Project Management Institute

Leadership, common sense, and the PMBOK® guide--creating the wow project

Judith Umlas, Senior Vice President, Learning Innovations, Publisher IIL Publishing NY and Co
Publisher allpm Newsletter

The idea behind the “Wow” project comes from a Fast Company magazine article published in April 1999 and written by Tom Peters. The article focused on the changes in the work environment and the need to rethink how work is done. A key point in the article addresses the evolution of white collar work: “If they're going to have work in the future, they must be able to demonstrate clearly, precisely, and convincingly how they can add value.” (Peters, 1999, p. 116) This is a clear signal to project managers that we must all continue to look for new and better ways of getting the job if we want to sustain our careers. Peter's describes “Wow Projects “as projects that add value, projects that matter, projects that make a difference, projects that leave a legacy -- and, yes, projects that make you a star.

Basically, if you are working on a project, it has been determined by someone to be important. At the very fundamental level of project management, any project that has been selected is (or should be) beneficial to an organization, generates revenue, or must be implemented to satisfy a compliance issue. If that's the case, then shouldn't every project be a Wow project? I saw an advertisement in which the owner of the advertising establishment states, “I approach each task as if it were my defining moment.” That's a person who works on nothing but Wow projects. And he signs each and every project ensuring that his name is a testimonial to the quality of the project. How many people actually sign their work and want it displayed like a proud artist? What we need are more Wow projects and they don't have to be mega projects with huge budgets and lengthy durations. We should be able to find the Wow project at any level in an organization.

If we look more closely at challenges project managers face, there is a challenge or problem that is commonly encountered and unfortunately not readily seen until well after the project has been initiated . In some cases the problem manifests itself almost immediately. The problem is complacency or just plain lack of interest. In the corporate environment, it is common for project managers to be assigned to manage many similar projects either concurrently or through a series of assignments. Most of these projects have the same basic structure and goals and are actually seen as “routine.” When project managers and teams look upon their projects as “run of the mill,” cookie cutter, or “same project different name,” the energy level, commitment, and desire to perform at high levels of efficiency slowly but surely drains away. A “take it for granted” attitude begins to take hold that may lead to some serious risk situations later in the project life cycle.

If left unchecked, this attitude can spread though an organization, resulting in greater project costs, lower quality, low employee and team morale, and a breakdown in even the most simple processes.

To address this potential situation and mitigate the possibility of its occurrence, project managers must develop methods and approaches that will motivate their project teams at project start up and keep the inspiration and dedication at high levels through project completion and then carry that high level of motivation to the next project and so on. Project managers need to develop a sense of “Wow” that applies to every project, not just the big ones and the ones that are most visible. This “wow” feeling starts with the project manager. How can a team be motivated if the project manager isn't?

We have all been taught some basic principles of project management: projects have a start and an end date, they are unique, and they require resources. The key word is “unique.” Projects may be similar in nature. They may involve the same product or products, same tools, and possibly the same people on the team. But the project is different. The differences could be the client, the location, the time of year, the team itself. The point is that each project is different in some way and should be approached as the next great opportunity, regardless of size and complexity. The key ingredient is passion. You personally create the Wow project by providing the passion and energy that will fuel the team. If the project has been selected and it is considered to be of value to the organization, then all you have to do is commit to it. Buy into it and then sell its importance to the team and the stakeholders associated with it. A disinterested project manager will soon have a disinterested team which will lead to lower work quality, conflict, missed milestones and high team turnover. This is certainly a formula for disaster.

Projects become Wow projects through leadership. Leaders know how to motivate their team members; they provide a vision, establish direction, provide the required tools, add trust, respect, and support and before you know it you have a Wow project and a Wow team.

Project leaders speak with an intensity and deep sense of pride and accomplishment. They communicate about their projects with people in such a way that you feel compelled to respond with a simple yet powerful statement – Wow! Now let's apply the Wow perspective to the projects you are working on. Do you consider them “Wow” projects? Do your team members express pride and enthusiasm when discussing the projects with others in the organization? Do you inspire your team through your own enthusiasm? Do you motivate the team through high energy and a real sense of ownership? If not, how can you expect your team to respond with anything more than mediocrity? The Wow factor is about creating an environment that helps people to understand the importance of the project you are assigned to. It means making sure that others see your project as important regardless of size or complexity. When speaking about your project, the response from your audience, whether it's one person or twenty, should be Wow! I'm impressed! That's a great project! You won't get that response if you display a look of indifference or boredom while discussing your project. Remember, body language and non-verbal communications basically make up about 80% of our message. We, as project managers, must show our teams that the project truly is important and we have to demonstrate that importance in the language we use, the tone we use and the expressions we use. Therefore we must personally believe it's important ourselves. Leaders are stewards of the organization's resources and if we follow the general principles of project management, the projects selected will be important, necessary, and support the overall strategic objectives of the organization. If that's the case, our next step is to ensure the project is considered a “Wow” project.

Of course enthusiasm will get you just so far. You do need a plan to achieve the objectives of the project. Using A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) as a foundation for developing and implementing project plans, then working to build and motivate the project team by applying effective leadership, a project manager can gain the commitment and loyalty of the project team and establish a sense of pride within the team regardless of the type of project, its visibility, or its level of priority in an organization.

Project team members are constantly observing the behavior, attitude and level of commitment of the project manager. Technically, if the project selection process is reliable, any project selected by an organization is important. Some may be more important than others but all have been selected for a reason. Therefore, it is up to the project manager to work with the team, ensure that everyone understands why the project must be completed and establish a sense of urgency. When it comes to managing projects the adage “anything worth doing is worth doing right” immediately applies. To achieve this belief within the team, the project manager must set and sustain a level of enthusiasm. Team members will follow their leaders if the leader shows commitment and passion.

Common Sense, Leadership and the PMBOK® Guide

The PMBOK® Guide, although not written as a textbook and certainly not intended to include the entire body of knowledge of project management, does provide the savvy project manager with a source of information that can be effectively communicated to project team members and used to explain, in a very sensible way, the importance of managing through processes.

For example, PMBOK® Guide emphasizes the systems approach to project management – everything within a project is related and all planning must be done using an integrated methodology. The 5 major processes: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing tie the nine project management knowledge areas together and emphasize the need for continuous planning and to manage change. The project manager, one who possesses fundamental leadership skills, and has the ability to motivate, and understands that the PMBOK® Guide is a guide and not an inflexible set of processes that must be enforced, has the potential to create an effective methodology for managing the project and a strong feeling of enthusiasm among the team members regardless of the type of project that has been assigned. The name of the document, “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)” is, in no uncertain terms, explaining that the information in the document should be considered as suggestions that could be applied to a project. Common sense application of the processes in the PMBOK® Guide is the key. It is therefore up to the project manager to determine what processes and tools and techniques will work best for the project and the team and then create that Wow feeling among the team members. It will then become necessary to sustain that enthusiastic feeling through the entire project life cycle. The bottom line when it comes to leading project teams is to make sure that the team believes the work they do is important, that the work it is organized and sensible, that they are appreciated. The team needs assurance that their own feelings of self worth will be enhanced on an ongoing basis.

Acknowledgment and Leadership

The role of the project manager is built around leadership and the need to communicate effectively to all project stakeholders. The need to communicate also goes beyond the project and is essential for success in the non-work, non-project environment. Most people understand the basic principles of communication: prepare a message, understand the audience or the receivers of the message, deliver it and then obtain feedback. This is a relatively simple process but, in many cases, it is very difficult to complete. It is certainly important to provide status reports about project activities and inform stakeholders when unexpected problems arise, and it is well understood that every stakeholder has different needs when it comes to communication. However, there is one area of communication that seems to be missing from the “usual” daily project activities and probably from most people's daily lives – the act of acknowledging others in a deep and meaningful way. For some reason, many project managers (and people in general) seem to think that acknowledgment is really not that important, or that even a few words of praise or appreciation can remain unsaid because the other person “knows” they are appreciated without having to be told. Or they get embarrassed about delivering praise because they are concerned that they will be perceived as “phony” or insincere.

However, acknowledging project team members, co-workers, associates, and project stakeholders is an essential activity for any project leader. The ability to observe the actions and behaviors of people who are involved in or somehow impact the project manager's daily life, and then respond to those people with positive acknowledgments is an essential leadership skill for the successful project manager. Often, acknowledgments go unspoken because the actual delivery of an acknowledgment seems awkward or uncomfortable. Project managers who aspire to be great project leaders must become aware of the basic principles of acknowledgment, and these principles, if practiced, will have a profound affect on the daily personal and work environment of the project manager and the team. The following excerpt from the introduction to The Power of Acknowledgment by Judith W. Umlas (2006) provides a sense of the dramatic possibilities of this underused tool.

“What actions would you take if you knew with absolute certainty that a simple action you could take every day for no cost and little effort would change your world, and the world at large, dramatically and profoundly for the better? What if this ability is something every person on this planet possesses, yet few use much if at all? What if using it regularly would transform your relationship with your husband or wife? What if doing it would make your colleagues at work not be able to do enough for you, and make the office atmosphere vibrant, productive and alive instead of lethargic, competitive, frustrated and bored?

All of this is possible, yet most people don't recognize this incredible tool or understand its power. What all of us possess, but most of us don't use often enough, is the power of acknowledgment. Many of us have our reasons for not using it, but these are just excuses, rationalizations that hold us back from achieving powerful, positive results wherever we are or go. I have written this book to help people understand and use a tool that I believe can produce profound and dramatic changes in our intimate circles and far beyond.” (p. 11-12)

This tool – which is cheap, available, with no software to install – actually has the capability of making dramatic improvements in the world, even going so far as to help repair it, one person at a time. Truly! And the beauty of it is that everyone has access to it at all times and can use it for all people. It is just practicing its usage that makes us able to have it as a tool that can produce dramatic results in the workplace, with our teams, as well as in our families, our schools and among our friends. A recent article in the Gallup Management Journal, In Praise of Praising Your Employees, states the following: “Recognition for good work release dopamine in the brain, which creates feelings of pride and pleasure. Better yet, that dopamine hit cements the knowledge that more of that behavior will create more praise, resulting in another dopamine drench and so on.” So the effects of acknowledgment are emotional, psychological and physical. Numerous studies have documented this.

It goes almost without saying that successful team leaders focus not only on the task, but also on the people. These successful leaders openly acknowledge individual contributors as well as team success. As everyone knows, those actions that are rewarded, or acknowledged, are more inclined to be repeated. Leaders set the tone of the team upfront by their actions and behaviors, and also by their beliefs and values. Leaders clearly communicate that members are valued by acknowledging their actions and behavior. This in turn, creates a positive culture for team members.

Yet in a Gallup Poll in which 1000 workers were asked “Apart from monetary reward, did you receive any other type of recognition for your work last year, like a letter of praise or a plaque,” (Gallup, 2003) 61% said no! Project leaders cannot afford to be among those who do not provide acknowledgement and recognition for team members' efforts. The stakes are too high to allow this.

Barbara Fredrickson, in the book The Psychology of Gratitude, states: “Indirect evidence that positive emotions transform organizations and help them to thrive comes from research that links employee engagement to a wide range of organizational outcomes … research shows that organizations with employees who experience frequent positive emotions have lower employee turnover, more customer loyalty, higher net sales, and in turn more profitable financial outcomes”(2004, p. 159).”

The seven principles of acknowledgment as outlined in The Power of Acknowledgment provide solutions for leaders of project teams for breaking down barriers that prevent or inhibit the ability to communicate praise and acknowledgment effectively and sincerely. The first principle noted is:

“The world is full of people who deserve to be acknowledged” (Umlas, 2006, p. 23)and this is the key to unlocking the potential of the project leader. Project managers are leaders and leaders should be aware that people like to be and need to be acknowledged. Of course the acknowledgments must be heartfelt and authentic, or else they are worthless. People enjoy hearing words of praise and are inspired to do more of what caused the acknowledgment so they can receive more acknowledgment and so on. Each of the remaining six principles builds on that thought and the combined principles provide a gateway to improved communications skills while developing and enhancing professional relationships. (Note: The first four of the seven principles have been edited with the permission of the publishing company and the author to relate specifically to Leadership and Acknowledgment. Modifications of the original text are in bold italics.)

1. The world is full of people who deserve to be
Acknowledged by their leaders.
It will be easier to acknowledge those you
care most about if you start by practicing
your acknowledgment skills on people you
don't know very well, or even know at all.
Then you will begin making the world a
happier place and can start transferring these skills to your team members‥

2. Acknowledgement builds better relationships and
creates powerful interactions between leaders and team members‥
Acknowledge the people around you on your team directly
and fully …Look for
ways to say how much you value them, and
then be prepared for miracles!

3. Acknowledgment neutralizes, defuses,
deactivates and reduces the effect of jealousy
and envy!
Acknowledge those you are jealous of on your team, for
the very attributes you envy. Watch the
envy diminish and the relationship grow
stronger as you grow to accept valuable
input from the person you were envying.

4. Recognizing good work by team members leads to high
energy, great feelings, high-quality performance
and terrific results. Not acknowledging
good work causes lethargy, resentment,
sorrow and withdrawal.
Recognize and acknowledge good work,
wherever you find it. It's not true that people
only work hard if they worry whether you
value them. Quite the opposite!

Why is acknowledgment so important?

  • Imagine never receiving praise, recognition or acknowledgement for anything you do. How would life be different?
  • How do you feel when someone takes the time to acknowledge something you have accomplished or a specific behavior you have displayed?
  • How do you feel when you acknowledge someone?
  • Think of a specific example of an acknowledgment you delivered to someone and think of their response, as well as how it made you feel
  • Think about specific words you would use to describe how you would feel if you are not acknowledged by your project leader for something you consider very important that you accomplished. What behavioral responses would you have as a result?
  • Think about specific words you would use to describe how you would feel if you are deeply acknowledged by your project leader for something important that you have accomplished at work. What behavioral actions/reactions would occur as a result?
  • Think about your capability as a leader to begin to repair the world, one person at a time, using the power of acknowledgment.

Acknowledgment is something we don't think about very often but if we were to receive a positive acknowledgment, just for a brief moment, we would be overwhelmed by a feeling of appreciation, self confidence, and self worth. Studies have shown that blood pressure, stress hormones and breathing rates are all affected by the positive emotions that are produced. Think about when you personally deliver an acknowledgment. How does the feeling associated with that simple act affect relationships in the work place, on project teams or in one's personal life? Just like the fact that most people use only a very small percentage of the brain's capacity, most people fail to comprehend the true power of acknowledgment and therefore do not take advantage of the potential benefits associated with acknowledgement.

Developing Acknowledgment Expertise

For many people, acknowledgment is not easy to deliver. It is therefore necessary to start with simple phrases of praise and to develop a list of “QA's (quick acknowledgments) such as “great work” and “thank you for doing this.” Acknowledging people should come naturally but for many it takes practice and in some situations a little humility. The key is to gradually build the ability to acknowledge with sincerity. It's very similar to exercising – you start out slow and easy and build up strength and ability over time. In a very short period of time you will see relationships grow, greater teamwork develop, and a much more pleasant environment surround you. Starting with expressing appreciation for “above and beyond” services provided by people we don't know well or at all, such as certain toll booth operators, train conductors, bus drivers, waitresses, dry cleaners or car mechanics, is also good practice in using the acknowledgment “muscle.” Soon you will be able to apply this skill to people on your teams and in your family. That's when the excitement begins, as relationships improve and performance is greatly enhanced.


The most effective project leaders will possess a very high level of common sense; they will be able to take the information form the PMBOK® Guide and apply it appropriately to the projects they work on without creating bureaucratic nightmares and team frustration. The effective project manager will manage any project assigned in such a way that the team and all stakeholders involved will see each project as something worthy of a Wow and will make it a habit to acknowledge deserving team members and other contributors on a regular basis, creating a very positive work environment and instilling not only a greater sense of esteem but also a much more loyal and dedicated high performing team

Here are a few things you can do to become a more effective project leader:

  • Send thank you notes – they are very powerful and appreciated. People save them forever.
  • Recognize your team often and sincerely.
  • Acknowledgement is important but don't be constructive criticism averse – address non performers, destructive behavior and people who are out of line in a way that can help them change.
  • Be there – Don't be invisible to your team.
  • Put your team in the spotlight, and let them take the credit.
  • Stand behind your team in rough times and periods of stress.
  • Look for the positives but watch out for the “little stuff” – small things can do great damage over time. Emphasize the need to focus on the details.
  • Celebrate small wins – projects are lots of small wins so make sure you take time to emphasize them.
  • Network like crazy – talk to people, get ideas, promote your project.
  • Have an acknowledgment breakfast or lunch – Use this time to market your project and your team.
  • Study hard! I particularly like this one. Keep learning. Find out more about your clients and the people you work with (birthdays, special events). Find out about their needs and key issues. Be prepared!
  • Acknowledge frequently, authentically and profoundly in a heartfelt way.

Your commitment to the project is one of the key ingredients to success and your team will be able to tell just how committed you are. As Tom Peters says in his book, people can smell emotional commitment from a mile away! Show your enthusiasm every day. Make it contagious. They also can tell if you are sincere when you offer an acknowledgment. Remember, everyone likes to be acknowledged and if you make it a habit there is no doubt that you will be acknowledged for your efforts!


Friedrickson, B.(2004) Gratitude (Like Other Positive Emotions) Broadens and Builds. The Psychology of Gratitude, Part II, Chapter 8. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Gallup/UBS (2003, January) Employee Outlook Survey

Peters, T. (1999, April) The Wow Project. Fast Company Magazine, 24

Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) (2004 ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Umlas, J. W. (2006) The Power Of Acknowledgment, New York Publication: IIL Publishing

© 2007, Frank P. Saladis ,PMP, Judith W. Umlas,
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, North America



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