The big sell




illustration by FREDRIK BRODÉN

Winning over hearts and minds is a delicate task, but in the complex and often political world of project management it's more than desirable, it's imperative. Without a laser-like focus on selling project management techniques, building consensus and supporting participants along the way, even the best planned initiative will likely fail.

Seven project management advocates offer their insights into overcoming resistance, diffusing politics and addressing the cultural issues that can derail initiatives and sabotage performance. Together, they offer a blueprint for achieving superior results.

Dwight Pullen, Project Director, H.J. Russell & Co, Atlanta, Ga., USA

In an era of mega-projects routinely stretching beyond time and budget targets, Dwight Pullen demonstrates how a strong project management framework-combined with an ability to communicate and win over critics-leads to stellar results.


Working at H.J. Russell & Co., one of the largest minority-owned development firms in the United States, Mr. Pullen landed the job of project director for the massive Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2003. Responsible for overseeing construction of a new 9,000-foot, $1.28 billion runway at the world's busiest passenger airport, Mr. Pullen completed the project 11 days ahead of schedule at $100 million under budget.

This is not to say it wasn't a challenge. With 22 sub-projects to manage, Mr. Pullen found himself dealing with a tangle of government agencies, contractors, project managers and business leaders. Of course with that came all of the usual turf wars, ego battles and conflicting opinions.

“Some of these people had the ability to shut down the job or toss it into total disarray,” he says. From the beginning, Mr. Pullen recognized that although he needed to go in armed with technical knowledge, he also had to create buy-in for project management methods and build consensus if the team was going to meet deadlines and targets.

The first step was to check his ego at the door. “I admitted to managers that they had far more technical knowledge than me and that my job was to help them do their job effectively,” he says. Mr. Pullen asked project managers to let him know whenever they needed additional support or resources, but also made it clear that he would have to make some unpopular decisions.

He also knew he had to remain unflustered–particularly when negotiating with contractors and government officials. “Rather than fight them, I looked for ways to become allies. I tried to understand their position, empathize with them and figure out how we could work together to solve mutual problems,” he explains. As Mr. Pullen proved he would provide ongoing support, skepticism and resistance faded. Participants who viewed project management as nothing more than a tactical tool began to see the strategic benefits.

Mr. Pullen recommends identifying the organization's leaders and then working with them to achieve complete buy-in. “Leaders are not necessarily the most senior people or the most knowledgeable, they are the ones who influence their peers,” he says. “In the end, they are the ones who make or break the project.”

Expand Your Horizons

Susmita Gongulee Thomas, Ambassador of India to Chile, Santiago, Chile

It's not unusual for ambassadors to bring together conflicting governments and solve urgent problems. But the idea of one leading the charge toward project management is almost unheard of. For Susmita Gongulee Thomas, though, advocating project management has become second nature.


“It offers a powerful way to break through barriers and build consensus,” says Ms. Gongulee Thomas, who has spent 30-plus years working as a diplomat. “The same techniques and processes that drive efficiencies in business are valuable in government.”

Ms. Gongulee Thomas first gained an appreciation for project management from her entrepreneur husband, Thomas P. Thomas, PMP. Yet, when she tried to put the same techniques to work in the international diplomacy arena, she encountered gale-force resistance. “People told me that's there's no way project management methods could help,” she says. Undaunted, she marched forward, establishing goals, checklists and timeframes, all the while building agreement among the key players.

The approach has paid enormous dividends. For instance, a few years ago, she backed a fair-trade agreement between India and Chile but political leaders in India were wary of the idea because they believed shipping and administrative costs were too high.

Ms. Gongulee Thomas went to work, using project management processes to help her identify and track issues, manage action items, clarify financial matters, and maintain alignment between business practices and goals. Using the methods also created greater transparency and let her know where she stood during every phase of the initiative. After framing the issues and demonstrating the potential benefits, Ms. Gongulee Thomas set up meetings with business executives and government leaders, identified eight key partners and began building support. In March 2005, the agreement came to fruition and today stands ratified by both governments.

“It is very important to build allies,” she explains. “It is essential to create a mindset that goes along with what you are trying to achieve. In order to succeed, you must meet with people who are for you and against you. You must understand their position and they must understand yours.”

Take It Slow

Anton Olivier, PMP, CEO, Stratex Consulting, Windhoek, Namibia

It's an ambitious program. Anton Olivier, PMP, and a team of consultants are joining forces with a growing number of committed public servants to transform 27 Namibian government offices, ministries and agencies into cost-effective, high-performance organizations. Not surpringly, it's not always an easy sell.


Although “project management is the way to get things done—especially when the project is complex, dynamic and long-term,” getting others to recognize its value and use it hasn't been easy, Mr. Olivier says. “Many people say it cannot happen. Previous attempts had failed, and there aren't many success stories around.”

To overcome that skepticism, he and the team have tried to help build project management capacity and maturity “in a gradual way,” keeping concepts simple and expanding them over time.

With the sponsorship and leadership of the Office of the Prime Minister, Mr. Olivier and a team of 11 external consultants have developed a performance management toolkit with 17 modules. The goal is to “facilitate the required changes in paradigms, attitudes and culture, and skills to provoke improvements within government,” he says. The modules cover strategic planning, human resources, and technical and people skills and use strategy planning and mapping, scorecards, performance agreements and assessments, verification and recognition to drive results. All of these processes are designed to manage, monitor, assess, recognize and improve the performance of public service organizational, unit and individual levels.

“The whole purpose of the program is to win people over and influence their thinking, attitudes and behavior toward excellent public service,” Mr. Olivier says. “The Namibian government then needs to make change happen and offer the excellent public serve so desperately needed by picking the right projects and executing them the right way.”

Build Consensus

Mohammed Rabeh, Manager of Khurais Projects, Saudi Aramco, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

For Mohammed Rabeh, part of being an effective advocate is getting everyone to buy into the same project vision. Massive oil projects are notoriously complex and fraught with a dizzying array of risks, challenges and problems. And when a power player like Saudi Aramco has more than 26,000 contractors connected to a project, the stakes grow even higher— and that means everybody better be on the same page.


“It is critical to ensure that everyone is aligned and that our objectives are clearly identified,” says Mr. Rabeh, who oversees the company's huge Khurais project. In this case, the goal is to boost the production capacity of Saudi Arabia's oilfields by 1.2 million barrels per day by 2009 through the use of new technologies and methods.

Mr. Rabeh, who has managed several other mega-projects, believes project management is only as good as a group's collective understanding of goals, concepts and requirements. “Every person brings a unique perspective and approach to a project,” he says. “To overcome resistance, key stakeholders must commit to common objectives, and an organization must use key performance indicators that measure results and outcomes.”

Winning Them Over

As every project manager knows, it's impossible to achieve success without organizational buy-in. Here are five often-overlooked ways to build alliances:

Identify thought leaders. Keep senior leadership informed but focus your efforts on those who influence others. These people can come from all levels of the organization.

Educate senior management. Too many executives view project management as little more than a tactical approach for getting things done. Helping business leaders understand the strategic value of project management helps garner practical—and financial—support.

Win over opponents. It is indeed possible to transform skeptics into supporters by working with them to alleviate their concerns and fears—and by including them in the planning and decision-making process.

Communicate relentlessly and honestly. When people understand the goals, benchmarks and challenges associated with a project, they're able to key into the process and become far more engaged. Over time, even critics are likely to drop their resistance and offer support.

Stay out of the way. Avoid the temptation to micromanage. Giving team members space to operate and letting them develop their knowledge and talents helps build a stronger base for project management.

He relies on steering committees, group meetings and a variety of tools, including internally developed software, to establish realistic targets and track results. That lets Mr. Rabeh march into meetings armed with a mountain of data to prove his points and foster agreement.

Yet he acknowledges success is more than the sum of hard targets and objectives. “If we try to push our own agenda without understanding other parties, it's extremely difficult to achieve outstanding results,” Mr. Rabeh says. “It's important for all reasonable voices to be heard during the process.” This sometimes entails sitting down with critics and mulling over points of contention. “Oftentimes,” he says, “skeptics provide remarkable insights into actual weaknesses and, if you're willing to listen, they help you develop a better plan.”

Ultimately, project management is about balancing risk, time, money and resources. “An effective advocate of project management helps everyone understand the rewards and consequences related to various actions and inactions,” he explains. “Project management is an effective tool for every manager across an organization. Once you're able to convince people of its value, you're positioned to achieve greater success.”

Transform the Culture

James Rispoli, Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Management, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington D.C., USA


Overseeing a $225 billion life cycle portfolio of high-profile projects, James Rispoli is a man on a mission to boost performance. Although the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began adopting project management methodologies in 2000, it wasn't until late 2005 that the department made them a top priority. After conducting a portfolio analysis, the DOE discovered 15 of its 83 projects were behind schedule and over budget.

That was simply unacceptable to Mr. Rispoli.

“It is imperative that we keep projects on schedule and on budget,” he says. “There are no larger and more complex projects anywhere in the world.”

That lineup includes massive nuclear site cleanups, which means not only are taxpayers’ dollars at stake, but an array of health and safety risks loom large.

Mr. Rispoli, who had gained project management experience as a civil engineer in the U.S. Navy, overhauled the project management program. As part of the push to improve the agency's project performance, he introduced an agency-wide project manager certification program and boosted training opportunities.

Today, all project managers participate in quarterly rigorous reviews and receive monthly performance evaluation reports.

Reaching the highest of the training program's four levels requires a face-to-face interview with members of an independent board. “Interpersonal skills are extraordinarily important,” Mr. Rispoli explains. “Project managers must not only be able to navigate the technical and practical sides of overseeing a project, they must be equipped to deal with outside stakeholders.”

The focus on project management has helped point everyone in the same direction and crumple resistance to new ideas. “Managers understand that by using the project management bag of tools, they are able to achieve greater success,” he says. In some cases, those who lack the aptitude or interest in participating in the program have moved into other positions.

The end result? Mr. Rispoli has trimmed the number of underperforming projects to four. “Our objective is to maintain a 90 percent on-schedule and on-cost performance level,” he says. “We have raised performance to a new level.”

Spread the Word

Jose Machicao, PMP, Freelance Consultant, Lima, Peru

Like any advocate for change, Jose Machicao, PMP, knows the power of a good blog. But he also knows if he's going to get his fellow Latin Americans to see the power of project management, he has to speak their language—literally.


In his native Peru, Mr. Machicao says most people aren't familiar with project management knowledge areas and processes, primarily because most resources covering the topic are published in English.

“Project management tools are not yet completely developed and accepted within the Peruvian society's culture,” says Mr. Machicao, an independent consultant and education director for the PMI Government Specific Interest Group. “There are too many methodologies in the market, and many people are confused about how to apply those methodologies both in the private and public sectors.”

To bridge the divide, Mr. Machicao launched a Spanish-language project management blog, Gestion Organizacional de Poyectos, last September.

“My intention is to show hidden connections between the usual issues raised by the press and the public opinion in Peru with the concepts of project management,” he says. “For example, when the media publishes something about whether the decision of a politician or manager was good or bad, it is not usually under a management conceptual framework but under the heat of the most short-term concern.”

Already, more than 200 visitors a day read Mr. Machicao's views on how to use organizational project management tools to solve problems in the booming area, where mega-projects—and often bureaucracy— abound. The Peruvian government has been pouring billions of dollars into new infrastructure projects, and direct foreign investment in projects has grown from US$6.2 billion in 1996 to US$15.4 billion in 2006.

But Peruvian organizations still have much to learn about project management, he says. “Even when there are strict schedules to follow for infrastructure projects, it's still hard to translate that to government goals,” he says. “The generation and definition of planned achievements is almost not considered because all agencies concentrate on planning actions without associated results.”

Blogging is already helping spread the word across Latin America. “I combine blogging with talking to people, listening to their opinions and trying to make the most of what project management knowledge— standards, research, ideas and tools—has to offer,” Mr. Machicao says. He receives daily feedback, phone calls, comments and requests for case studies, all of which open up avenues for knowledge sharing.

I combine blogging with talking to people, listening to their opinions and trying to make the most of what project management knowledge—standards, research, ideas and tools—has to offer.

—Jose Machicao, PMP

Mr. Machicao is well on his way to helping Peru master project management basics as it develops a style of its own. “We shouldn't copy the management culture of other countries … but create a Peruvian way to manage success,” he says.

And blogging may help knock down a few more borders. He is currently collaborating with project management advocates in Chile and Argentina to develop more Spanish-language resources for project managers in the region.

Sell It

Janice Thomas, Ph.D., Program Director, Online Executive MBA in Project Management, Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada

The way Janice Thomas sees it, the outcome of a project is usually determined well before project managers assign teams and divvy up responsibilities. And those who serve as advocates and are adept at selling project management concepts and methods in the preferred business vernacular are far more likely to succeed.


“It is essential to have key decision-makers and senior executives on board before a project is funded,” she explains. “The selling point must be based on the business and strategic needs of the organization and not on hard numbers and ROI.”

Organizations that fall short are likely to watch executives grow impatient…and dissatisfied with the idea of project management.

Many senior-level executives view project management as nothing more than a tactical and operational tool that's useful at the lower levels of an organization to keep initiatives on track. Those people who pitch project management on the notion of on time and on schedule feed into this idea and often achieve sub-par results.

“The problem is that project management is often sold to senior executives in a simplistic and unrealistic way,” says Dr. Thomas, author of Selling Project Management to Senior Executives: Framing the Moves that Matter [Project Management Institute, 2002].

Dr. Thomas advocates a different tact. “Those who succeed find out what the organization requires, and they make sure executives understand how project management helps them address these needs,” she says. For example, at a company sensitive to time-to-market issues, project management should be sold on its ability to help organizations monitor and manage conditions and react more quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, at a company where it's critical to maintain uptime for IT systems, the focus should be on promoting project management as a way to track performance and maintain consistency. “It's important to customize the approach to fit the specific situation,” Dr. Thomas says.

Ultimately, a project manager must conduct research and understand how the organization works, what its culture is like and what it has done in the past. “It's all about building relationships upwards and sideways so that there's a view of the inner workings of the organization, including how decisions get made and how executives commit to projects,” she says. PM

Samuel Greengard is a West Linn., Ore., USA-based journalist who covers business and technology. His articles have appeared in American Way, Business Finance and Workforce Management.




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