology.”
Alpha Project Managers by Andy Crowe
This book is fascinating because it’s based on a study involving over 5,000 project managers and stakeholders worldwide. “The purpose of this study was to understand what the top performers do that sets them apart,” explains Belinda Potter in a book review [PDF] for PMI Fort Worth.
The study took a detailed look at the practices and attitudes of 860 project managers and their interactions with thousands of other project stakeholders. From that data, the author created biographical sketches for each alpha project manager type he identified.
There aren’t many ratings on Amazon (207) or Goodreads (167), but the general feeling seems positive. A comment that stood out was from Dave Duckett: “I respect the integrity of the author in the careful way data was reported and presented. I came away with ideas for how I could do my own work better/differently.”
That tallies with Potter’s assessment: “If you, as a project manager, want to improve your performance and you know your own strengths and weaknesses, this book can be of great help to you to take the next step.”
Strategic Project Management Made Simple: Practical Tools for Leaders and Teams by Terry Schmidt
Originally published in 2009, the publisher released a second edition of this well-regarded text in May 2021. The first edition was premised on the fact that many projects don’t get off the ground because of ad hoc, haphazard, and obsolete methods to turn ideas into coherent and actionable plans. It proposed four simple questions to gain a better understanding of the what and why of a project.
The second edition expands on this theme with a section on turning ideas, problems, and opportunities into projects. It introduces the Logical Framework Approach, a simple and practical form of systems thinking useful for tackling different programs, projects, and problems.
The rating data available on Goodreads for the relatively new second edition is statistically insignificant, but Amazon customers are more forthcoming: 81 of them rate it, with 73% giving it five stars. Many of the reader reviews are enthusiastic.
For the advanced PM
Project managers who have been active for many years would look for a different kind of book. Some might be interested in Andy Crowe’s well-regarded text mentioned above, but many might have been a subject in the study on which that book is based. At this level, the focus is generally on fine-tuning and adding to a proven set of skills.
Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook: How to Launch, Lead, and Sponsor Successful Projects by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez
RGPM’s Elizabeth Harrin also reviewed this one, noting that it is timely and much-needed—it was published in late 2021. She suggests that “it’s one of the ‘bibles’ of project management and that practitioners with many years of experience will be nodding along as they read it.”
“The Handbook makes how we feel about project management transparent and elevates the day job into the domain of strategic influence—and yet you put the book down feeling like achieving that is totally manageable and realistic,” writes Harrin.
And that’s consistent with the ratings we found on Amazon (277) and Goodreads (128). An astonishing 77% of the Amazon ratings give it five stars, and another 13% award four stars. Goodreads customers are also enthusiastic, with 84% giving it four or more stars.
Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling by Harold Kerzner
The thirteenth edition of this venerable book was published in 2022, and the original dates back to 1979, so it’s no surprise that it, too is considered a “bible” of project management. One review of the tenth edition uses that description: “Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling is a project management bible…”.
And where PMI saw a need to abbreviate, collate and summarize all the collected knowledge in the PMBOK Guide, Kerzner has not. The latest edition is a bookshelf bending 880 pages, but it remains aligned with the concepts and standards outlined in PMBOK and contains details of the tools and methods needed at every project stage.
It’s important to note that this book is seen as complementary to PMBOK and that many senior project managers will have several editions of both books on their reinforced bookshelves. The reason is simple: the project management process is a constantly improving discipline that welcomes new developments, technologies, and ideas.
Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
The concept of Agile project management has gained currency in recent years, to the point that PMI released its Agile Practice Guide as a companion to the PMBOK Guide in 2017. Among the key sources for that new guide is Ken Schwaber’s 2004 book.
It couldn’t be otherwise because Ken Schwaber is one of the two original developers of Scrum and one of the signatories to the Agile Manifesto. And that background is what gives this book such gravitas among senior project managers.
Interestingly, as far as we can tell, there have never been new editions of this book. Just reprints. The other thing to note is that the author’s background is in software development, and while his techniques and ideas are focused there, many of them have now made their way into mainstream project management.
Embracing the project economy
Whether you’re thinking of a career in project management, have already embarked on one, or just want to learn more, there are books here that you absolutely must read. But you don’t have to do it all at once – especially if you’re just starting out on your journey.
If you do that, you’ll follow the first of six pieces of excellent advice from the Association for Project Management: invest in yourself and keep learning. This is important because, as we saw in the history of the PMBOK Guide, it’s a field that changes constantly, forcing you to adapt as new technologies make some things easier and others more difficult.
Assign yourself a weekly or monthly task in Motion to read the books you think will be of most value to you and your project management career. You might even want to use Motion’s Project Management app to help you run your next project.