Project Management Institute

Mind the gap


Recent literature and practice both point to the fact that “minding the gap” between strategy and projects still accounts for most ongoing challenges project-based organizations face.

Although research clearly identifies both organizational structures and corporate governance as essential variables when considering either “C” level buy-in and support of projects or project level buy-in and support of strategy, a big part of the problem remains in people's ability to communicate, what they communicate and how they do it.

Even in today's turbulent environment, the “C” level is perceived as difficult to reach by project and program managers who often feel that strategy has been elaborated without considering project level needs. At the same time, “C” level executives often complain about lower levels of management/operations (in the past) and now program/project that fail to “get the plot” or understand the larger picture.

Communication being a two-way street, as any simple conversation, difficulties first start at the sender's end with poorly thought through or formulated mission statement or strategy or, at best when these have been both thought through and well formulated, the inability of the messengers to translate them into an understandable framework for the receiver.

Too often project/program managers see themselves as victims of old mechanistic systems that make it difficult to obtain higher level buy-in or support for projects. However, many project managers still struggle to communicate effectively. Building, documenting, writing, and presenting a strong business case is seen as extremely difficult by many that tend to see themselves as the “doers” of the past rather than the “managers” needed in the present or future.

This paper explores how project managers can adapt the content of their communication to find a common framework with “C” level management that better fits the more recent organizational changes from more traditional settings to the rapidly evolving project based organizations of the future.

The “Communication” Context

With such changes as the implementation of PMOs, Portfolio Management, Program Management and Project Based Organizations (PBOs), project managers are now called upon to interact with a very diverse pool of stakeholders. Yet, because it involves people, communication is a complex and continually changing subject that is difficult to grasp. Although human communication has been widely studied in the fields of business, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, very few tools have been developed to help managers communicate (Mead, 2001).

In the last few years, many project-based organizations have matured and project managers are more and more often sought to exercise diverse organizational roles. For example, in 2005, one issue of the PMNetwork (PMI, 2005) contained a entire 32-page section on new career challenges and career development for project managers that focused on “moving up” the career ladder. More recently, PMI has developed the Career Framework ( that also proposes a path to higher management levels. Concurrently, individual project managers and organizations have progressively explored new knowledge and practices such as strategic management, value management, portfolio management, value chain management and others, to evolve beyond the traditionally more restrictive roles and responsibilities initially defined, for example, by the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004). With these changes, it has also been repeatedly observed that there is a definite lack of communication between the higher organizational strategic discourse of CEOs and rather project oriented tactical and technical levels of project management (Hatch, 1997; Neal, 1995; Pellegrinelli & Bowman; 1994, Thomas et al. 2000).

Several authors have already recognized the fact that, because they are so often set in more traditional organizational structures, project-based activities seem to display certain weaknesses like the difficulty of linking projects to the organisational business processes and strategic level goals (Gann & Sadler, 2000; Lindqvist, 2004). At the same time, the relative autonomy of project teams, constantly changing project conditions and the ambiguity of the organisational context often result in emergent working practices that influence the organisational environment (Huemann et al., 2004; Lindkvist, 2004; Thiry & Deguire, 2004; Tsoukas & Chia, 2002;) as well as project results that influence the overall business strategy (Bredillet et al., 2004).

The strategic process, in contrast to the project processes, is often not linear and planned, but rather ongoing, emergent and enacted (De Wit & Meyer, 2004; Morris & Jamieson, 2004; Bredillet et al., 2005). Although sometimes perceived as somewhat “messy” by project managers, this non-linear development stimulates potential and opportunities for projects to shape or reshape strategies as they evolve, a situation that is all the more important in PBOs where projects are the primary business mechanism for coordinating and integrating the main business functions of the firm.

Overall, the project manager literature has demonstrated that “an important aspect of PBOs is yet unexplored and lies in the development of a collaborative relationship between the fields of Project and General Management as well as in the importance of developing a common language that fosters dialogue” between the two domains (Thiry & Deguire, 2006). This collaborative effort necessitates the development of a two way relationship which recognises that project management practice can and will influence organisational practices as well as the obvious reverse. However, at the moment, there is a strong dichotomy that is reflected both from a theoretical and a practical perspective in the publications and presentations of both project manager and strategic management groups, with little or no research supporting the influence of project management on organisational structures and strategies. In any case, very few project management papers are exported to the general management audience. There still remains an important “Gap” between the strategic level and the project level concepts and their respective vocabularies. The absence of a common framework and vocabulary further complicates the communication roles of program/portfolio and PMOs as it is their role and responsibility to translate the corporate discourse to project managers and translate project management language to executives.

The Nature of the “Gap”

Given that strategy is mainly elaborated at executive level, it is interesting to have an overview of the content of the more common reads at this level in order to better understand this group's use of language and vocabulary and to appreciate the differences with project management oriented language and vocabulary.

A review of the general management literature, using the Academy of Management (AoM) publications since 1999 demonstrates that until 2006, project management does not seem to be a popular term in the general management world. It does not appear as a keyword for papers or conferences. When references to the project field are present, it is more often through the concept of PBOs and usually confined to the Operations Management heading. Similarly, Projects, project management, and PBO do not appear in the Management Consulting or Strategic Management tracks of the Academy of Management proceedings. Project management focussed papers seem restricted to either the Project Management Journal or the International Project Management Journal that are not usually read by the larger management community and rarely by CEO level managers. Therefore, until a very recent past, project management does not seem to have been a popular theme or of much general interest to the larger management community.

Looking to the other side of the dialogue box, project managers’ identities did not seem particularly geared towards the general managerial field. When questioned, project managers rarely felt part of “general management” communities and many did not seem interested by the larger management literature such as the Harvard Business Review or the Academy of Management publications. Over the years, when project management developed, project managers had a strong bond with their teams and often identified themselves as “team leaders” or “doers” rather than “managers.” To this day, little has been written about this unusual relationship project managers entertained with general management and it does not seem to have been the object of any systematic study. Most references to these issues can be found in the context of practitioner focused project management publications and conferences and lie under such titles as “How to market project management to executives” that have become increasingly popular in the last 10 years.

These observations support the research findings from Keegan and Turner (2001) and Thomas et al. (2000), who state that convincing project managers of the usefulness of relaxing management assumptions of linearity and rationality may depend on the development of concepts and vocabulary to carry that process forward. Keegan and Turner further argue that the sensual descriptions of innovation managers concerning their projects seem to contradict their use of formal, rational, linear, mechanistic, and control laden concepts to describe what they understand as being “real management.” In their study, the linear framework that determines language and vocabulary appears to be a strong barrier to acceptance of more intuitive and emergent forms of managing in the project management community in general (Keegan & Turner, 2001). These authors outline the fact that models premised on language that emphasise consistency, rationality, linearity and formality, still seem to tap a chord with project managers who feel that management is more easily conceived of in terms of certainty, control, clarity and rationality rather than more organic or strategic frameworks.

In another study reviewing how project managers sell project management to higher management, Janice Thomas (2000) relates that:

“They generally promote it by describing the features of tools and techniques and inherent project benefits related to the priority triangle of time, cost and scope. Project managers infrequently tie project management outcomes to corporate business outcomes….” (p. 5)

In this example, Thomas outlines some of the differences between tactical and strategic level messages. In the first (tactical), the focus is on the features of project management in the short term, quick fix relationships, as in the second (strategic), the message involves a longer-term relationship and addresses business problems. Generally, and contrarily to the project managers’ tactical messages, most executives are interested in a strategic communication that addresses ways to measure and increase the return on their organization's investments and reduce expenditures (Dinsmore, 1996; McElroy, 1996). Furthermore, unlike project managers, executives seem to tie outcomes to corporate strategy, not to individual project outputs. Therefore, the overall communication frameworks of the two groups are quite different and reflected in diverging languages and sometimes contradictory vocabularies that find their roots in diverging thought processes. This could account for the lack of communication as well as numerous misunderstandings between the two groups.

In the same vein of thought, several authors outline the fact that, executives sometimes seem to measure the return on investment and costs without recognizing the cumulative effects and co-dependencies of both failed and successful projects (Dinsmore, 1996; McElroy, 1996). This situation makes it even more important to ensure that project managers communicate values and benefits that are consistent with and aligned to the indicators senior managers use to evaluate such offerings. But with two contradictory frames of references at work, this often proves difficult or impossible to achieve.

In effect, when project managers were asked to describe project management, they “described it as a linear type of activity, much like the definition provided in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)” (Thomas, 2000). Most definitions remained tactical, addressed tools, techniques and skills and referred to simple value statements of meeting or exceeding performance expectations. In this discourse, project managers are not addressing “C” level concerns, nor are they responding their audience's needs. The consultants were the only group that described project management in strategic terms such as “a core understanding, belief, scalable, flexible and related to shareholder value.” In all the interviews conducted, only those at one projectized firm consistently described project management as providing strategic benefits. The study concludes that “disconnects occur between the project managers who tactically sell the features and attributes (merits) of specific tools and techniques for project success to management.” Instead, “executives want results and benefits at the business level,” a trend of thought that still seems difficult for many project managers to pursue.

With the more recent developments in Portfolio and Program Management and more particularly with the publication of the Program Management Standard as well as the new certification, terms such as “outcomes” and “business benefits” are becoming more popular in all aspects of the project management world. Nevertheless, many project managers still seem more comfortable within the confines of the triple constraint and the mechanistic language of “outputs and results.”

A Shared Framework

Since Burns and Stalker (1961), many authors recognise that traditional mechanistic organizations are struggling to adapt in today's turbulent environments and that in order to sustain innovation, organizations need to be structured to foster creative synergy between vision and mission, strategy, portfolio, program and project management and preferably be framed in a project-based governance approach. This innovation discourse might, in fact, be an interesting opportunity to reestablish a healthy communication between the “C” level and project level views as, through innovation, both groups need to generate tangible value for the stakeholders. Innovation might answer both groups’ needs in presenting an acceptable compromise between the project and “C” level frameworks and vocabularies.

The recent pressing needs for companies (and their CEOs) to foster innovation in order to remain competitive might indeed offer an interesting avenue to argue the case for project management as well as an intermediate set of concepts and variables through which both “C” and project management groups can develop common denominators to better communicate. Indeed, projects and innovation share a natural conceptual background and it seems almost counter intuitive to set innovation in a traditional operational framework that has its roots in routine, repetitious work and predictable controlled outcomes. At the moment, many companies are recognizing that in the latter part of the 20th Century, organizations have developed values that are in sharp contrast and even contradict the values associated with innovation. This has motivated a growing concern from their “C” level executives that the contradictory organizational assumptions can make it difficult to develop a sound integrated framework or culture in which new ideas find a fertile soil to grow. Project management can become a well received answer to this problem and respond to “C” level needs.

Rosabeth Moss-Kanter (well known to higher management) has conducted research and advised companies during what she terms: “four major waves of competitive challenges” (2006, p. 74) since the 70s. Moss-Kanter claimed that successful innovation requires “flexible organizational structures, in which teams across functions or disciplines organize around solutions, [which] can facilitate good connections” (2006, p. 82), which is typically the context of project-based organizations.

Also interesting, is that a recent study of 1000 corporations has demonstrated that, contrarily to popular belief, nonmonetary factors may be the most important drivers of a company's return on innovation, in particular: organizational processes that promote cross-functional collaboration (Jaruzelski et al., 2005). In this context, an innovation fostering PBO would be expected to focus less on financial return and more on organizational effectiveness; it would display clear signs of stakeholder and value creation perspectives, including innovativeness, empowerment and stewardship, a wider set of success criteria and a drive towards sustainability over short-term results and, overall, an increased focus on the link between expected benefits and results. These observations justify a change in perspective for project managers from a short-term deliverable-oriented perspective to a longer-term organizational and benefits-oriented perspective. In return, these observations also lead to increased “C” level attention to shorter-term results in order to meet longer term organizational goals. This offers the much sought for give-take compromise between these two worlds as well as a common platform for discussion that both “C” level and project level can share and equally understand.

Because the whole philosophy and the historical background of both projects and innovation seem intimately interlinked, a strong project outlook with appropriate governance structures would typically enhance strategic goals that call for the development of innovation. In their quest for innovation, many organizations have felt the need to establish social networks and the project approach has the distinct advantage of proposing an internal network between tasks, or projects if properly enhanced through programme management, as well as stakeholder partnerships.

Indeed, in a series of articles entitled: “Mastering Innovation” in the Financial Times (2004), the author argues in part 2 that partnerships provide vital access to new ideas, perspectives and business practices. In part 4, the author states that a company's capacity to innovate is a function of four broad and inter-related factors, one of which: networks, are said to be essential to the ability to innovate.

Since Schumpeter (1947), also a well-known author for general management, many researchers have demonstrated that innovations are most often “new combinations” of existing technology as is well established in the project mode:

“Thus, individuals or divisions within a firm must be both able and willing to share their capabilities or resources with other parts of the organization. […]” (Sampson, 2007, p. 384).

An interesting example of the usefulness of such systems comes from Paul Sloan (2006).

“A copy-machine operator at Kinko's, a chain of copying and document services stores, noticed that customer demand for copying dropped off in December. People were too preoccupied with Christmas presents to do much copying for the office. So he came up with a creative idea: allow customers to use Kinko's color copying and binding facilities to create their own customized calendars using personal photos for each of the months. He prototyped the idea in the store and it proved popular. The operator phoned the founder and chief executive of Kinko's, Paul Orfalea, and explained the idea. Orfalea was so excited by it that he rushed it out as a service in all outlets. It was very successful and a new product—custom calendars—and a new revenue stream were created.”

Again, in another example below, the author further illustrates how fostering cross-functional relationships as well as interacting with a larger environment contributed to this company's innovative initiative:

“The inspiration for sustainability came from several angles. One such angle was initiated in 1999 when Bulmers embarked on a schools project with Newent Community School where sixth form students researched uses for waste pommace (pulp left from the apple after pressing) and prunings (with the support of Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI) introduced by Dominic Fielden). The students presented back to employees innovative ideas to turn the waste stream into stock for other industries such as composting, animal feed, mushroom production or power generation.”

As illustrated in this example, innovation, like each project goes beyond simply responding to change, it creates change in the environment that other organizations must respond to, and therefore can become, a sustainable competitive advantage.

As we can see from the previous examples, it makes sense that given the nature of the project/program approach, PBOs can significantly contribute to the development of a distributed network that forms inside the organization and takes on the role of much of the innovation work. This constitutes an understandable argument for “C” level executives looking for the strategic streak in project management that might respond to their needs and moves the discussion away from a more tactical discourse. At the same time, because projects have long been associated with change, this draws from a well-documented knowledge base for project managers. Through projects and programs, individuals become connected to the network and generate their own ideas, conduct experiments, log the results, build support, and help transition some of the ideas to formal pilots or direct implementation. As suggested by several authors, the network created by projects employs features from several different morphologies and uses some principles from natural selection to recombine and improve ideas throughout the process.

In effect, research shows us that we have long left the den of the lonely creative “artist” as more and more studies demonstrate that innovation rate is increased where there are strong social networks (Jaruzelski et al., 2005; Taatila, 2005). Even among artists, most innovations were the product of group interactions such as surrealism, impressionism, cubism, etc. hence reinforcing the social network theory. It has now become widely accepted that when ideas meet and information comes together, you bring innovations to market smarter and faster and it would seem that a diversity of ideas and opinions are needed to generate high quality solutions. The project framework is well documented to create this dynamic organizational environment.

We have therefore seen that innovation, for most companies, depends upon the individual and collective expertise of employees and it seems to have become more important for an organization to be cross-functionally excellent than functionally excellent. In addition to formal planning at the business level, best-practice companies are using cross enterprise initiatives on major issues in order to challenge assumptions and open up the organization to new thinking. These are well-known issues in the project world and have now become priorities for most “C” level executives. Many organizations now see the need to elaborate their strategic goals in this direction in order to enhance innovation to match their technological developments with complementary expertise in other areas of their business, such as manufacturing, distribution, human resources, marketing, and customer relationships. This discourse, familiar to both C level executives and the project management community could prove productive to make a case for project management and to cultivate the development of a common language and shared concepts towards interesting exchanges between the two groups.


There still remains an important “Gap” between the strategic “C” level and the project level concepts and their respective vocabularies that complicates the communication roles of program/portfolio and PMOs who need to translate the corporate discourse to project managers and translate project management language to executives.

Many project managers still seem more comfortable with ideas and vocabulary centred around tools and techniques, outputs and results when “C” level executives tend to focus on results and benefits at the business level.

Project management could learn from using the innovation framework where social networks help diverse groups share a common theoretical and practical understanding and where corporate and business goals become the locus of the dialogue.

To foster a common understanding of both corporate and business goals, “C” level management and project managers should develop an understanding of flexible organizational structures, in which cross-functional teams or disciplines organize around solutions.

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© Manon Deguire
Originally published as part of 2008 PMI Global Congress proceedings – Denver, Colorado



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