Steering the ship

project management processes for the right reason



A Project Management Office (PMO) is not a magic pill for success. Success comes when organizations consider the unique needs of the organization’s departments and/or project teams. The key is to simplify the processes you use.

This paper focuses on the efforts necessary for a project manager or program manager to determine which processes need to be implemented for optimal results. Use the best practices in analysis skills to select and implement those processes that will have a real impact on the organization.

Managing projects can sometimes feel like steering a distressed tanker ship through an agility course—running over pilings and reacting to “fires” at every turn. Learn how to effectively affect change within your organization by applying proven process improvement methods to your own project management methodology and focusing on value-add processes.


As project and program managers, I’m sure you’ve all had experiences, which we would deem successes, failures, or “they just didn’t get it” situations when trying to improve your organization’s project management processes. Successes are those that, when you look back, you can visibly see where the participants in the project have embraced a concept and you see them adopting it going forward.

-    Senior manager now regularly ask about project risks and what your plans are to minimizing those key risks

Failures are those we’ve tried to implement and for whatever reason came upon deaf ears and, no matter what you tried, you were unable to convince those who should understand the importance.

-    You are asked to NOT have weekly meetings – they are seen as a waste of time. You are told to “please work directly with each resource,” because the resources are too busy to attend these meetings.

hen, there are “they just didn’t get it” situations, which are those where your team attempted to use a tool recommended, but they did not understand its value and chose not to continue to use a particular tool in subsequent projects or its use tailed off as the project progressed.

-    Requiring each team member to submit a status report or timesheet on a weekly basis started with enthusiasm by management; however, we are ten weeks into the project and nearly 30% of all team members are more than four days behind in submitting their timesheets.

There are MANY reasons I can think of, and I’m sure you can think of why these situations occurred. In this paper, we are going to explore some of the key reasons for failure and then explore what can be done to increase successes. It is all about choosing the processes to implement that make sense for your organization and situation.

At the conclusion of this session, each participant will be better equipped to:

  • Identify key project management processes for success for the attendee’s specific organization
  • Determine project management processes that do or do not add value
  • Gain consensus on process changes and reinforce changes to deliver continuous process improvement

Define your Organization and its Challenges for the Project Management Process

Project management maturity models, such as OPM3®, is a tool that helps organizations know what processes they are or are not performing for the ultimate effectiveness in managing processes. A few organizations have excelled in attaining project management maturity; however, most organizations experience a low level of maturity with a significant opportunity for improvement. The challenge is: Where do you start?

With over 25 years of experience working on projects in a variety of industries and different corporate relationships, the biggest mistake I see project managers making is feeling that they should address projects similarly in each company they work for. Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) is a framework of best practices that are recommended for optimal results, which translates into project success. However, most of us know that if we implemented everything in the PMBOK® Guide, we would add significant cost and administrative burden to an organization.

So, how do we “selectively” choose the RIGHT processes to implement in our organization for increased project success?

We will explore two key areas here. First is THE ORGANIZATION. Projects come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. As a project manager you must understand the types of projects you are working on. Here we’ll group projects into four categories (Exhibit 1):

  1. Internal projects
  2. Vendor projects
  3. Customer projects
  4. Virtual projects
Project Type Matrix

Exhibit 1 – Project Type Matrix

As you can see, each type of project demonstrates certain tendencies or challenges for the organization and the project manager. The skills, tools, and techniques to address these situations will vary and must be considered within the project management processes

Identify Key Project Management Processes

The second area of exploration we will cover is the processes themselves. Most projects found in organizations today are what we call “Business Process Improvement” projects. Organizations can’t grow without continuously reinventing themselves or improving their processes in response to various stimuli. Your project management processes are no different. The tools and techniques we employ will change over time and should be selected based on the present needs of the organization.

So, let’s treat our project management processes as a “Business Process Improvement” project itself. It could even be considered a program, where continuous improvement is mandated throughout the life of the organization.

Take a process model, such as a swim-lane tool and map out the processes you currently do within your organization “regularly” on your projects (Exhibit 2).

Sample SWIMLANE for Project Management Process

Exhibit 2 – Sample SWIMLANE for Project Management Process

Now, overlay on this model the processes you would like to ADD (Exhibit 3) to the existing processes for managing processes or maybe a process you would like to REMOVE.

Additional Process Added

Exhibit 3 – Additional Process Added

Now, let’s take each one of these processes and analyze it. Does it add value to the overall project success or NOT? How much extra effort will be needed and does that extra effort equate to improvements in project success? Can you qualify it by examples of past failures that could have benefited from the process and can you quantify it in terms of dollars? Perform this Value Add versus Non-Value Add analysis using the following templates (Exhibit 4).

Example Activity Analysis Worksheet

Exhibit 4 – Example Activity Analysis Worksheet

An activity analysis worksheet is used to document the process (Exhibit 5). What steps are needed to perform, who is responsible for performing, any decisions or rules that may exist for each step, and where the potential opportunity exists. This worksheet is ideal for allowing the team to define the purpose and expectations of the activity to be added or even removed. If an activity doesn’t have a purpose, then it is a good candidate for removal.

Example Activity Cost Worksheet

Exhibit 5 – Example Activity Cost Worksheet

The activity cost worksheet forces the user to document the costs of the activity with the intent of determining the cost/benefit of adding or removing the activity from the process. As stated earlier, some activities may be too costly for an organization. It is a cost/risk tradeoff discussion, so best efforts should be made to understand the full cost of the activity and the benefits it provides, whether qualitative or quantitative.

Gain Consensus

Ideally, the analysis just performed should not be done in a vacuum; however, initially it should be done with individuals who are committed to improving the project management process. Once you have several areas identified for improvement, ask the following questions:

  1. Who feels the pain or relief? Basically, you will need to understand who will benefit from the change and who may be negatively impacted.
  2. What EXACTLY needs to change? Specifically define what the problem is you are trying to solve and what changes need to be made by each stakeholder, which will result in the improvement desired.
  3. How can incremental change be managed? Some organizations are able to make many changes at once, whereas other organizations need a more gradual change.

At the point in which you think you have the planned change defined, take your recommendations to the next level. Talk to those impacted, talk to the management of those who are impacted, and explain the problem to be solved. The first real indicator is if they agree that the problem exists; if they don’t agree, you may have an uphill battle. Studies have shown that slow, steady, incremental change leads to better adoption. Don’t tackle more than you can handle. Prioritize the opportunities for improvement. Remember: this is a program for continuous improvement and if you subscribe to this concept, why not use the tools at our disposal that are the best practices in managing business process change (e.g., the swim lane diagram and activity worksheets). Use these tools for the areas the team has identified and implement the items where consensus is strong and commitment is stronger to eliminate the problem identified.

Reinforce Continuous Improvement

So, you’ve been able to get commitment on improving a handful of items. What now? Well, now the real work starts. You have to be a cheerleader, auditor, and re-evaluator. Change is hard for everyone, including the project manager. Not everyone will buy-in to the changes proposed and not everyone will adopt the new procedures readily. Once agreement to implement has been reached, among your many job functions in managing project and programs, you must also add to your responsibility the following:

  1. Encourage – you will get the naysayers and the rebels; however, you must continue to communicate the value of the change by reinforcing the negative result the team is trying to eliminate. As long as everyone is on the same page regarding the problem that needs solving, you can continue to influence behavior
  2. Highlight when things go right – as the project progresses, you must monitor progress and reinforce good efforts. It is always more effective to reinforce good behavior than discipline bad behavior. Consider the different ways in which the team members are motivated. You may have to reinforce differently for each team member.
  3. Open to changing regularly. No one said that the solution originally presented is perfect and that adjustments can’t be made. Just like with your projects, the idea is to attain the objectives of the project…not just to deliver to a list of requirements. If you want the change to be adopted and the benefits realized, you must be open to listening to team members and suggested adjustments. You have a couple options here. You either determine that the change is necessary and attempt to implement as you go, or maybe the suggestion is better suited for a subsequent project and should be added to a list of continuous improvement ideas.


Change is not easy–everyone can agree with that. Continuous improvement is necessary for organizations to succeed and our project management processes are no exception. Organizations that try to implement the PMBOK® Guide framework without consideration to the organizational needs and the specific “pain points” experienced within the actual projects will fail. Success is about navigating through an obstacle course of opportunities and answering the critical problems of the organization. The project manager, the PMO, and management must work together to identify the best areas for improvement with the biggest effect on project success.

Start with the would-be zealots; continue through lukewarm but susceptible types; forget your enemies until it becomes inevitable….then shower the heathen with kindness and welcome them belatedly into the fold. – Tom Peters


Collins, J., & Porras, J.I. (2002). Build to last, successful habits of visionary companies, New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great, why some companies make the leap and others don’t, New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Harmon, P. (2007). Business process change: A guide for business managers and BPM and Six Sigma Professionals, Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide—Fourth edition, Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2008). Organizational project management maturity model—Second edition, Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Peters, T. (1999). Reinventing work: The project 50, California: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

© 2011, Diane C. Altwies, PMP, MBA
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas/Ft Worth, TX



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