Project Management Institute

Learning from project management implementation journeys

Svetlana Cicmil, PhD, University of West of England, United Kingdom

Stella George, PhD, Faculty of Business, Athabasca University, Canada

Keywords: Value; management innovation; comparative case studies


Altough some literature indicates that management innovations should be adopted in a standardized manner (Hill & Wilkinson, 1995; Rogers, 1995), other literature indicates that tailored innovation is favored in practice (Hamel & Breen, 2007; Rogers, 1995; Wood & Caldas, 2002). In addition, the literature is largely silent on the nature of the implementation stage of the management innovation process (Birkinshaw & Mol, 2006; Dewett, Whittier & Williams, 2007; Bodas Freitas, 2008; Langley, Smallman, Tsoukas, & Van De Ven, 2010; Mamman, 2009).

Examining project management as a case example of management innovation we empirically investigate the implementation journeys of organizations seeking to improve this specific management practice. Drawing from innovation literature (Greenwood & Hinings, 1996; Street & Gallupe, 2009), we recognize four types of innovation events defined by the pace (continuous/episodic) and scope (convergent/radical) of the change implemented. These events are labeled polishing, fixing, disseminating, and revolutionizing.

Mapping the innovation events, triggers, and benefits realized from 48 project management innovation journeys reveals four classes of journey that describe specific components of the implementation process. Some organizations engage in multiple continuous convergent innovation events aimed at polishing and improving a particular project management approach. Other organizations engage in continuous improvement efforts aimed at both the convergent and radical, levels seeking to integrate their project management practice throughout the organizational levels. Another class of organizational innovation journey begins with a convergent episodic intervention aimed at fixing a problem with a project management approach that is otherwise working for the organization. The final type of innovation journey is labeled revolutionary because it begins with impetus from outside the organization and an innovation event that radically repositions and rethinks the practice of project management within the organization. These four classes of innovation journey depict specific ways organizations embrace project management innovation that embrace efforts to balance demands of efficiency and standardization with innovations aimed at improving the fit or effectiveness of project management practices and their evolution through time.

For organizations that invest in project management over time, these four classes of innovation journey and events often combine into compound journeys. Analysis of eight compound innovation journeys provides insight into how value is created and destroyed through selection of innovation events that either support or detract from historical project management trajectories. The deeper understanding of the complexity of project management innovation for any specific organization depicted in this paper provides practical insights for those contemplating undertaking such a journey, and suggests direction for further theoretical and empirical exploration of the dynamics underlying these implementation processes.


The pro-innovation bias in most western cultures supports the assumption that innovations improve practice (Abrahamson, 1991). Partly this confidence is linked to standardization of the innovation being adopted (Hill & Wilkinson, 1995); however, this confidence may be misplaced, as organizational innovations might not necessarily yield the same or any of the benefits advertised (Greenwood & Hinings, 1996; Rogers, 1995). There is very little research to date on the reality of organizational innovations or how the degree and type of changes to particular innovations are impacted by the characteristics of the innovation, the implementing organization, and the external context within which the organization operates (Mamman, 2009). Numerous scholars have called for greater attention to this process of implementing organizational innovations (Langley et al., 2010; Dewett et al., 2007; Bodas Freitas, 2008; Mamman, 2009).

This paper investigates the processes of change involved in implementing one particular type of management innovation, project management, and the evolution and modification necessary for such initiatives to deliver value. In considering the innovations taken in project management by case study, we identify four distinct classes of innovation, each indicating a pattern of innovation events. Within each of these classes we have identified factors that indicate trends toward gaining value from the innovation and those that will cause value to be lost.

From this qualitative review of empirical case evidence we discuss a generic model of the process of project management innovation and maturity development across time as a process of mediating between pressures towards improving the efficiency and effectiveness of project management practices. This model can be used to illustrate crucial points in an organization's innovation process that influence the potential value to be gained from project management innovation events. We conclude by discussing the practical and research implications of the analysis to date of these rich cases.


The literatures of organizational change and innovation intersect with the relatively recent literature on management innovation. In support of our study we introduce the literature on management innovation, discuss recent methodological contributions on how to clarify the nature of innovation efforts by focusing on the scope and pace of change involved, introduce the challenges of measuring the benefits arising from management innovation, and provide an argument for how project management implementation efforts qualify as an example of management innovation.

Management Innovation

Organizational innovation can be defined as “the multi-stage process whereby organizations transform ideas into new/improved products, service or processes, in order to advance, complete, and differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace” (Baregheh, Rowley, & Sambrook, 2009, p. 1334). This study focuses on innovation in management practice: a relatively new addition to innovation literature, which has been defined as changes in organizational structure, management practices, and systems; knowledge used for decision-making; and managerial skills implemented to improve an organization's ability to function efficiently and effectively (Hamel, 2006).

Some suggest that management innovation should only be studied in relation to the development of new-to-the-state-of-the-art management practices (Abrahamson, 1996; Birkinshaw, Hamel, & Mol, 2008; Kimberly & Evanisko, 1981): for example, the initial development of techniques, such as the divisional form, total quality management, activity-based costing, or balanced score cards. Others suggest that the implementation of new-to-the-organization management ideas borrowed from other organizations should also count as the study of management innovation (Birkinshaw & Mol, 2006; Walker, Damanpour & Devece, 2011; Zbaraki, 1998). Whether a management innovation is a new development or the adoption of an existing technique likely depends on the timing of the implementation and may differ both across time and regions, as innovations spread in a lumpy manner (Rogers, 1995). What for one organization might be perceived as a totally new innovation may for another simply be an improvement to existing management practices. In alignment with this second set of researchers, we focus on the adoption of a management innovation that is by no means new to the world, and in fact has been common practice for some organizations, is new to many, namely project management implementation.

The process of adopting an innovation is often described as including three phases: initiation, adoption, and implementation (Damanpour & Schneider, 2006; Rogers, 1995). In order to deliver the expected organizational benefits, the innovation must be thoroughly implemented (i.e., accepted as a theory in use) and cannot be solely adopted in name for legitimacy or other non performance-based reasons as has often been discussed (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Feller, 1981; Zbaraki, 1998). In the adoption stage, to deliver desired results, the innovation must be modified (Hamel & Breen, 2007; Wood & Caldas, 2002) to fit with an organization's strategic or competitive environment (Kimberly & Evanisko, 1981) and with other organizational activities (Damanpour, 1987, 1996). During implementation most management innovations go through some form of modification to improve their effectiveness and fit with the organization (Rogers, 1995). We focus in this paper on the implementation stage of the innovation process consisting of the events and actions taken to modify either the innovation or the organization, any pilot testing, and the use of the innovation until it becomes a routine fixture of the organization (Damanpour, 1991).

Classifying Innovation Based on Pace and Scope of Change

Greenwood and Hinings (1996) first proposed scope and pace as two dimensions of organizational change. Plowman et al. (2007) and Street and Gallupe (2009) proposed a method for operationalizing this categorization by analyzing the pace and scope of innovation events. According to this model, the pace of innovation can be classified as either: Continuous—cumulative additions to existing practice—or Episodic—an event in which the change is intended to add something new to practice; while the scope of innovation can be examined as either: Convergent—adding to existing knowledge and frames of reference—or Radical—providing a new frame of reference. This can include an introduction of tried method to new areas of the organization. It is also used to describe emergent change, where the impact of the innovation is different (often greater) to that expected. This two-by-two classification gives rise to four types of innovation events:

  • A continuous convergent innovation polishes, tweaks, or refines existing practices;
  • A continuous radical innovation expands upon work done by changing frames of reference or expanding work to other areas;
  • An episodic convergent innovation is intended to make a fix within the bounds of existing ways of working;
  • An episodic radical innovation is a significant change to the way people work and is often triggered by external events or circumstances.

For our purposes, we call these events: polishing (continuous convergent), fixing (episodic convergent), disseminating (continuous radical), and revolutionizing (episodic radical). We use the term innovation journey to describe a set of innovation events linked by time, indicating a journey of innovation for a specific organization.

The Benefits of Innovation

Although there tends to be an assumption in our pro-innovation culture that innovation is always successfully implemented and results in beneficent charges (Abrahamson, 1991), organizational change literature clearly shows many worthwhile change initiatives are identified and launched, but the expected benefits never materialize. This failure to realize or identify benefits may arise in a number of ways, for a number of reasons:

  • Innovations are rejected and sometimes innovations do not actually result in improvement (Abrahamson, 1991).
  • Determining whether the innovation has actually been adopted can be difficult to ascertain (Damanpour, 1987; Zbaracki, 1998).
  • Innovations in practice bear little resemblance to those described in management books and academic journals (Hill & Wilkinson, 1995).
  • Innovation does not fit with the organization or its strategic or competitive environment (Kimberly & Evanisko, 1981).
  • Other events in the organization may weaken, jeopardize, or overstate potential benefits (Damanpour, 1987, 1996).
  • Organizational practices may deviate from the innovation's theory or standard so far that they are not true representations of the innovation (Hill & Wilkinson, 1995).

Therefore, it should not be surprising if they do not deliver the purported benefits claimed for such innovations. Modification of a managerial innovation is often seen as undesirable interference with the holistic nature of the innovation in question, which can destroy the credibility and efficacy of the innovation (Rogers, 1995). Modifications are however common practice and regarded as necessary in tailoring the innovation to fit and yield value to the organization (Hamel & Breen, 2007; Rogers, 1995; Wood & Caldas, 2002).

Project Management as a Managerial Innovation

Study of a management innovation requires an example that can be clearly identified as the introduction of a specific set of management tools, techniques, and processes for the specific goal of improving a management practice (Adams, Bessant, Phelps, 2006; Birkinshaw et al., 2008; Boer & During, 2001; Hamel, 2006). Project management is conventionally seen as a disciplined method of achieving a well-defined goal through deployment of tried-and-tested tools, techniques, and processes for planning, organizing, control, and evaluating project work, and over the last 20 years has been widely adopted by a large number of organizations in disparate industries. While some project management research studies attempt to derive contingent models for the effective implementation of project management in a move away from a universalistic best-practices approach, more effort seems to be spent in developing linear maturity models of how to move organizations to the best standardized and all-inclusive implementation (for a critique, see Jugdev & Thomas, 2002; Mullaly, 2006). In many cases, project management implementation can be seen as the introduction of a specific set of tools, techniques, and processes that would qualify as a classic example of the implementation of a standardized management innovation. However, some implementations of project management reflect more what is considered a “true” innovation in that some of the organizations in our study attempted to invent their own new to the world variants of project management practice explicitly choosing not to implement the standardized tool kit but rather tailor the implementation to fit their unique project requirements.

Few studies to date have examined project management as an organizational innovation. Martinsuo, Hensman, Arto, & Kujalo (2006) explicitly used institutional and innovation diffusion theories to explore the adoption of project management as an organizational innovation. Their survey-based research (sample consisted of 111 companies representing a variety of industries) identified external pressure and internal complexity as drivers for introducing project-based management; examined the degree of process change, depth of project-based management adoption, and local success of project-based management introduction; and suggested that benefits from introducing project-based management include both improvement in project culture and efficiency improvement. Hobbs, Aubry, and Thuillier (2008) explored the introduction of project management offices as an organizational innovation using a combination of survey and qualitative studies. They concluded that PMOs are a political system that plays an important role in organizations and that as an organizational innovation it is unstable and still evolving in nature such that they didn't find a discernible pattern of adoption. Finally, Thomas, Williams, Cicmil, and Mullaly (2010) set out to explore and understand the complete picture of what organizations invest in when they implement project management and addressed the contextual influences that affect the modification and evolution of this innovation. None of these studies has thoroughly investigated the processes of change involved in implementing project management effectively and the evolution and modification necessary for such initiatives to be successful that we address.

Measuring the Benefits of Innovation

Finally, there is an ongoing debate on how to measure the value organizations receive from innovating their management practices (Lepak, Smith, & Taylor, 2007). While there is a whole literature based on the premise that a return on investment can and should be calculated for such improvement efforts (Kirkpatrick, 1998; Philips, 1998), the practical reality is that this measure has never been successfully calculated in any transferable way in examining a wide array of management innovations, ranging from information technology (Kohli & Devarj, 2003; Zhang, 2007) to training and including project management (Ibbs & Kwak, 1997; Ibbs, 2000; Kwak & Ibbs, 2000; Ibbs & Reginato, 2002; Thomas & Mullaly, 2008). For the purposes of examining the benefits of innovation in this paper, we have used the qualitative coding method of evaluating project management maturity level, tangible, intangible benefits and value trend as introduced in Thomas and Mullaly (2008). Each case was coded by multiple researchers according to four measures of what are arguably the value outcomes of any project management implementation:

  • Maturity level, based on a generic 5-stage maturity model allowing for half-step increments;
  • Value trend, ranging from -2 (most recent interventions are actively and substantially decreasing value of project management to the organization) to +2 (clear evidence that most recent interventions are expected to deliver value long into the future), coded by researchers based on likelihood of the organization continuing to receive value from its last project management intervention;
  • Intangible benefits, coded on a scale of 0 (no evidence) to +3 (evidence of significant benefits) based on the evidence provided in the cases that the organization had received intangible benefits (improved management decision-making, improved culture, reputation, or legitimacy, to name a few); and
  • Tangible benefits, coded on a scale of 0 (no evidence) to +3 (evidence of significant benefits) on the evidence that measurable, tangible benefits had been received that could be attributed to the last project management intervention

Gaps in the Literature

Management innovation is a vitally important and relatively common activity in organizations aimed at improving the practice of management. Management innovations are either standardized or tailored and involves combinations of different types of innovation events—polishing, fixing, disseminating, and revolutionizing. Measuring the benefits of management innovation is notoriously difficult and comparing the process of innovation across organizations is rarely attempted. This paper examines the innovation events and processes of a large number of organizations aimed at improving the management practice labeled project management in order to address these gaps.

Data and Methods

Research Design

In order to thoroughly understand an innovation, longitudinal studies that allow us to live through the entire initiation, adoption decision, and implementation process within one organization would be ideal (Van de Ven & Poole, 2005). However, longitudinal studies of this type are notoriously difficult to manage, as well as time and resource intensive. An alternative approach would be to study the same innovation in a multiple-case study approach to examine organizations at different stages in the implementation process, as suggested by Birkinshaw and Mol (2006). This paper adopts the second approach using a quasi-experimental (Grant & Wall, 2009) design based on multiple, comparative case studies (Eisenhardt, 1989; Eisenhardt & Graebner, 2007) to retroactively explore histories of project management implementations, constructed using multiple sources of information. Each case history included the history and the link between change processes and organizational performance.

Data and Sample

This study uses data that was not explicitly collected to study innovation journeys. The data are drawn from a case study database that includes 65 case studies collected between 2006 and 2008 using a multi-method approach (data collected includes: on-site observations, interviews, surveys, archival document review). Each study was examined in detail to identify those cases having enough information to answer the types of questions we are raising in this study. We identified a subset of 48 cases, which contained rich detail about the triggers, timeline, key individuals and events involved in each organization's implementation of project management for further examination in this study. After analyzing these 48 cases we identified a subset of eight detailed implementation journeys for further analysis. Summary information on these eight cases is provided in Table 1.

These eight cases were selected based on the value outcomes and the multi-phased nature of their journey. These journeys are recorded as compound journeys because the case organizations reported project management innovations over a longer period of time (thus provided data on more of their innovation events) or had been involved in an intensive series of innovations. The eight selected cases were chosen for this paper based on a theoretical sampling approach. Each of these organizations has engaged in four or more reported innovation events. In addition, each of these cases exhibit interesting value or maturity outcomes that made them particularly interesting for furthering our understanding of the project management innovation journey. Descriptive statistics for each of these eight case studies is provided in Table 1.

Table 1: Compound journey case descriptions.

Country Culture Competition Industry Project Type Value trend Tang-ible Value Intangible Value Researchers’ Perceived Alignment of Project Management to Organization
23 China Entrepreneurial, customer and investor focused Very high IT Customer Positive (1) Some (2) Some (2) This is a project-based organization, almost every person in the company was involved in the project management improvement
25 Denmark Innovative and competitive Medium IT Customer strong positive (2) Some (2) Some (2) Common frame of reference knowledge sharing, high quality, customer satisfaction
35 China Customer and investor focused High Construction Customer strong positive (2) Most (3) Most (3) Capability matches customer, subcontractor and supplier expectations.
43 Australia Innovative, customer and stakeholder focused Medium Government Product/ customer/ internal Neutral (0) None (0) Some (2) Project management is central to the organisation's existence; if they do not deliver successful projects they will no longer exist. Only partial implementation exists.
47 UK Customer and stakeholder focused n/a Defense, aerospace Customer, product Negative (-1) Most (3) Few (1) They are happy with what they have in place. There does not appear to be a FIT between what the parent organization and the case study organization management tell us about the practice of project management in this case and the actual observed practice and attitudes towards project management
52 Denmark Strongly professional with some silos of knowledge Moderate Pharma-ceutical Product, customer Neutral (0) None (0) Some (2) High
72 China n/a High Construction / Energy Internal Positive (1) Some (2) Most (3)
75 Canada n/a Moderate Energy Negative (-2) Some (2) Some (1)

Data Analysis

Following Eisenhardt's philosophy, that “it is the connection with empirical reality that permits the development of a testable, relevant, and valid theory” (1989, p. 29), and attempting to honor Van Maanen's desire for case research to be “empirical enough to be credible and analytical enough to be interesting” (1988, p. 29), we attempt to encapsulate, compare, and contrast the experience of many organizations engaged in implementing a common management innovation while meeting the word count limitations of a conference paper. Our analysis of themes in the data roughly follows the guidance of Miles and Huberman (1994) and the following steps.

Step 1. Construction of Timelines and Journey Maps

Using an Excel spreadsheet, we identified for each case the timeline of innovation events by referring to multiple data sources (interview notes, research case write-ups, survey responses, archival documents etc.). Each innovation event was identified by two researchers, carefully situated on a timeline, and coded as to its trigger, receptivity, degree of customization, scope (convergent versus radical) and pace (episodic/continuous) of change. Each journey was mapped according to the number and nature of innovation events identified.

Step 2. Creating a Complete Theme List

Reviewing the timelines of all 48 cases, we began to identify classes of innovation journeys (which we drew on Boston Matrix type illustrations) and themes associated with different values received from each type of journey and the value trends associated with each journey. Using theoretical sampling previously described, we selected several compound innovation journeys for further examination.

Step 3. Comparing Case Narratives and Visual Maps

Each researcher examined the pictorial representation of each case organization's innovation journey and compared this picture to the documentation for the case and the list of themes identified for the analysis. Case narratives were drafted for each journey and then compared between the researchers. This detailed discussion of each of the eight compound journeys and iterative return to the data sources resulted in “stories” of each journey woven together in joint and separate sensemaking of interviews, case descriptions, and archival data in comparison with our growing lists of themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Through this narrative analysis, pictorial representation, and discussion, we were able to observe patterns within the data relating to the type of innovation events and the patterning of these events across time. This comparative approach allowed theoretical insights to emerge from the patterns of relationships among constructs emerging from the situated action within and across cases related to underlying logics of actions (Eisenhardt & Graebner, 2007). Building theory from cases requires looking at each case as a distinct experiment that serves as a replication to contrast and compare constraints and extensions to the emerging theory (Yin, 2003).

Step 4. Validity Checks

We relied on triangulation of data wherever possible as a check on the validity of our study. We triangulated data obtained from interviews, observations, documents, and research case write-ups. While we did not personally collect the data for all of the eight case studies, a common set of instruments and protocols were followed by researchers trained in their use and we only chose cases for more detailed study where we felt the case data were rigorously comparable. In addition, in most of these eight case studies, the case descriptions were presented back to the case organization for confirmation of the timelines and for additional insights and details. We endeavored to substantiate all insights from more than one source.


Using this contextualization of pace and scope, an organization's innovation events can be visualized using a Boston Matrix. The events were linked in sequence producing a state graph, which reflects their specific innovation journey. All 48 cases in the data set were mapped in this way, some journeys were simple, others multi-stage, and complex. Although each innovation journey is unique to an organization, four distinct classes of innovation journey were identified in this visualization. Each type of innovation is noted with a circle, each implementation event after the first is depicted with a line joining the innovation types. In some cases events, similar type events are superimposed to show the journeys as occurring in a cluster.

Classes of Implementation Journeys

Analysis of the 48 cases, and over 100 innovation events, identified four classes of journey (indicated in Figure 1). These four journeys characterize typical innovation behaviors, described as polishing, renovating, integrating, and revolutionizing.

Classes of innovation journeys


Figure 1: Classes of innovation journeys.

Organizations that invest in continuous and convergent innovations are seeking to refine the process they already have. The journey map for polishers is in the continuous convergent (upper left) sector of the matrix. Organizations that innovate continuously and move from convergent innovations to radical ones (i.e., taking an innovation that works well in one department and rolling it out to the rest of the organization—bottom-up integration) or taking a radical innovation and developing it for improved effectiveness within a work unit (i.e., taking an organization wide innovation and tailoring it to fit within one work unit—top-down integration). An integrator's journey map is continuous (left side of the matrix) and straddles the convergent-radical boundary dependent upon the direction of knowledge and practice sharing.

Organizations whose innovation is determined by a radical episodic event such as merger, takeover, or change in management (often externally driven) are undergoing a revolution in knowledge and practice. The first innovation event is a large, often organization wide event that requires the embracing of a new way to work. Revolutionaries are found in the episodic radical (bottom right) sector of the matrix.

Organizations, whose innovations build on existing practices, but require some alternation to fix a problem before they can be polished, are renovators. Renovators are convergent in their innovations, usually moving between an episodic into continuous improvement (they operate in the top half of the matrix).

These classes of journey may form the whole or part of an individual organization's innovation journey.

Compound Innovation Journeys

Each organization's innovation journey is made up of innovation events. Compound journeys comprise a number of innovation events, these may include some of the innovation journey classes (seen above), which form segments of the complex journey. Each of the following eight case innovation journeys is described in some detail in the following sections. For each case we illustrate the journey in pictorial form, describe the events, and then identify key themes.

Examination of these complex journeys provides more insight into the innovation process than simple journeys of one or two innovation events. Simple journeys are likely to indicate that an organization may only be the start of a longer journey or has come to a halt in its innovation process. To some extent these compound journeys illustrate a process of innovation that may include cycles, indicate critical points of failure, and success. This longitudinal examination of the historical development of project management provides a more comprehensive picture of the necessary steps that organizations must prepare for when seeking to improve management practices.

Compound journeys of innovation show the progression of response and thinking (sensemaking) around the events that influence the organization. Subsequent innovations can also indicate how previous innovations were perceived within the organization; the innovative events that follow can indicate what remains to be addressed or critical attitudes towards project management innovation.

Specific Innovation Journey Case Studies

The following discussion describes the project management implementation journeys of cases with multiple project management innovation events. The descriptions that follow highlight each organization's innovation events and discuss the path of the innovation journey.

Case 23. Refinement of Best Practices

“Project managers [are] often involve[d] in PM discussion and process formulation, they communicate with PMO to reflect current situation and propose their own advice.” Human Resources, Case 23.

Compound innovation journey, Case 23


Figure 2: Compound innovation journey, Case 23.

In 1999, the IT function of this organization recognized a need for formal project management based on a desire for improved customer satisfaction and project control. They took a revolutionary action and implemented ISO9001 to achieve formal planning, control, and demand analysis. By 2004, the need to renovate practice provided a more formalized project management function, and assurance of quality led to working towards CMM3 alongside the implementation and use of a PMO. In 2005, this was extended to include status reporting and scoring system for projects and further polished in 2007 and 2008 by bringing in a lessons learned database and training programme.

This organization innovated their project management in two major episodes, the first radically using external best practice (ISO 9001); the second, building on their practice by fixing a shortfall in it using a second external approach (CMM3). Subsequent innovations were then continuous, aimed at refining their practices in order to converge them for maximum effect. The value trend of this organization was determined to be trending upward (+1).

Case 25. Evolving and Polishing a Diamond

“The biggest effect is that somebody sat down and started to formulate a [company] project model. [Previously] people invented something again and again to the new projects. So we have started to create a uniform basis in the company.” Interviewee, Case 25.

Compound innovation journey, Case 25


Figure 3: Compound innovation journey, Case 25.

In the mid 80s, this organization introduced the role of project manager to complex work tasks in response to increasing complexity in their work “projects.” Project management processes were used in the early 1990s, and a formal PMO was created in the early 2000s. Certification began in 2002 as a way to improve project manager education and introduce a common conceptual framework. In 2003, new project managers were supported by a mentor specific to the three different types of project managers now in this organization. The organization sought to increase improvements in their project management for one area of their business and introduced a project management model in 2004. This was followed in 2004 by the formation of a knowledge sharing network to bring together the project management model and project management certification education. By 2007, certification was supported by specific mandatory training, project managers were PRINCE2 certified, and project managers were winning professional body awards. The project management model was extended and a uniform management model for customer projects was developed that constitutes the foundation of continuous improvement. The role of project director was instated and made a member of the executive board.

This organization has been able to embrace and support each of the innovations to their project management journey. They started with continually converging to a system that was effective and efficient for them, polishing their practice with each innovation. At a critical point in their experience, they disseminated their practice more widely. These actions place this organization on an upward trend in gaining value from project management innovation. They have seen increases in capability through communication efficiencies and competence through certification, which has resulted in larger contracts and professional recognition for their practices.

Case 35. Radical Change Followed by Effective Refinement

“We have not only followed the government regulations, but we have been continuously establishing and innovating our own management system according to the company's development and the industry's situation.” Project Manager, Case 35.

Compound innovation journey, Case 35


Figure 4: Compound innovation journey, Case 35.

In 1995, this organization realized its capability and defined itself as a project-based organization. It took a revolutionary action and adopted a full implementation approach to project management following world wide best practice methods. Researchers indicate that “Project management was introduced by the company following the governmental regulations and laws.” They followed the standard approach, fully working to refine and polish their system in small ways to align with their own operational requirements. Their most recent innovation in this respect is their use of their nine years of practice to build an internal case based training program.

The cooperation and alignment of this project-based organization in adopting and refining the standard approach have been of great value to this organization. It is determined that their polishing innovations will keep their value from their project management trending upwards.

Case 43. Playing Keep Up—Getting Buy-in

“I've got some good project managers who follow due process in the right sort of format and utilize project management intelligently, and others who just take shortcuts and it's quite high maintenance to keep them on track.” Project Manager, Case 43.

In the early 1990s, this organization recognized itself as a project-based organization that needed to support a variety of differently sized projects managed by a range of project management methods. It chose to innovate its practice by working to integrate A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) approach with their own experiences, creating their own methodology in a process described as a “low-level revolution.” This accumulation of own and best practice is seen as radical and continuous with existing frameworks of practice. Later in the 1990s, a project management management unit was created to support existing practice. Over the following years, evidence grew that improvements in estimation were needed to increase performance in project management and a tool was employed to fix this situation in 2002. By 2007 (the last sample date for this case), the increase in number and complexity of projects required further accumulative improvements to competency in project management and mentoring was put in place to achieve this.

Compound innovation journey, Case 43


Figure 5: Compound innovation journey, Case 43.

Only time will tell whether the promising initial innovation and project management management unit, driven by some project employees, will continue to meet the newer requirements for project management caused by changes in project number and complexity. The fix in 2002 and the polishing adjustment in 2007 may have been in response to an initial insufficient innovation, which built on existing project management. The presence of reluctant adopters or the release of process in crisis in the empirical data could indicate that the innovation is not quite aligned to this organization's need. The organization may be on the right path but the next investment will be a key indicator as to its maintained suitability. The value this organization was determined to be gaining from project management is neutral/static.

Case 47. Best in Class Project Management with Terrible Results

“This unit made a huge investment in project management a few years ago and is a success story within our entire organization for what they have accomplished in project management,” Senior management, Case 47 and on the reason for latest innovation, “The programme was out of control ….” Senior management, Case 47.

Compound innovation journey, Case 47


Figure 6: Compound innovation journey, Case 47.

This work unit was formed in 1996 employing the project management practices of the established parent organization. By 1998, the project management of the unit was clearly ineffective, the project was overdue, a revision of the work schedule was created, and no changes to project management practices were implemented. Further schedule renegotiations occurred, accompanied by some changes to project management practice (e.g., 2002 an incremental delivery mechanism was put in place). Despite external reviews providing management advice that a change in project management was required in effective small incremental “polishing” innovations were put in place. In 2003, the customer and organization agreed to draw a line under existing issues and implement an earned value reporting approach to increase control. At the time of reporting this innovation apparently satisfied customer needs without addressing the identified project management issues.

The perceived value trend of this case's innovation journey is downward (-1). The journey does not reflect any of the effective classes of innovation journey witnessed in other cases. The early polishing actions did not address the underlying issues; they underlined organizational confidence in their approach despite evidence (external reviews) suggesting it did not meet project needs. The isolated fix put in place as the latest innovation, although yielding tangible value also does not address the existing issues in the management of the project. From the researchers’ perspective this organization requires a revolutionary change to its project management practice.

Case 52 – Beginning the Journey to Gain Value

“I think it is great to work with projects, when I feel that it gives value for the company—whether it is a new system or a fall in working hours. It is great when the employee realizes how much [benefit] the projects have given them.” PM Management, Case 52.

Compound innovation journey, Case 52


Figure 7: Compound innovation journey, Case 52.

Under the view of a new director, this organization identified an insufficiency in their project management system in 2000. They attempted to fix their practice by implementing a system to measure and monitor resource usage. However, in 2002 this fix was superseded by a revolutionary change to project management practice governance and control via the PMO. This approach was then across the organization (2005), in response to increased numbers of projects and resource demands, according to an organization wide definition of what will be considered a project versus an operational task. The latest innovation is a further integration action to promote increasing efficiency in the existing functional methodology.

The initial innovation under new management was a fix to the existing system, which was then upgraded to a change to the working practices around project management. The rollout of the method across the organization and refinement of the definition of what would be classified a project is a radical innovation the organization was clearly building on existing frames of reference and experiences. Their final innovations are refinements to make efficiency gains. The perceived trend for the value of project management in this organization is neutral—their practice meets this current need but it is not perceived to be able to bring further value in its current format.

Case 72. Revolution to Polishing

“What we learned from the [project] has become the most valuable wealth of the company. We learned and practiced, and we then shared our experiences in the whole industry. And I believe more or less our experiences have also contributed to the relevant institutional reforms in the industry.” Senior Management, Case 72.

Compound innovation journey, Case 72


Figure 8: Compound innovation journey, Case 72.

In 1984, an industry-wide management and administration reform prompted by previous World Bank involvement and international collaboration occurred. After setting up and registering this company from 1988–1990, their initial challenge in 1991 was to integrate external project management practices to gain access to business funding (in 1991 a World Bank loan was approved and the organization used industry-wide management and administration; in 1995, a further World Bank loan approval was made).

After operating with this project management process their capability and business grew. The subsequent challenge for this organization was to then move from a single project to multiple large-scale projects simultaneously. This company has been addressing this need by increasing their project managers’ capability via training and certification; in 2005, they began a research project to investigate effective management systems and approaches; in 2006, they issued guidelines for multi-project management, sought project management certification using project management training; and, in 2007 created an online training system organization wide.

The industry-wide project management approach (put in place by following external practices) was adopted by the organization and operated for approximately 14 years. This organization then took to investigating what it was in that process that was effective and sought to disseminate the practice through guidelines. Their own mature practice was then validated by gaining international recognized certification based on their own in house training, and then proven, was then disseminated throughout the organization. This organization has gained much value in integrating and then polishing its practice; its value is thought to be still trending upward.

Case 75. The Wrong Resolution Too Late

“In examining the project management implementation at [organization] one is reminded of a large, well-established garden that has unfortunately become significantly overgrown, tangled and broken down, even rotted in some places. One can see the original beauty; appreciate the careful selection and placement of the many different plants, and recognize the effort that went into balancing, juggling and nurturing its various sometimes conflicting needs; ultimately, creating an impressive showcase.” Researcher, Case 75

Compound innovation journey, Case 75


Figure 9: Compound innovation journey, Case 75.

From 1999 to 2003, this organization set about refining a previously great project management system in response to project failure issues. The trigger for their issues was the retirement of their visionary who had promoted and maintained a healthy PMO acting as a centre of excellence. In the years following, with the loss of this mentor, the organization saw a decline in the efficacy of the project management system due to no maintenance, lack of response to business changes, and so on. In 2004, the decline into crisis was addressed with a radical change point in the form of redefining the role of PMO from mentor to control. This change did not completely solve the project issues this organization was facing and they responded with a series of fixes building on the control approach in a series of events: in 2005, by introducing project governance in line with the current best practice trends in the project community at large; in 2006, a programme management tier was added; and, in 2008 process adherence was mandated.

The trend for gaining value from project management in this organization was determined to be -2: they were actually getting further from a valuable project management implementation as time progressed and this was expected to continue with the journey pattern in operation. We interpret that their declined value is caused by two factors. First, that they started innovating project management very successfully and so maintaining their successful practice would have been of value. Second, the loss of project management vision (their visionary retired), and the subsequent consideration that innovations were “done” (i.e., further maintenance and refinement stopped). Over time, fixes were required but not picked up until too late, necessitating radical change. The change implemented was that of control. With project management perhaps no longer being in alignment with the remaining effective working practices this produced a devaluation of their project management implementation further. What remained at the time of assessment was an approach to fix an implementation that no longer suited the organizational work process.


The most successful project management implementation journeys began with organizational level executive support or trigger. The executive power to encourage an organization to get behind a method and refine it to fit is seen to provide greatest value in these data. In some of our cases, executive involvement arose as a mandated action (e.g., Cases 23, 25, and 35). “… It was only since the adoption of project management methods that the company started to really reform its system [business and cultural attitudes] and establish new management procedures and processes and to run as an economic enterprise.” Case 35. Case 35's journey might not work for all organizations because some organizations do not respond well to mandated actions, Case 75, for example.

The investment of management support yields value even when an organization is just beginning its journey. “There is a lot more focus on project management in this company regarding how the project managers can evolve. Project managers have been taken much more serious[ly] and one feel[s] that the company really believe[s] in project management and project managers.” PM Management, Case 52.

Most (6/8) of the organizational innovations examined in detail followed initial support for radical action with a period of continuous and convergent innovation. This polishing can be an effective strategy once project management/organizational fit issues have been addressed.

The most successful project management implementation journeys assessed as those gaining the most value from their project management innovation are Cases 25 and 35. These two cases take on a revolutionary idea (an external project management innovation approach) and then begin to work continuously to converge ideas and practices, building an innovation that aligns with their organizational needs. The researchers of these cases noted alignment in the project management innovation with regards to a “Common frame of reference knowledge sharing, high quality, customer satisfaction,” Case 25 and “Capability matches customer, subcontractor and supplier expectations,” Case 35.

Beginning an implementation journey with continuous-convergent type innovations may result in well intentioned lower level managers developing an ideal system to meet their own needs, but not addressing the organizational or stakeholder's needs. For example, Case 47 polished a practice that did not appear to serve successful project completion.

Journeys that are successful for some period of time can become unsustainable if they are not built to develop sustainable fit with the environment and the business strategy as it evolves. We saw a successful implementation in Case 75 reinitiate an additional path of innovation as the value of the project management innovation began to decay. Cases 23 and 35, although currently successful, should be aware of this potential consequence and requirement for planning for future evolution in project management innovation.

The least valuable project management implementations journeys wound up with episodic interventions designed to fix implementations that had focused on polishing without results for some time. The issue for organizations in this situation is that a renovation investment will only be valuable if it is fixing the right problem. For example, Case 75 repeatedly fixed problems; this suggests that they had yet to isolate the real issue. Case 52 also implemented a fix followed by a revolutionizing action; this is an indicator that there was a recognition that the problem fixed was not sufficiently addressing their management issues and to successfully innovate their project management a more revolutionary event was needed. Considering the journey of Case 43, a period of analysis would be worthwhile to ensure that they are ready to enter a stage of (continuous convergence) polishing.

Initial examination of all 65 cases raised an interesting commonality in what was implemented by organizations at similar levels of project management maturity. Figure 10 depicts this process, reflecting the stages that an innovator typically goes through in progressing his or her innovation.

Maturity and project management innovation


Figure 10: Maturity and project management innovation.

As organizations increase their level of maturity in the practice of project management they cycle through a process of increasing the efficiency of practice through standardization, then increasing effectiveness by tailoring the implementation to the driving of organizational needs, followed by efforts to further increase the efficiency of the tailored implementation by pruning away any extraneous practices. This process of balancing efficiency concerns and effectiveness concerns give rise to situations where people invested in polishing a particular type of implementation can find themselves shaken to the core when shifts in organizational needs demand project management practice be renovated or revolutionized. In some cases, organizations become stuck in one of these phases continuously polishing their practices but failing to generate the organizational level support or interest needed to implement the required renovation or revolutionary change that would move them to the next stage of project management development. In at least one case we also witnessed previous investment in project management destroyed by recent innovation events that did not build on and reinforce expertise while changing project management practice. In both cases, the innovation event that triggered the negative value trend for the project management innovation was driven by moves back towards a standardized approach to control oriented project management that had little to do with the challenges the organization faced in implementing project management.

The detail and richness of the analysis of these implementation journeys cannot be done justice in this short conference paper. We focus this paper on the beginning empirical insights from the cross case analysis. We recognize that this is only the start of a much richer theoretical discussion that will need to include: radical change (as per Plowman et al., 2007); a Foucauldian (Foucault, 1977, 1978, 1985, 2002) approach to move beyond understanding the implementation of management innovation as driven by strictly technical/rational knowledge towards an insights founded in recognizing technical/rational knowledge as an instrument of power; a critical examination of the impact of the “guru” and professional association on the construction of the artifacts and power knowledge surrounding project management innovation; the nature and role of legitimating rhetoric in “selling” project management; and building a better understanding of fit and alignment with respect to mindful innovation (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001) as opposed to the mindless adoption of a managerial fad (Abrahamson, 1991). Our expectation is that we will have applied several of these theoretical foundations to the data and elaborated on them by the time we present this paper.


This paper provides an empirical exploration of historically reconstructed project management implementation journeys, paying particular attention to innovation events recognized and reported by a cross-section of informants and documented in organizational files. Drawing from management literature on innovation and organizational change, we contextualized innovation events in terms of pace and scope to identify four types of innovation actions: polishing, fixing, revolutionizing, and disseminating. Examining the occurrence of these events in the empirical data, four classes of generalized innovation actions are evident. The innovation journeys of specific organizations may use these general types of innovations in their own journeys, in working to integrate, renovate, revolutionize or polish project management innovation. Many journeys typically end with polishing activity.

Consideration of the innovation journeys of the more active innovators demonstrates the complex multiple use of the types of innovation events in practice by organizations. Cross-case comparisons of these multi-stage journeys with the early stages and simple innovation journeys of organizations just starting out on their project management journey were informative. Comparisons provided a starting point from which to empirically study innovation events, theorizing management innovation processes and providing practical recommendations for organizations beginning the process to improve project management. Organizations that generate value from their project management implementation not only go through this process but also actually seek alignment of the full implementation with their organizational and business strategy, in this way we witness project management supporting business needs. Consequently, when business needs change, project management also needs to change in response. Sections of the innovation process will be revisited, often from differing starting points, depending on the nature of the strategic change. The manifold nature of both the innovation events and the innovation journeys supports recent application of complexity theory in management calling for recognition of organizations and projects as complex adaptive systems.

Much as executive level support is a critical success factor for projects, our data also clearly demonstrate that this is true for project management implementation as well. While one of four value generating implementation journeys started in the project management realm and spread to the rest of the organization, most such journeys result in continuous improvement efforts that never influence wider organizational management or provide significant value to their organizations.

The process of innovation in project management is organic and evolving; there is no end point; even when reaching the polishing phase it is necessary to maintain capability by refining alignment and fit. Changes in organizational strategy may require a new cycle of innovation to begin in circumstances where change requires more than maintenance for value to continue to be accessed through project management activity.

Practical Implications

This research provides further evidence of the importance of executive level support and buy-in for the success of implementation of project management. Executive management needs to understand and support the management of projects. Project management associations need to continue to engage with executive levels and perhaps to agitate to have project management added to the management curriculum.

Project management implementation journeys need to be viewed as ongoing operational activities— more of a continuous improvement activity than a project with set budgets and start and stop deadlines. That said, changing circumstances and in particular changes in key actors, will trigger more episodic interventions. And in support of research examining project management as a strategic asset, this research suggests that the organizations that recognize it as such at the executive level are much more likely to gain valuable benefits from their investments in project management.

Research Implications

This research demonstrates the usefulness of Street and Gallupe's (2009) model for operationalizing the types of innovation events that make up an innovation implementation journey. If this model catches on, it will serve as a foundation for cross case comparison of project management implementation and other managerial innovation events to ensure rigorous comparisons can be made effectively.

Our mapping of typical journeys needs to be theorized and tested in future case analysis of other exemplar organizations. The next phases of this research project are to theorize these journeys.

Theorizing these innovation journeys will call for research paying attention to the gaps in our understanding of management innovation, especially around project management initiatives, that cannot be rectified through misplaced emphasis on technical rationality as embedded in more standardized and detailed analytical models and methods. Management innovation and project management research and pedagogy must develop more explanatory and critical understandings of this important phenomenon. We as a community need to: (a) ensure that practitioners are aware of the social contexts embedded in power structures supported by political aspirations and individual life choices that do not necessarily align with the taken for granted assumptions privileging goals of efficiency and business effectiveness; (b) develop research and tools that help practitioners diagnose the conditions that may be supportive or inimical to project management implementation; (c) develop professional competencies necessary to understand and steer project management innovations with due respect to the social life of organizations; and (d) develop a research knowledge base from which to refute the straightforward, technically rational, “guru” led benefits of project management innovation by creating practitioners capable of mindful consideration and consumption of research and gurus.

Acknowledgment: We would like to recognize Project Management Institute for its support of project management research and in particular its support of the Researching the Value of Project Management project and a current project, Studying Implementing Project Management as Strategic Organizational Innovation from which this paper has arisen. We would also like to thank all of the participants and researchers involved in the Researching the Value of Project Management project for capturing data that form a partial basis for this research.


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