How to

implement project management in any organization


Gary R. Heerkens, PMP, PE, President, Management Solutions Group, Inc.

Widespread implementation of project management is a difficult, complex, and confusing proposition for organizations or companies that wish to institutionalize its practices. It's a bigger challenge yet to implement project management in a way that ensure the practices will become widely accepted and systematically followed. Over the past few years, many organizations have tried using a number of newly developed instruments that attempt to measure their maturity relative to project management implementation. Unfortunately, many of these instruments are directed primarily toward noting symptoms and calculating a “score.” The true value of efforts such as this lies not in calculating a score, but in uncovering the underling root causes of these symptoms. This can be a difficult task, requiring additional analysis, insight, and significant expertise.

At the same time, many other organizations exist that are just beginning the process of implementing project management, and have little to measure. Obviously, maturity measurement instruments would have very limited value to them. This paper introduces a model, which describes five foundational elements that need to be in place—in nearly any organization—before project management can be expected to take root and flourish. The model will serve as a sound approach for those just beginning the process of implementing project management. However, it can also be used by developed organizations that are considering the use of maturity measurement instruments to analyze their condition. Before taking the time and effort required to measure symptoms and calculate maturity scores, these organizations should make certain that they have properly addressed the fundamentals described in this paper.

Chronic Warning Signs

Most organizations already have a reasonably good idea whether they have a healthy project management culture in place. The signs of a weak project management culture or of impending troubles are ordinarily accompanied by a number of relatively obvious and chronic warning signs. Among these chronic warning signs are the following:

• A sense that the wrong projects are being pursued

• Isolated “pockets” of project management excellence

• Continuously frustrated project managers

• Excessive levels of interdepartmental conflict

• Sporadic project successes

• Project teams that seem to start from scratch on every new project

• Lack of continuous improvement in project management methods

• Sentiment that project management is more of a burden than enabler.

The challenge for many organizations comes in recognizing that most of these warning signs could stem from any number of sources, and root cause analysis can be difficult. Trying to measure symptoms, then accurately correlate them to determine cause-and-effect, can be a time-consuming and costly approach for some. If an organization's problems are widespread enough, or if the organization is in the early stages of implementing a project management culture, it may actually be more advisable to start with the fundamentals. Starting with the fundamentals means ensuring that five basic elements of a sound project management culture are firmly in place.

The Five Basic Elements of a Sound Project Management Culture

There are many ways an organization can choose to develop a finely tuned and effective project management culture, depending upon the unique characteristics of the organization itself. Generally speaking, though, five basic elements need to be in place in nearly any organization. If every one of these is not present, any further development may become a painful and protracted process. These five elements are outlined and described below:

(1) A standardized project methodology—one of the greatest sources of frustration over inefficiency and variability in project outcomes lies in the lack of a consistently applied approach to the process of executing projects. This lack in process consistency also serves as a major inhibitor to continuous improvement over time. Ironically, though, the development and documentation of a standardized approach to project execution tends to be discouraged by many. Several reasons are given, including these:

• Projects are inherently variable, so standardizing an approach makes no sense

• People need to be creative, and will feel restricted by standardization

• The cost to develop will be too great.

These seem like valid arguments against the development of a standardized methodology. Ironically, they are actually better arguments for why standards should be developed. Let's examine why. First, it is true—projects are unique experiences, and therefore inherently variable. But the one thing we can bring consistency to is the process and methods used to execute them. In the absence of a consistent approach to execution, we run the risk of multiplying the variability many times over. Second, people do need to be creative. Unfortunately, managing a project “creatively” is in direct opposition to overwhelming evidence that constancy of purpose, clarity, and predictability are significant enablers to project success. And third, although it can be costly to develop standards, the costs will be much greater without a standardized approach to project execution. The insidious part is that the cost of inefficiency is very difficult to see and measure, and is therefore not fully appreciated by most organizations. In short, it is wise for almost any organization to have some sort of prescribed methodology, which describes “how projects get done around here.”

(2) Job Definitions and Performance Expectations—an alarming number of people are managing projects today that have never had their job formally explained to them. Many are simply informed that they are now “in charge” of the upcoming project. They learn what the job is about through living by their wits, making mistakes, observing others, and many other secondary methods. And not surprisingly, there are also an alarming number of people working on project teams today who aren't sure what the project manager's job duties or role is. They're also not sure how to interact with the project manager. This can lead to an excessive amount of intergroup conflict, and tend to exacerbate the already difficult “storming” period (Tuckman, 1965) that exists in projects. This is sad, especially considering the wealth of popular knowledge that exists around the role of the project leader today, and the effort required to document this information is not that great. The simple fact is that most people need to know what is expected of them.

(3) Individual Skill-Building Programs—this element is crucial to the ongoing growth and development of everyone involved in project work. However, it relies heavily upon the successful implementation of elements (1) and (2) above. Only after an organization has developed a well-defined project process (i.e., what to do) and has delineated the performance expectations of the people carrying it out (i.e., how to do it) can skill-building programs can be intelligently designed and implemented. Note that semantics plays a key role in describing this element. The term “individual” refers to the need to design a program that is responsive to the differing roles, responsibilities, job duties, and career aspirations that exist within the organization. “Skill-building” is used instead of the term training, which is often used inappropriately to describe the process by which an individual improves their competency. Training is just one vehicle by which an individual can learn to improve their job performance.

(4) Project Performance Metrics—measuring project performance is the key to continuous improvement in project execution. The power in that statement—and in this element—comes in recognizing that it actually encompasses a broad spectrum of interpretations. Project performance metrics is, in fact, a very complex element. It could be viewed as a statement of individual, personal performance (“I did better on this project than on the last project”). As an individual metric, though, this interpretation is ordinarily coupled with the individual skill-building element above. Individual skill building should include a component of competency assessment and gap analysis.

For the purposes of this paper, however, project performance metrics assumes an organizational perspective. The entire organization can benefit immensely from the measurement and systematic analysis of overall project performance. And in order to achieve maximum benefit, overall project performance can be further subdivided into categories that are meaningful to the organization, such as these: (Shenhart, Levy, & Dvir, 1997)

Project efficiency—measures a given project's outcome against targets, and how efficiently it was managed. Was the project completed on time and within budget? Did the deliverables meet the design specification and/or perform as specified promised? Was the process adhered to? Several other measures of project efficiency can be developed, and all are aimed at measuring short-term success. Measuring project efficiency can lead to several organizational improvements:

• Development or improvement in estimating algorithms

• Improvement of the overall project process

• Identification of optimum execution methods

• Improvement of internal design processes

• Revealing the futility of setting unrealistic, predetermined project targets.

Customer/User impact—measures the effectiveness in meeting customer or end user requirements. Was the problem actually solved? Was the true need addressed? Is the customer satisfied with the performance of the deliverables? Measuring the performance of project teams in this area can help improve the requirements gathering process and reveal areas where solution-jumping practices may have hurt the process. It greatest value comes in dispelling the myth that if the project targets are met, the customer will automatically be satisfied. Measuring and analyzing situations where acceptable project performance yields unacceptable customer satisfaction will eventually result in process improvement ideas.

Business Success—the fundamental purpose of projects is to positively impact the organization. This may include profit generation, cost reduction, increased sales, or any of a number of other positive contributions to the organization's well being. Measuring the actual impact of projects serves to “close the loop” on the project performance measurement process, and to confirm that the organization has been achieving the anticipated business results from their project investments. Unbelievably, though, many organizations do not actually verify whether they have achieved the desired results through the projects they execute! This step is the key to organizational growth.

(5) A supportive organizational culture—this is the most difficult element to fulfill. Ironically, it is also the one that has the greatest influence on the successful implementation of a project management culture. To make matters worst, it is the one that seems to field the most widespread complaints from practicing project managers today. The lack of a supportive organizational culture is one of the most important single issues to nearly every project manager today!

What makes this such a difficult element to address is that there are so many interrelated aspects to its makeup. Furthermore, many of these aspects are based in issues related to human nature—attitudes, beliefs, power and influence, and territorialism, for example. What makes it so frustrating for many project managers is that there often exists a significant gap between what the organization says (“We are fully supportive of project management methods”) and the way it behaves (“Could you cut your planning time short so we can get going on the project?”).

What if an Element is Missing or Deficient?

The identification of symptoms for the sole purpose of calculating a maturity score is not particularly useful, but using them to signal deficiencies in the fundamental elements above can be of great value. Earlier, a few chronic warning signs were identified. More specific warning signs can be correlated to each specific element, revealing an absence or deficiency. Below are the five elements and some of the warning signs:

If a standardized project methodology is missing, you may observe these warning signs:

• Teams spend excessive time “reinventing the wheel”

• Emphasis is on rewarding of results (default position) instead of rewarding process compliance

• A prevailing mentality of “the end justifies the means” is apparent

• Information management processes and documentation practices are haphazard and variable

If job definitions and performance expectations are missing, you may observe these warning signs:

• Project managers pay too much attention to their discipline, and not enough to the project at large

• Frustration or confusion by project team members about how to carry out job assignments

• Excessive interpersonal conflict or debate over project roles and responsibilities

• Performance appraisal process is confusing and conflict-riddled, due to lack of clear performance criteria

• People struggle to design meaningful educational and development programs

If individual skill-building programs are missing, you may observe these warning signs:

• A given project's success seems to depend on the skills of the individual assigned to manage it

• Software tools are improperly utilized

• There is chronic avoidance of meaningful risk management methods

• A lack of awareness in making business-related decisions

• Poorly managed interpersonal relationships

If project performance metrics are missing, you may observe these warning signs:

• Widespread repetition of the same mistakes

• Excessive conflict or debate over what constitutes project success and failure

• Emphasis is on individual heroic behavior, as project-oriented performance is not measures

• Project audits are viewed as pointless time-wasters

• Project personnel could not describe what aspects of project performance are valued by the organization

If a supportive organizational culture is missing, you may observe these warning signs:

• Project managers spend excessive time “selling” project management

• Project managers are assigned far too late in the project life cycle

• Process of reconciling team-generated targets with management-imposed targets is difficult

• Behaviors contrary to sound project management practice are ignored, or worse, rewarded

• Excessive amounts of resource shifting

• Most people in the organization cannot explain the purpose, value, or role of the (generic) PM function

• Individual team members do not feel a sense of accountability to the project manager

• Teamwork is not rewarded; individual heroics is rewarded

• Project excellence is not rewarded; functional excellence is rewarded

• The project management skill set is not viewed as an organizational core competency

• The wrong projects are selected, due to a lack of a data-driven project prioritization process

• Dependencies between projects is not addressed

Building a Sound Project Management Culture

Despite the method used to determine the absence or deficiency of an element, you may find yourself needing to build or repair one or more of the five basic elements. The process can begin by recognizing that there are a number of fundamental components, or “building blocks” that can be put in place. Some of these building blocks are identified below for each of the five elements:

Building Blocks of a Standardized Project Methodology

(1) A project implementation process manual. The manual should be comprehensive and detailed. It should describe the project execution process, and is distinct from the project management process. For example, it may describe how to design and install a manufacturing system, how to build a building, or how to develop and commercialize a new product. Linkages to project management tools may be identified in the process, but not how to develop them. The manual needs to be widely distributed and widely understood; specialized education may be needed to ensure process understanding.

(2) A project management process manual. This manual defines project management tools and methods in detail. It explains where and how they should be used within the project implementation process. It also needs to be widely distributed and understood.

(3) Published expectations around process compliance. In order to achieve process consistency, expectations concerning when and how to follow the process should be well understood. This expectation should be supported by a “zero tolerance” mentality around process compliance. The intention is not to create a police state; however, if some members of the organization are permitted to ignore the process, many will follow, and the effort will be lost.

(4) Well-defined project performance expectations. Once people begin feeling comfortable with following the process, the next step is to identify how well projects should be executed. Project performance expectations provide guidelines that help people understand what constitutes a successful project effort. Success in this context should focus more on using the appropriate processes and methods in an effective manner than on actual results—a more effective long-term strategy.

(5) Development and utilization of standard project forms and supporting procedures. Examples of this might include scheduling templates and estimating algorithms.

Building Blocks of Job Definitions and Performance Expectations

(1) Descriptions of all project-related job functions. This should obviously include a detailed description of the job design, job duties, and required competencies for the role of project manager. However, it should also include necessary modifications to the job descriptions of those who interface regularly with projects and project teams. This is meant to eliminate overlaps and conflicts. All descriptions should be comprehensive, detailed, and unambiguous.

(2) Performance expectations for all project-related job functions. Performance expectations are often limited to statements about technical performance. These should be expanded to include behavioral expectations and expectations around project management expertise.

(3) Visible growth pathways. This refers to the creation of differentiated skill levels within the project management community

(4) Visible career pathways. If the role of project manager is truly viewed as a potential “stepping stone” to management, this should be reflected in the organizational ascension paths. Far too often, the role of project leader—from a career path standpoint—appears to lead nowhere on the organization road map.

Building Blocks of Individual Skill-Building Programs

(1) Continual measurement of individual competencies. The instrument used to perform this measurement should come directly from the job definitions and performance expectations above. It should be a 360-degree type analysis, including opinions from the team, clients, and the project manager's supervisor or manager.

(2) A formal career planning process. Ascension paths should be well defined, as stated above. There should be a pathway dedicated to the project management community.

(3) A comprehensive training curriculum. This MUST include training courses that are specific to the project environment. Some organizations try to save money by placing people in generic courses that appeal to a wider audience. This may include generic leadership, conflict resolution, communication, etc. Making training relevant to the project environment—particularly in heavily matrixed organizations—is a necessary component of a meaningful educational experience.

(4) Internal mentoring programs. Formal management mentors can be very helpful to project managers.

(5) Internal networking programs. Includes informal lunchtime meetings of practitioners, for example.

(6) Internal apprenticeship and cross-functional job assignments. These are only two of several possible alternatives to traditional training. Exposed to a many different departments and job experiences can be an invaluable growth step for a project leader.

(7) Visible support of external development opportunities. This may includes professional societies and local college programs.

Building Blocks of Project Performance Metrics

(1) Well-documented project performance expectations. These metrics will naturally be closely tied to the prescribed project methodologies described earlier. Included should be statements on what constitutes desirable and undesirable project results, acceptable and unacceptable team behaviors, acceptable and unacceptable project management behaviors, and any sanctioned flexibility (if any exists) around process compliance. It should also describe the vision of what the organization values in project personnel, team functionality, and project outcomes.

(2) Continual recording, analysis, and evaluation of actual project results. It's important to remember that in order for this component to have value, it is imperative that actual project results get accurately and honestly recorded. And in order for project results to get accurately and honestly recorded, project teams and project managers must NOT be punished for achieving less than desirable results.

(3) An effective project auditing program. This refers to interim examination of projects while they are in progress. In order to be effective, the audit must be non-threatening, minimally disruptive to the project team and the course of the project, and must be perceived as having a useful and positive purpose and intent.

(4) Data archiving and retrieval capability. Procedures and systems for efficient and effective storage and retrieval of project data—both historical and current—must exist.

(5) Positive reinforcement of lessons learned analyses. Lessons learned is primarily a concern of the organization, yet few provide sufficient support for the project manager to carry out this important function. This needs to be given a higher priority if project performance metrics programs are to succeed.

(6) Continual, periodic benchmarking. This refers to external as well as internal benchmarking. Understanding how well others execute projects is an important learning and helps in the establishment of appropriate project performance targets.

Building Blocks of a Supportive Organizational Culture

(1) An organizational structure that is conducive to project execution. Stated another way, an organization whose structure does not formally accommodate the existence of projects as a major way of getting things done will have limited ability to migrate toward a project management culture.

(2) An entire organization that is aware of the role of the project management function. The purpose of project management as a function within the organization should be well understood, including the value that it is believed to bring to the organization. Project management skills are viewed as a “core competency.”

(3) Formal assignment of project managers early in the life cycle. Allowing project managers to participate in developing business needs, customer requirements, financial analyses, and other “front end” activities that many are not allowed to participate in today.

(4) Project managers who are granted authority commensurate with their responsibility. This is an age-old problem that— very simply—needs to be fixed.

(5) Demonstrated respect for project managers and their methods. Project managers who are truly empowered and not subjected to continual micromanagement. Behaviors demonstrated by management reflect; for example, that the estimates, judgment, and opinions of project teams is sought and valued.

(6) Positive reinforcement for those who follow a team-oriented process. Individual heroic behavior is discouraged. Team-oriented behavior is rewarded.

(7) Formal assignment of project sponsors. Should be management-level individual. Can be restricted to larger, more important projects. Sponsors should be engaged and supportive throughout the life of the project.

(8) Organizational-level support processes. These may include the development of consistent project justification methods, project prioritization methods, and an overall portfolio management mentality around execution of the total organizational project caseload.

(9) A formal project management office. This should only be formally pursued where appropriate.


Before you launch your organization into a maturity assessment—or if your organization is just now beginning to embrace a strong project management methodology—be certain that all of the fundamentals are in place. This consists of the five basic element described above. Also, be aware that the formal introduction and implementation of these elements can be difficult, will take some time, and may be met with resistance for quite some time. As you embark on this mission, consider these three general guidelines:

(1) Start with the easy stuff

• Crisp, clear job definitions

• Project process methodology development

(2) Make sure that mid-management is integral to your overall implementation process

(3) BE PATIENT! Recognize that a good portion of selling the value of project management will have to come from demonstrated successes, not by edict.


Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psych. Bulletin.

Shenhar, Aaron J., et al. (1997, June). Mapping the dimensions of project success. Project Management Journal, 28, (2), 5–13.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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