Project Management Institute

Aggressive Deadlines Require Aggressive Strategy and Discipline


American Express
Global Business Travel

This real life case study is about setup of a successful cloud-based ecosystem that had less than 50% chance to succeed. The setting up of a travel business as a stand-alone company from the parent opened up opportunities along with challenges. The early building block was to setup cloud based HRIS within 6 months.

The different projects were kicked off in earnest, with individual teams running at 100 miles per hour; lack of overarching integration was identified as major risk. Dr. Shenhar and Dr. Dvir's NTCP model was applied to create a project execution strategy. The novelty (N) factor of products/services being implemented fell into the platform category; the technology (T) factor was considered high-tech; the complexity (C) factor was at system level, and the pace (P) factor was identified as time-critical. Pace and complexity clearly influenced the execution strategy to create a pseudo-pure project team with open communication lines across the organization.

Transactional project management of marking checklists was clearly not enough given the pace; transformational project leadership was critical for success. Though the project took seven months to complete, it was a grand success for delivering what was almost impossible and for raising the bar on collaboration and performance.

Keywords: leadership, strategy, execution


On September 25, 2013 American Express announced plans to create a new joint venture, a 50-50 partnership with an investor group led by Certares to accelerate the transformation of its Global Business Travel (GBT) division. The US$900 million investment was to fund development of cutting edge products, create state-of-the-art capabilities, and attract new customers. GBT started to operate as a stand-alone company as of July 1, 2014 (American Express 2013, American Express 2014).


The leadership team recognized internal constraints with people, process, technology. They acknowledged competitive forces in order to maximize a small window of opportunity and set out a road map to transform. Cloud based solutions were identified for functions such as human resource information systems (HRIS), finance, procurement, and so forth. The early building block (Exhibit 1) was to setup HRIS within six months with best of breed services from Workday, AON, ADP, CornerStone, and more. The different projects were kicked off in earnest with individual teams from the company, vendors, and consulting partners—all running at 100 miles per hour. Lack of overarching integration was identified as a major risk.


Exhibit 1: Building blocks.


Variance and uncertainty of project completion time were calculated using the approach outlined in Exhibit 2 (Meredith & Mantel, 2012). Stakeholder inputs on project completion time ranged from an optimistic (o) nine months, to an average of 12 months and pessimistic (p) 18 months. The resulting confidence to get the project done in six months as envisioned by leadership was less than 50%. The leadership team was concerned about the risk and an effective approach, and less of conventional details.


Exhibit 2: Variance and uncertainty calculation.

The confidence calculation will be an interactive exercise with the help of a worksheet for attendees to actively engage.


Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach to Successful Growth and Innovation by Shenhar and Divir introduces the “diamond” approach to manage projects. Unlike earlier models focused on managing projects to time and budget, this model focused on managing projects for business results. The diamond approach is designed to provide a disciplined tool for analyzing the expected benefits and risks of a project and developing a set of rules and behaviors for each project type. It provides a common language for discussion among executives, managers, teams, and stakeholders. The four bases of the diamond are defined: Novelty, Technology, Complexity, and Pace, as shown in Exhibit 3.


Exhibit 3: The diamond model (Shenhar, Dvir [2007]).

Novelty – This represents the uncertainty of the project's goal. It measures how new the project's product is to customers or users and how clear and well-defined the initial product requirements are. The three types are: derivative, platform, and breakthrough.

Technology – This represents the project's level of technological uncertainty. It is determined by how much new technology is required. The four types are: low-tech, medium-tech, high-tech, and super high-tech.

Complexity – This measures the complexity of the product, the task, and the project organizations. The three types are: assembly, system, and array.

Pace – This represents how much time is available to complete the project. The four types are: regular, fast/competitive, time-critical, and blitz.


Project leader's exposure to the concept helped adopt and apply this model effectively.

Novelty – The envisioned cloud suite of products were relatively established in the industry. Vendors and partners had prior experience with the product suite and treated the implementation as a Derivative. However, the internal project team, end users and the organization as a whole was new to the product and struggled to ramp up. Hence the project had to be classified as Platform. This implied that project requirements could not be frozen until much later a contradictory state from the vendor's desire.

Technology – The cloud infrastructure used recently developed technologies, and the eco-system was still evolving. Vendors were treating the project as medium-tech as integration and eco-system were ignored. Hence the project had to be classified as high-tech. This dictated phase overlaps were not recommended and was readily agreed to by vendors/partners, and required management to be flexible and tolerate long periods of uncertainty.

Complexity – The projects were a complex collection of products, services, and vendors. As mentioned earlier, the ecosystem and integrations were still evolving, making the product complexity “platform of systems” (i.e., in between systems and platforms). The project complexity itself was at the system level. Major focus was on the requirements, design, and integration of the systems. A formal project office was not in place; the project leader had to additionally play the role of project office. The leadership team also was involved with regular formal reviews and informal contacts with vendors/partners to ensure constant attention.

Pace – Meeting the deadline of six months was extremely important. The timely deployment was to pave the wave for future solutions to be rolled out; it also offered more freedom and flexibility from legacy systems. Pseudo-pure project team was put in place (i.e., a dedicated team spending more than 85% time for the project and predominantly reporting to one leader). Not all process/procedures could be streamlined given the legacy approach to project management. A high degree of involvement by top management ensured constant progress.

The diamond selection for project strategy will be an interactive exercise with the help of a worksheet for attendees to actively engage.


HR model (Ulrich, (2010) as adopted by the CHRO shown in Exhibit 4 will be reviewed to understand the cultural context. The focus of the new company was to build a constructive culture that was easier said than done.


Exhibit 4: HR model.


The style of the project manager directly impacts the outcome of the project. Exhibit 5 compares and contrasts management and leadership and will be discussed with examples.


Exhibit 5: Management versus leadership


Citizenship behaviors are discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the reward system. Voluntarily helping team members achieve collective objectives and keeping positive attitude made the difference especially when the team was working long hours and dealing with stress.


On the novelty dimension, much internal selling of the new generation of products/features was not done, resulting in slower adoption.

Set the direction of your project and develop a project strategy based on novelty, technology, complexity and pace.

Build a high-performance team by applying transformational leadership skills and exhibiting citizenship behavior.



Murugappan Chettiar is an innovative and experienced leader with a proven track record delivering complex projects, managing executive relationships, building teams, and ensuring PMOs meet and beat aggressive deadlines. He currently works as Director of Project Management at American Express Global Business Travel, based out of New York City. Murugappan is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP)® since 2005, holds a graduate degree in Project Management from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. As adjunct faculty at Stevens Institute of Technology and Farleigh Dickinson University, he has taught graduate-level courses in Project Management, and he stays abreast with strategic project management and experiments with new methodologies.

American Express. (2013, September). American Express announces plans to create new joint venture for business travel (press release). Retrieved from

American Express. (2014, July). American Express global business travel joint venture deal closed (press release). Retrieved from

Aronson, Z., & Lechler, T. (2009). Contributing beyond the call of duty: Examining the role of culture in fostering citizenship behavior and success in project-based work. The Authors Journal Compilation. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing.

Dominick, P. & Lechler, T. (2014). The mediated effects of transformational leadership behaviors and decision authority of project Managers on project performance. Hoboken, NJ: Howe School of Management, Stevens Institute of Technology.

Meredith, J.R., & Mantel, Jr., S.J. (2012). Project management: A managerial approach (8th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ulrich, David et all (2010). HR Transformation: Building Human Resources from the Outside In. Provo, UT: RBL Institute.

Shenhar, A.J., & Divir, D. (2007). Reinventing project management: The diamond approach to successful growth and innovation. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2016, Murugappan Chettiar
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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