Dimensions for project success enabled by the sponsor-P³M relationship

Michael A. Sheppeck, University of St. Thomas

Abstract

The PMBOK® Guide – 4th Edition defines core process groups and knowledge areas without stating the value project sponsors and project managers place on these elements for successful project outcomes. There is an implicit assumption that all project management processes carry equal weight in producing successful project outcomes. This study does not deny the importance of the process standards and process areas but shows that practitioner experiences demonstrate clusters of project management description processes (PMDP) are defined and utilized differently as they relate to successful project outcomes. The purpose of this study is to define which project management skills defined by the Project Management Institute are perceived as more directly related to project success through the relationship and influences between the project manager and her or his sponsor. This study looks at PMDP through the lens of project sponsor reliance on the project manager to manage these processes.

Keywords: dimensions; manager; project; relationship; sponsor

In more than 20 years of teaching program and project managers, a common practitioner question emerged: What are the key factors of project success? In teaching the PMI methodology, two similar questions are frequently posed: Are the project management description processes relevant to project success? If so, which ones have a greater influence on successful project completion?

We are interested in understanding which of the project management description processes sponsors referentially rely on the project manager to execute in order to achieve project success. Anecdotal evidence points to the relationship between the sponsor and project manager as the greatest contributing factor. Our informal surveys of randomly selected practitioner students support that assumption. Further, students commented that all process areas are not equally important. This study formally looks into this aspect of success. We used a grounded theory approach to develop a survey using the accepted 42 project management description processes, plus two additional processes defined by the researchers, as our independent variables. The Likert scoring process was used with a scale of 1 (always), 3 (sometimes), and 5 (never) for each of these questions.

Relationship of Sponsor and Project Manager Literature Review

Literature primarily looks at the principle-agent relationship from either the sponsor's role or the project manager's role. Very little literature examines the impact that the dynamic of the relationship has on project success as the project manager and sponsor jointly execute specific project management description processes (PMDP). This study involved more than 250 random participants who self-identified as project managers based on their titles and roles in their respective organizations. The data concludes most participants are not certified as project managers. Rather, they self-identified as professionals practicing project management (P3M) who call themselves project managers. We are designating these P3M as equivalence to a project manager. However, this distinction is significant and should be the basis of a follow-on study.

Autonomy

Agency theory Eisenhardt (1989) suggested that project managers may have significant success in project outcome if they understand their role in the organizational structure. The project manager should seek competence through his or her sponsor narrative of success rather than seeking an equivalence in autonomy (Gemünden, Salomo, & Kreiger, 2005).

Project organizations usually do not have (full) autonomy to define their goals. The definition of project goals (and therefore success) is usually the right of the project owner (sponsor).

Though Gemüden stated that giving a project manager more authority will likely have a positive impact on successful project outcome, he acknowledged authority is controlled by the sponsor's perception of what is necessary and sufficient to achieve the intended project outcomes. Resource autonomy for the project manager is limited to the sponsor's willingness to incur expenses and control necessary for completing project deliverables. Therefore, the PMDP that comprise project leadership may be subsumed to the sponsor's perception of appropriate and useful on a given project.

When the project manager uses processes accepted as delivering project success by the sponsoring community, a trust is developed (Turner & Müller, 2004). The project manager's actions are considered rational (Simon, 1957). However, using project processes that seem the purview of the leadership team (extensive cost/benefit, procurement analysis) may cause leadership to stop engaging the project manager in complex, in-depth dialogue. Project managers may end up with a weak understanding of expected project outcomes and/or objectives (Turner & Müller, 2004) in projects where strong collaboration on objectives and outcome are necessary for high performance. Our data shows that most project managers do not perceive efforts such as earned value analysis as necessary to producing effective or successful project outcomes. Further, access restrictions on cost rates required for analyses such as SPI and CPI may be centered in the notion that cost is a management function not a project manager function. Allowing project managers access to data that defines or suggests personnel compensation is not acceptable in all leadership communities. The project community avoids this question of trust by using combined rates that mask true cost impacts and may yield misguiding interpolation of data.

If the sponsor has legitimate claim to the project and the power to influence the project outcome (Achterkamp & Vos, 2007) then the project manager should correspondingly work within the sponsor's framework of project success because the project manager as an agent cannot control the meaning of success. However, the project manager can execute a level of process success through his or her competence in directing the PMDP. Expert process control on the part of the project manager can lead to a misunderstanding of roles between the project manager and sponsor. Unless addressed properly, the project community may bypass the sponsor and go directly to the project manager for confirmation and direction.

Negotiation (PMI, 2008, p. 413) is not defined as a process description. Yet, this skill is crucial in order for project managers and sponsors to engage in healthy discussion on what constitutes project success. The project manager will be charged to execute underlying project management description processes on behalf of the sponsor. Understanding the underlying project network structures (network insights) will help the project manager guide sponsor comprehension of project process success (de Wit, 1988). When the sponsor does not collaborate with the project manager on process and outcomes, moral hazards can produce two different scenarios of project success (Turner &Müller, 2004).

Our data suggest that project managers perceive there are clear dimensions around project success on which project manager and sponsors readily agree. These dimensions comprise 33 of the 42 PMDPs in the PMBOK® Guide – 4th edition.

There must be effective communication between the sponsor and project manager. Effective communication enables dialogue that allows ethical and competency trust (Turner & Müller, 2004). The communications plan enables the project leadership team to share a strong understanding of project objectives. Stakeholder interests are also defined through the communication-related PMDPs. Communications aid in controlling risk mitigation strategies ensuring fewer surprises for the sponsor and creating political currency between the sponsor and project manager. The project manager can dispense the political currency in ways that allow him or her to speak in the voice of the sponsor. Project managers should carefully comprehend the sponsor's needs and wants and have the skills to deliver information in a manner that is well received by the stakeholder community. Project success is impacted by the sponsor communities' timely awareness of what is happening in the project.

Table 1: Transformational Process between Sponsor and Project Manager

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Sponsor Role

Achterkamp and Vos (2008, see also Table 1) summarized the literature around project sponsor roles. We have summarized their findings into a transformational process, which is not complete but reflects their findings. The process clearly shows that project success is the domain of the sponsoring community. The project manager must maintain control of the project in order to effectively manage the sponsor-project manager relationship (McLaughlin, 1999). However, the sponsor has the power to influence decision-making and identify stakeholders who will assist in successful project outcomes (Schwalbe, 2006). The project sponsor is the interface between project ownership and project organization, acting as the focal point for day-to-day client or senior management team (SMT) issues (Bryde, 2008). The sponsor looks inward to ensure the project manager and the project team have the proper support to complete their deliverables. The sponsor also stays alert, continually assessing whether the project manager and team are able to execute the process descriptions proficiently. Though the sponsor is thought to own the project (Kloppenborg, Manolis, & Tesch, 2009) the sponsor may not have the process skills to deliver the desired outcome. The sponsor is an executive who manages the financial or business case expectations while linking those activities to the outputs and outcomes of the organization's strategic success (Turner & Müller, 2007).

Project Manager Role

For a successful project outcome, the project manager cannot have hidden agendas and should put the needs of the sponsor first (Applebaum, Steed, 2005). Negative behaviors do not endear the project manager to senior management and set a path for project failure. A project manager must manage customer expectations and requirements (Ireland, 1991) and not wait on customers to state their expectation. The project manager must know what constitutes a good job (Lewis, 2008) and how to achieve the deliverables without sacrificing quality. Project teams and organizations depend on the project manager to guide them through the phases of a project life cycle. Project managers are expected to lead the organization through the procedures and methodologies that enable a successful project outcome. As the sponsor's surrogate, the project manager protects and advances the project process while the sponsor travels in decision-making communities working on resource and risk mitigation strategies.

The project manager must use the skills of listening, analyzing, reporting, leading, and negotiating to influence other stakeholders and their followers. The purpose is to conserve assets, not misappropriate them, so that the firm can achieve a competitive posture. The project manager acts as the project entrepreneur (Pinchot, 1982) optimizing efforts within the constraints defined in the project charter and scope. Our analysis shows that project managers narrow the PMDPs and focus on process and project outcomes to produce efficient project methods and satisfy stakeholder expectations. We will concentrate on the project management description processes that practitioners claim are most important for creating a successful termination of projects.

Standards

According to Crawford (2005), project competence based on project standards does not necessarily define project success. This view asserts that organizational performance may not be based on successful execution of standards. The study purports that standards competence does not lead to perceived workplace effectiveness; it may very well lead to perceived incompetence of the project manager. Crawford strongly suggested that encroachment of the general manager's activities such as strategy, project communications, and other leadership functions should be avoided by project personnel. Crawford's study does not clearly define whether the role provided by project managers is purely dialectical or polemic in nature between the project community and the organizational leadership. We think the role project managers play must be dialectical, that is, having a common basis between the project manager and the sponsoring communities. If project managers act in a polemic fashion, they may induce an inadvertent power dynamic that puts them on par with the sponsoring communities. This form of competence through expert power (French & Raven, 1959) may threaten the leadership who might perceive one more hurdle to overcome. Rather than the project manager becoming a source of knowledge thereby reducing drag on leadership upward mobility through project success, the project manager becomes the issue, slowing project success.

Though Crawford (2005) found a significant difference between the knowledge and practices valued by project managers and SMT, our study focuses on the convergence of practices both communities find essential to project success. For instance, we find that project manager procurement knowledge was not a major factor for project success, yet scope management and resource scenarios assessment skills are considered necessary. The contrary outcomes could be ascribed to the differences in sample populations. Our study is purely a US sample while Crawford's study was predominately European. Further analysis is needed to determine if the data demographics drive this difference.

The Dimensions

The analysis concludes that there are six dimensions for project success. The data also concludes that practitioners value one dimension over another. The dimensions, in order of those having the most influence on project success based on preferences between sponsors and project manager, are:

  1. Project leadership and development
  2. Resource alignment
  3. Scope management
  4. Network insight
  5. Change management
  6. Process deliverables

Project Leadership

Much of the literature focuses on the role the project manager exercises to lead and develop the team. It is necessary for the project leader to convince the sponsor and project team that he or she has control of the processes and project deliverables. Additionally, project managers must learn to bargain, influence, and negotiate amongst all stakeholders because they may not possess the power to directly demand team participation (Sense, 2003). Project managers do not have the luxury of turning their backs to organizational politics (Pinto, 1996). Making sure the team is working on the right project description requires gently prodding of all stakeholders to define a clear problem definition (Appendix B). Because proper project descriptions yield a better work breakdown structure (WBS), it requires the project manager to create an environment where challenges are welcomed and managed to avoid project paralysis. Letting team expert power, individual personal power, referent relations, and legitimate roles churn while avoiding coercive power (French & Raven, 1959) will tax a project manager's leadership capability to produce an effective decision-making environment. The project manager must also understand the proper method of disseminating information to all stakeholders in the project process. Ineffective or poorly timed information can diminish the project manager's legitimacy or value. Information is perishable and timely consumption allows stakeholders to make relevant and useful decisions.

Resource Alignment

Understanding the underlining resource issues is essential for the project manager who enters into a contract with the sponsor (Jensen, 2000) in order to understand the strength, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities of resource analysis. There is a cost/benefit process that maximizes transaction cost (Turner & Müller, 2005) for the best resource distribution process that should be conducted by the project manager to meet the sponsor's project outcome scenario. The project manager must extract the resource allocation impacts embedded in management reports such as the quality initiative, procurement plan, various design, and marketing specification documents plus other functional reports. With the profound knowledge of the resource requirements (Deming, 1986) the project manager can suggest to the sponsor the proper course of prioritizing resources to achieve the best possible project outcome. Based on knowledge of organizational issues (Turner & Müller, 2005), which may be political or contractual, the sponsor may elect different priorities in which case the resource alignment solution may not seem optimal to the project manager. In those situations, the sponsor should make every effort to inform the project manager on the rationale for the discrepancy so that the project manager does not create a separate agenda in order to “save face” because the outcome may not be clear to the project team.

Scope Management

Through scope management the project manager ensures only the needed information and resources are used to achieve a successful project outcome (PMI, 2008). Completing a successful project description analysis (Appendix 2) will drive a clearer understanding of the problem being resolved. Understanding the key elements that inform the project need or opportunity will allow the project manager more insight into stakeholders wants, organizational issues, approaches to project execution, and preliminary project requirements. This greater insight will help frame a better project description yielding a more effective statement of work and scope document. Project managers and sponsors should spend an appropriate amount of time working on a clear understanding of the project description. With a unified voice on the problem the sponsor, project manager partnership can avoid the moral hazard (Turner & Müller, 2005) of the project manager driving resources away from the sponsor's intent willfully or unintended.

Managing a scope management plan the project manager can mitigate scope creep reducing the impact of out-of-control cost and schedule impacts. A sound scope sign-off process will also reduce the risk of poor project definition and ineffective project initiation. The scope process sets a level playing field for all stakeholders. This process engages communication among project managers and sponsors allowing them ample time to set the project on the right trajectory.

Change

This set of PMDPs seemed like an odd coupling. The process of change control enable the sponsor and project manager to control frivolous and unintended changes to resources, durations, and expectations. Change control even with thresholds gives project managers and stakeholders some autonomy and acts as a mechanism to keep all participants in the project aware of overt and covert agendas. Change control as a process aids communications between internal and external stakeholders ensuring requests for changes are managed proficiently.

Change control is not, however, change management (Appendix C), which consists of the stages of acceptance predicated on a change. For a project to move smoothly, the sponsor and project managers must understand that people do not come to a project with the same agendas and needs. Many in these turbulent times lament stability and desire consistency. The rapid introduction of change can create eddies in project teams and strain the relationship between the sponsor and project manager. Handling project changes through change control can unleash a torrent of changes into the organization and produce project bottlenecks due to fear and a sense of being overwhelmed. The project sponsor and manager should keep their senses open and remain aware of the project emotional environment. A lack of acceptance to changes could be a trigger communicating to project managers that there is too much instability in the project design or scope. Frustrations poorly managed can lead to less than desirable project outcomes.

Network Insight

Many projects appear to be managed well, yet still come in over budget, time, and scope. Creating a usable WBS requires knowledge of the underlining process being managed by a project. Using the decision-making tools to understand the project description, the project manager can work in concert with the sponsor to deconstruct the sublevels and work packages necessary for creating a meaningful schedule.

Too many project managers use tools such as a scheduling program without the competence needed to have the tool produce useful data. This lack of tool competence renders many schedules to glorified wall art. Just the comprehension of the value PERT may have over CPM for predicting outcomes induces risk into the project status processes. Many project managers, certified or not, simply string together tasks in a finish-to-start construct without looking at other types of dependencies, constraints, and resource calendar combinations that will reduce the project time and sensitivity. Gantt charts and plan variance analysis are marginally useful without the project manager having a rich understanding of the network construction of the activities and resources. Here the sponsor is more at risk depending on the project manager's insight into the logic of the project network. Few, if any, will have the intimacy of comprehension of the in and outs of the project logic as the project manager who sits at the synapses of the task resources and expectations. Poor comprehension of the project internal mechanisms can send decision- makers, especially sponsors in the wrong direction leading them to make false choices.

The process descriptions in the network insight dimension are poorly understood by other project members and can engender fear in others who look at split tasks, delays, critical paths, slack, utilizations, resource calendars, and other components of successful project charting as a mystic art. The project manager will need a competent capability to comprehend the network and a skill for communicating the analysis to the stakeholder community without generating fear.

Process Deliverables

The sponsor and project manager must define what procedures and reports will be appropriate for the project. Lessons learned are dependent upon what will be collected and used during the project cycle. To determine if senior management is an asset or a hindrance, a feasibility analysis should be built into the project process. If the sponsor and/or project manager did their jobs admirably but the project did not deliver on time, without a process or report that specifically allows the question of poor leadership to be raised, the socio-cultural dynamics may not allow the answer to see the light of day.

Tools like the project charter prevent team members from incurring cost when project has not been authorized. Stakeholder analysis unearths unknown participants and defines what is necessary to satisfy the project communities' information needs. These needs can lead to risk defined in prior historical plans. When the risks are surfaced they can be captured by the risk management process and strategies can be created to avoid, mitigate, transfer, or accept the risk

If the sponsor and project manager set up the right process and enable the right data, the organization can achieve great wealth in improvements through a robust lessons-learned process. The assets that have been squandered can be transformed into growth and reward strategies that encourage others to do their best to produce a successful project outcome.

Research Method

Our first step to reduce the number of PMDPs from 44 to 32 was to take 90 randomized volunteers in three non-graded professional project management classes and give them the survey, which consisted of all the PMDPs. We asked them to state which processes they use to create a successful project outcome. To our surprise, there were 12 processes that almost no one defined as necessary for project success. We presented the students with the results to see if understanding the analysis would cause them to change their inputs. There was, again, almost unanimous agreement that these 12 processes were not significant in determining a successful project. When pushed for explanation, elements like quality, earned value, project costing, and contract management were deemed the province of functional or program manager, not project managers. The years in project experience ranged from two to 35 years. The median was around 15 years. This outcome should be the basis of a follow-on study.

Our second step was to take the remaining 32 items and, using a Likert scale of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”, subject them to a principal components factor analysis with a varimax rotation using Kaiser normalization as the cutoff method. This solution produced eight factors with 60.73% of the variance explained by the solution. Table 1 shows the components, eigenvalues and percent of variance accounted for by each factor.

Internal Consistency Reliability Analyses

The final set of dimensions was arrived at by reviewing the output of the factor analysis and qualitatively moving items to new dimensions based on the senior author's experience with these project management behaviors. In addition, four of the original factors were combined into two separate dimensions to reflect a more coherent solution. The final set of dimensions and their Cronbach alphas are shown in Table 2. In all cases the dimensions had internal consistency reliabilities of .72 or higher.

Table 2: Factor Analysis Solution

Component Eigenvalue % of Variance
1 9.06 28.31
2 2.34 7.30
3 1.79 5.58
4 1.39 4.35
5 1.35 4.22
6 1.29 4.03

Table 3: Final Dimensions and Cronbach Alphas

Dimension # Title and Items Cronbach Alpha
1

  Team Leadership and Development

Power and influence

Project leadership

Team management

Team development

Information distribution

Problem definition

Decision-making process

.77
2

  Project Deliverables

Risk management plan

Project plan

Lesson learned

Document management

Project charter

Stakeholder analysis

Feasibility analysis

Historical review

.74
3

  Resource Alignment

Resource allocation

Other management reports

Resource redistribution

Prioritizing projects

SWOT

.72
4

  Scope Management

Scope Management

Scope document

Project description

Scope management plan

Scope sign-off

Statement of work

.75
5

  Change

Change control

Change management

.77
6

  Network Insight

CPM/Pert

Gantt

Plan variance

WBS

Project schedule

.72

Implications of Study

The study indicates that not all of the PMDPs are viewed by practitioners as necessary for project success. Project managers and sponsors perceive that 32 processes do matter for project success. The project management description processes can be clustered into dimensions that are useful in explaining the key activities project managers can execute within the vision of the sponsor's authority. In order to be successful at project delivery, project managers must communicate effectively with their sponsors who most likely are senior managers (Turner & Müller, 2005). Our analysis suggests dimensions that can be categorized as having the nature of process outcome versus project outcome. This will be the basis of a follow-on study. The population of project managers was from the United States and comparison studies might suggest a different alignment of dimensions.

Lastly, we think it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which the PMDPs removed in our first analysis line up with the areas most people fail on the PMP exam.

References

Achterkamp, Marjolein C., & Vos, Janita F. J. (2008). Investigating the use of the stakeholder notion in project management literature, a meta-analysis. International Journal of Project Management, 26(7), 749-757.

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de Wit, Anton. (1988). Measurement of project success. International Journal of Project Management, 6(3), 164-170.

Deming, W. Edwards. (1986). Out of the crisis. MIT Press.

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Jensen, Michael C. (2000). Theory of the firm: Governance, residual claims, and organizational forms. Harvard University Press.

Kloppenborg, Timothy J., & Baucus, Melissa S. (2004). Project management in local nonprofit organizations: Engaging students in problem-based learning. Journal of Management Education, 28(5), 610-629.

Kloppenborg, Timothy J., Manolis, Chris, & Tesch, Debbie. (2009). Successful project sponsor behaviors during project initiation: An empirical investigation. Journal of Managerial Issues, XX1(1), 140-159.

McLaughlin, R. (1999). Factors for consulting engagement success. Management Decision, 37, 394-404.

Pollack, Julien. (2007). The changing paradigms of project management. International Journal of Project Management, 25(3), 266-274.

Project Management Institute (PMI). (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Sense, Andrew. (2003). A model of the politics of project leader learning. International Journal of Project Management, 21(2), 107-114.

Schwalbe, K. (2006). “Information technology project management. Cambridge MA: Thomson Course Technology.

Turner, J. Rodney, & Müller, Ralf. (2004). Communication and co-operation on projects between the project owner as principal and the project manager as agent. European Management Journal, 22(3), 327-336.

Turner, J. Rodney, & Müller, Ralf. (2005). The impact of principal-agent relationship and contract type on communication between project owner and manager. International Journal of Project Management, 23(5), 398-403.

Turner, Rodney, & Müller, Ralf. (2007). The influence of project managers on projects success criteria and project success by type of project. European Management Journal, 25(4), 298-309.

Appendix A (Owens, 2009)

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Appendix B (Owens, 2007)

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Appendix C (Unknown)

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