Bridging the gap between the classroom and the job


Executive Vice President, ESI International


“Why won't they let me do this stuff when I get back to the job?” If I had a Sing Dollar, a Malaysian Ringgit, or a Thai Baht for every time I heard this question from a project manager, I'd be as rich as Li Ka-shing. To be sure, project managers want to improve their skills and when they return to the job from the classroom they expect their managers to reinforce the practices and methods they learned. But according to many project managers, their managers don't, electing instead to conduct business “the same old way.”

Project managers complain that they can't implement the best practices because, they allege, managers won't let them. But is this really the case? Would a manager really prohibit a project manager from developing a WBS, or a schedule, or a risk plan? I hardly think so. The problem is simple: because the manager does not encourage the project manager to provide these deliverables, and because the manager does not ask to review them, the project manager believes that the manager is not interested in adopting a new approach. The project manager thus complains to everyone it seems but the very manager who needs to hear their concerns. In short, it does little good for the project manager to act as a helpless victim.

In this paper I will address the challenges of transferring the project management best practices learned in the classroom to the day-to-day execution of projects and how to gain management support in the effort. The examples and research presented will provide business justifications for applying project management tools and techniques that can be shared with peers and managers.


Several years ago BellSouth, a long-time client of ESI's, conducted a Kirkpatrick Level 3 training effectiveness survey to determine its return on investment (ROI) for the project management professional development program they had implemented over a period of several years (Kirkpatrick, 1998). Several thousand members of the IT division had taken a series of courses in project management and the executives at the BellSouth Leadership Institute wanted to understand how much of the information learned was being used on the job. After an eight-month study the results were astounding in two respects: first, the survey, which was conducted by an independent third party, concluded that BellSouth had earned a 200% ROI on its training dollar; and, second, it would have earned more had the managers of the project managers who attended the training reinforced the practices and techniques learned in the classroom when the project managers returned to the job.

Since that time, ESI has either conducted itself, or collaborated with its clients to conduct, many Level 3 surveys to determine just how much information is transferred from the classroom back to the job. And, in every study, it has been demonstrated that there has been a positive ROI. Yet, every study has also shown that there is more that could be gained.

The challenge therefore, is not gaining a positive ROI for we have seen in every instance such a gain; rather, it is maximizing the return. The level of ROI rests largely on an organization's ability to tap into the knowledge and skills of their employees, in this case, the project managers who attend training and who then return to their roles in the organization. It is no small task to maximize returns, but, as the saying goes, “it's not rocket science either.” Furthermore, both the project manager and his or her supervisor are equally responsible for ensuring that the practices and techniques learned in the classroom are applied in a real-life setting to the benefit of the organization and its clients. But how can this be done? Are there techniques that can be used to promote the application of information learned? The answer is, yes, of course. But it takes hard work and diligence to make happen. And in a 24/7 world, it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. So, let's see how we can bridge this gap, not simply to get a reasonable return on investment, but to get the eye popping results BellSouth achieved.

Bridging the Gap: The Big Picture

The gap that exists between the classroom and the job is wider than most people surmise. In fact, the gap exists because the manager of the project manager, and the executives above them both, do not fully appreciate the value of project management, notwithstanding the fact they are sending people to classes with the hope and expectation that things will improve. Additionally, this overall lack of appreciation by executives often stems from an ignorance of what project management is really all about. In short, the first step in bridging the gap is to first attempt to prove the value of project management to executive management. According to Janice Thomas and Connie L. Delisle, we need to ask (and answer!) two questions: “Why is it difficult to sell project management to executives and senior managers?” and, “How do you successfully sell project management to them?” (Thomas & Delisle, 2002, p. 113). Only when we answer these two questions can we begin to bridge this gap.

To answer the first question we must first determine what motivates executives. Often times people immediately think executives are motivated primarily by financial performance, and, in a way, they're right. However, in talking to a number of our clients, and reading the annual reports to shareholders of Global Fortune 500 corporations, the answer is more involved. In fact, Thomas and Delisle assert that executives are motivated by overall business results of which financial performance is an important factor (p. 114). Based on an analysis of a number of our clients here is a list of business results that drive executives to make the decisions they do.

  • Revenue
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Net income
  • International expansion
  • Operating profit
  • Time-to-market for new products
  • Earnings per share
  • Reducing costs
  • Market share

The first four speak directly to financial performance while the others have an indirect link. Therefore, it's not just about financial performance as many individuals would define that term.

Now let's take a look at what motivates project managers. Once again, based on our work with more than 300 clients across the globe, supported by the findings of Thomas and Delisle, the answer is project results which generally includes bringing projects in on time or earlier, on budget or less, and to the specifications, in other words, satisfying the customer; and, I might add, with as little pain, suffering, and humiliation as possible!

Thus, the executive's perspective is all about strategy and they see project management as being more tactical, operational, and in some cases, even bureaucratic. The net result is that when it comes to project management executives and project managers see things differently; they are not on the same “sheet of music.” The next logical question then, is how do we get executives and managers to “buy” project management? Based on my more than twenty-five years in the field let me offer the following:

Have a major project disaster

Of course, I say this facetiously but it does work. While no one wants to be the project manager of such a debacle disasters do happen and when they do management finally wakes up and starts to pay attention to the issues surrounding project management. In fact, many organizations have implemented comprehensive professional development programs in project management because of such major failures, or a string of lesser failures whose net result to the organization are the equivalent to a major disaster. But a word of advice, try not to be the project manager on such a job; it's better if the organization learns this lesson from someone else!

Scare them into it

Bring to management's attention the fact that your competitors are engaged in a comprehensive program to improve their ability in the discipline. Additionally, leave clippings on their desks from trade newspapers or industry magazines where your competitors may have won an award from the Project Management Institute or other recognized body in the field lauding them on their work in project management. While you may not think this will have an effect, I have observed “copy cat” behavior from a variety of organizations throughout the world that are so fearful that their competitors will get ahead of them they will do anything, even exactly what the competitor is doing, to ensure their financial viability.

Give them plenty of evidence

There's nothing like hard evidence to convince a seasoned manager of the value of an idea or concept. Luckily, there exists substantial body evidence reported in a variety of studies describing how project management has enabled organizations to become more competitive. For example, if you are in the IT industry you simply need to obtain copies of such studies from such well-known organizations as Gartner, The Standish Group, Giga and Forrester that provide a critical link between sound project management practices and improved performance. Additionally, other supporting evidence can be found in the publications of the Software Engineering Institute who published, more than ten years ago, the world renowned Capability Maturity Model. Also, the American Productivity and Quality Center has also published reports on project management best practices through the years.

Better yet, do your own study!

Many managers won't accept the findings of other studies because they contend “we're different.” When faced with such resistance, there is no other alternative but to conduct a study of project management of your own organization. Many of our clients have done this; for example, in 2002 BP conducted a comprehensive survey it called “No Wrecks” which sought to identify the root causes for certain projects not meeting their targets (Knott, 2003, p.6). Based on this survey, BP, among other improvements, established an innovative executive leadership program called the Project Academy with a leading U.S. university for those project managers responsible for projects approaching U.S. $5 billion. In fact, it's always better to do your own survey because you're getting real data on real problems. Some criteria, otherwise known as key performance indicators, to look at as part of the survey may include several of the following:

  • Number of late projects
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Quality problems
  • Number of projects over budget
  • Number of requirements changes
  • Number of “unhappy” customer calls
  • Number and time allotted to “live tech help”
  • Turnover percentage of PM/professional staff
  • System downtime
  • Meantime to repair
  • Other metrics specific to the types of projects done by your organization

In fact, think for a moment right now of the kinds of key performance indicators you're using on your projects that could be candidates for the list above. Once the list is finalized and the initial survey done, you will have established a baseline for improvement against which you will measure performance at some future date to see the affects of the initiatives put in place to improve project management.

Once you have this baseline data you can now “sell” project management to the executives in the organization and to your manager at the project level. This is important, because if you work for an individual who “won't let you do these things” it's important to obtain their commitment to your efforts as well. In either case, the selling proposition must always include making the connection between strategy and projects; remember, executives are all about business results and they could care less whether your WBS had 5 or 55 levels.

Selling at the Project level--three things to do tomorrow

1. Analyze your manager to determine how they like to communicate.

In selling something to someone you need to know how they would like to receive the information. Some managers prefer to read about an idea followed by a presentation. Others would simply sit and be told the information. In order to get your point across in the most effective way you need to know how your manager prefers to receive it. Remember, it's not about you; it's about him or her.

2. “Talk up” the benefit of a risk management plan.

If you have just completed a course on Risk Management, for example, engage your manager in what it was that you have learned in the class and how you're going to prepare a risk management plan for your current project. I have rarely seen a case where the manager comes to the person who has just completed a class to ask them the specifics of the content and what they're going to do with it. Everyone is simply too busy for that.

3. Ask for your manager's opinion and help with your risk management plan.

During your conversation ask your manager for his or her opinion and help on your risk management plan. Generally speaking, we make people feel important when we ask for their opinion. And, it's always hard for anyone to turn down a request for help. Would you? Probably not. By getting them engaged they will see how important such a deliverable is and will begin to slowly get the message that you, and others, are attempting to put the idea you learned in the classroom into practice.

Always keep in mind that when selling project management, even through the use of a risk management plan, you're not selling a “drill” you're selling a “hole.” The value of the risk management plan is not the plan itself; it is the thought and consideration that has gone into making sure things run smooth, that in the event of a problem there is a backup plan, and that everyone on the team knows about it. This is what your manager needs to see and understand. If you focus on the tool itself, they'll never see the hole!

Selling PM at the Executive level-some steps to success

If you have completed a survey of project management within your organization you are now ready to take the next step to selling project management at the executive level. Based on the survey data here are six steps to promoting good project management practices in the organization. In so doing, you will begin to create a culture of project management where executives will be asking for certain deliverables thus enforcing the connection between the classroom and the job.

  • Select a pilot project or projects that will use a variety of tools and techniques learned in the classroom. For example, for every pilot project there will be a risk management plan developed and reviewed by the project sponsor and client.
  • Compare pilot project performance with the baseline data. Chances are the pilot projects' data will show a marked improvement over the baseline. Perhaps the improvement will be in personal productivity of the project manager's involved or perhaps an increase in customer satisfaction. Find a way to quantify the improvement if at all possible. Executives love numbers, especially if they are in the organization's favor.
  • Find a “spokesperson” that has the communication skills required to speak to groups of executives and managers regarding the findings from the pilot. Not everyone is able to make such succinct and compelling presentations. The selection of this person is critical. The person should have outstanding credentials and be well-respected within the organization.
  • Prepare a presentation and have the spokesperson deliver it internally to a variety of stakeholders and other interested parties. Include plenty of evidence of success from other organizations as well. Executives are always interested to know what other companies are doing and what results they have achieved, especially if it's a competitor.
  • Find an executive “champion” for the program. During the many presentations that will be done you will identify one or more executives who will become very interested in taking on the role of champion for the initiative. In some organizations that person may be the CIO or the head of a business unit. In others, it is whoever has the greatest level of interest and organizational clout.
  • Continue to work with the champion to ensure the message is spread throughout the organization.

Sprint, for example, was very successful in promoting project management throughout their organization by following the steps above. In Sprint's case, there was a “grass roots” campaign led by two senior technical professionals to advance the practice of project management in the company. They conducted the baseline survey and began promoting project management within their business unit and they did so without waiting for any executive to “approve” of the effort. They realized that the organization was in trouble and needed to improve and they took it upon themselves to begin the process.

After many presentations and discussions Jack Whitey and Howard Arnold convinced management that a pilot program was in order. Through their efforts, the capability of project management was vastly improved. Sprint today has a very strong culture of project management and still supports a training program in the field. By and large, the gap between the classroom and the job was bridged because they were able to sell the concept of project management at both the project and executive levels. You can too!


Kirkpatrick, D. (1998, June). Evaluating Training Programs. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc.

Knott, T. (2003, August) Majoring in Projects. Frontiers. Retrived from

Thomas, J.L. & Delisle, C.L.(2002, July) Getting Senior Executives “On Side.” Proceedings of PMI Research Conference, Seattle, WA, USA.

© 2005, J. LeRoy Ward
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Bangkok, Thailand



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