Project management practices in French organizations

a state of the art


The purpose of this study came from the discrepancy noticed between the current bodies of knowledge both American and European—describing what should be effective project management practices—and what we could observe in the real world during our participation in more than 100 projects in French organizations and in many different sectors. Furthermore, much of the literature in project management is written by field specialists and empirical studies are mainly achieved in sectors dedicated in projects with professionals. With the broadening of project management implementation in quite every sector of economical activity, it appears important to try to map what occurs in France in order to better knowing at what extent and how project management is used. So, we decided to conceive a database in order to better understand what happens really in both sectors, traditionally project-oriented and not, collecting information from project professionals and nonprofessionals. Like in other management fields, theorization doesn’t precede the companies’ practices but the contrary. For four years, with the help of our postgraduate program, we have administrated questionnaires, collecting information about the project’s concept understandings and basic parameters, project actors roles and organizational matters, project key factors of success, tools and methods used, and elements of project management culture embedding. Presently, we have collected 621 valid questionnaires corresponding to 1,621 projects. We are presenting here only the global results in four main dimensions showing the diversity of project management practices in France and the imperative necessity to better contextualize the way we consider the project management field.

Exhibit 1. Main Project Features Perceptions According to Functions

Main Project Features Perceptions According to Functions

How the Concept of Project Is Understood

According to a literature review (Leroy, 1994), the concept of a project is generally apprehended by listing its intrinsic characteristics. We selected the definition that seemed to us the most complete, the definition proposed by J. Rodney Turner (Turner, 1993, p. 8): An endeavour in which human, material and financial resources are organized in a novel way, to undertake a unique scope of work, of given specification, within constraints of cost and time, so as to achieve beneficial change defined by quantitative and qualitative objectives.

In order to know which characteristics are considered as the most important ones, we imposed among these 10 items the choice of three ones only. As we noticed in our experience the extreme confusion of project perceptions—certainly due to the polysemy of this concept (Boutinet, 1992)— we wanted to verify at what scale people could identify that “the essential features of a project are that it is a unique piece of work, undertaken using a novel organization to deliver beneficial change.”

Globally, we can notice that the uniqueness of the scope of work and of the project organization is not considered as fundamentals, the beneficial change getting a roughly moderate score also. The allocation of human, financial and material resources is pinpointed as the most important project feature but also considering the score of the “set of activities,” which managerial fact doesn’t encounter these two characteristics? Interesting is to see the very near score of quality, time and cost items that constitute the famous triangle of project control still deeply embedded in French project actors mentality.

Looking more precisely for these data, a general assumption can be proposed: it seems that the job function is playing a role of moderating variable to explain the diversity of project perceptions. For example, project leaders are well sensitized to cost and time constraints, project experts are aware of the uniqueness of the scope of work and project organization, people from logistics, quality or production enlighten the importance of quality specifications, people from human relations emphasize the beneficial change, etc. This will deserve further examination to test this hypothesis.

It’s also interesting to observe this ranking according to other variables. We did so with the private or public status of companies’ respondents. The main deviations are noticed for the cost, quality and performance characteristics that are notably less considered in public sector (respectively 8%, 8.5%, 10.1% vs.11.8%, 12.4%, 11.6%) to the benefit of profitable change (15.6% vs. 11.3%). We have also taken into consideration the difference of project perceptions between project-oriented companies or not. The same deviations are noticed for the cost, time characteristics but amplified (respectively 14.9% vs. 9%; 16.3% vs. 9.3%). But the position of quality constraint is in reverse order to the benefit of public companies (10.9% vs. 11.7%) certainly due to the preeminent technocratic culture of the French state-owned companies. At the opposite, the uniqueness of the project activities is better considered in project-oriented companies (7.1% vs. 5.7%) but the beneficial change generated by the project is better taken into account by the public sector companies (14.4% vs. 7.8%), similarly for the novelty of project organization (5.8% vs. 3.8%). The project perceptions ranking is not clearly discriminated by the variable “size of the manpower,” any project characteristic is correlated significantly with it.

Project Metrics

We have collected some basic information about the 1,621 projects performed by the respondents:

Project Duration

The global results indicate that 21.5% of the projects have an average duration inferior to six months, 51,5% with an average duration comprised between six months and two years, 27% with an average duration over two years. According to the nature of the projects, it’s not surprising to notice that infrastructure projects have the maximum duration (53% of projects over two years duration) followed by industrial engineering projects, information system projects, R&D projects and construction projects (respectively 34%, 34%, 33% & 31%).

Project Budget

Seventy-two percent of the projects have got a project inferior to 50 billions FF, 18.5% a budget comprised between 50 to 500 billions FF and 9.5% with a budget exceeding 500 billions FF. The latter are better represented in infrastructure projects (28%), in industrial engineering projects (23%), in construction projects (18%) and in new product or service projects (13%).

Number of External Projects

The sample is divided in five categories according to the number of external partners involved in the projects: none, one to five, six to ten, eleven to thirty and over thirty. The score obtained by each category gives respectively 14%, 42%, 15%, 15% and 14%. The latter category can be found more easily in infrastructure projects (31%), construction projects (24%), industrial engineering (23%), evolutionary maintenance projects (22%) and information system projects (13%).

Exhibit 2. Innovation Degree Between Two Successive Projects

Innovation Degree Between Two Successive Projects

Degree of Innovation Between Two Successive Projects of Same Nature

We introduce this variable because of its relative importance for many specific recommendations in project management contextualization. Four categories are distinguished: weak, mean, important and unknown. The global average score for each category gives respectively 14%, 37%, 42% and 7%. Much more interesting is to examine more precisely the results according to the nature of projects as it’s shown in Exhibit 2.

With this variable, the ranking is more original. R&D, quality and training projects participants consider that the innovation degree between two successive projects is important with respective scores of 65%, 58% and 50%.

Life Cycle

We used a very traditional four stages life cycle: initiation, design, execution, finalization and closeout. We questioned about the degree of relative importance (without defining criteria) they gave to each project phase. The average results show an interesting relation of proportionality between each phase, respectively 14%, 29%, 43% and 14%!

More precisely, the initiating stage is considered more important for communication, training, organization and management and closeout projects with respectively 19.7%, 17.5%, 16.7% and 16.1%. For the design stage, events, training, new product and service and R&D projects are more represented with a score quite equal to 32%. The execution stage is the kingdom of traditional external projects in construction, infrastructure, industrial engineering (respectively 54,4%, 50,9% & 50.2%), and also for quality projects (49.2%). Finally, it’s not so amazing to notice the ranking of maintenance, informatics and information system projects in the closeout phase which is often more problematic in such areas.

Turner and Cochrane's Project Typology

“Projects can be judged against two parameters: how well defined are the goals, and how well defined are the methods of achieving them” as suggested by Turner and Cochrane (1993, p. 93). We tried to give some statistical validation to this very suggestive typology. Every respondent is invited to map his or her projects on a goals-and-methods matrix directly on an exhibit included in the questionnaire. We represent in the following exhibits the results concerning four types of projects, considered by these authors like the archetypes in each of the four sectors of their matrix (industrial engineering, new product or service, research and development, information systems). Our results show the validity of Turner and Cochrane’s assumptions, clearly for industrial engineering projects and for R&D projects, but it is less evident for product development projects and for information systems projects. Exhibit 3 is conceived with a scale showing the relative density of the localization of the answers in proportion with the darkness of the areas, from the white one (0 to 2.5%) to the black one (over than 10%) with intermediate levels of gray every 2.5% more. Although we don’t have enough space to show all the results for the different types of projects, we can confirm the discriminating power of the two variables used by Turner and Cochrane.

Exhibit 3. Goals-and-Methods Matrix

Goals-and-Methods Matrix

What About the Key Success Factors?

We used the general frame of the famous “Ten-Factors Model” (Slevin & Pinto, 1988) but in a simple way asking for ordering the 10 factors from 1 to 10. An explanation of the meaning of every factor is given into the questionnaire in order to avoid misunderstandings. The general results indicate very clearly that project mission is considered like the most important success factor, followed by top management support and by client consultation (see Exhibit 4). Then are coming quite with the same score four factors: project schedule and plans, personnel, communication and monitoring and feedback. Client acceptance and troubleshooting are relatively less considered and the very backbench is for technical tasks.

Exhibit 4. Ordinal Ranking of Key Success Factors

Ordinal Ranking of Key Success Factors

Calculations were also realized in introducing filters such as job function of the respondent, size of his company, nature of the status of the company, project orientation of the company, degree of experience cumulated in internal or external project, degree of experience according to specific role played in projects, etc.

According to the status of the company, there are few differences between the respective ranking for private or public sector except for the personnel factor classified in fourth position in public sector and in sixth position for private one. Also for communication factor placed respectively in fifth vs. seventh position.

Any significant variance has been found between project-oriented companies or not.

At the contrary, significant is the variable “size of the company” for three factors essentially. “Client consultation” is set in first place by people working in very little companies (<10 employees) but always in third place for others companies of the sample. The “communication” factor is better appreciated by little companies: third for companies with less of 50 persons, fifth for companies with a manpower comprised between 50 and 500, seventh for companies over 500 employees.

Very interesting is to compare the ranking of success factors taking into consideration the job function of each respondent. In every situation, the “top management support” and “project mission” factors are fighting for the first place. “Client consultation” is quite always situated at the third place except for people taking care of human resources and of the production (5th). “Project schedule and plans” is a very unstable factor: second position for R&D people, seventh position for logistics and computer facility people, even eighth for human relations staff. The “Monitoring and feedback” factor is also relatively unsteady but it is privileged by people working as financial or human resources staff (4th) and by project management specialists, R&D and commercial employees (5th). The “Personnel” factor fluctuates from the fifth to the seventh place except for project management consultants (9th), computerists (8th) but got a brilliant third place for people of the production department. The “communication” factor is very unstable, varying generally from fourth to sixth place but obtained a third place by manpower staff people against a eighth place by the top management. The “troubleshooting” factor varies between the seventh and the ninth places except for logisticians (5th), top management and human relations staff (6th) and the last position for manufacturing people. “Client acceptance” has the same range of variation than the “troubleshooting” factor but it is placed in fourth position by computerists, in fifth one by top management, in sixth by project management consultants and a not so surprisingly tenth one by R&D employees. Finally, the “technical tasks” factor is always at the last rank except for production people who give it the seventh score.

Exhibit 5. Project Management Toolbox

Project Management Toolbox

Exhibit 6. Ways of Development of Project Management Culture

Ways of Development of Project Management Culture

Nonetheless, these preliminary results deserve further investigations in order to determine precisely which kind of variables are the most influent to determine success factors ranking by the respondents.

Project Management Toolbox

The respondents were invited to precise in a closed list of project management tools and methods whether these are unknown to them, known but not used, used at least once or systematically used. The global results are shown in Exhibit 5.

Although we don’t have space enough to discuss the results here, our first investigations show a very important role from the job function to explain the diversity of the real use of the project management toolbox. A preliminary hypothesis is that taking account to the more recent diffusion of project management methods in France, the only emerging process of professional certification, the extreme variety of our sample, people import in the project where they are involved the tools they already know. This can partly explain the relative poor score obtained by traditional project control tools. No doubt that the use of specific tools is largely influenced by the particular way project management culture is implemented and fueled in each organization. This is another interesting study to perform in the future taking into account another type of data collected about project management culture.

Which Ways to Develop a Project Management Culture?

Except an open question to complete the internal project management landscape, eight dimensions have been proposed in the questionnaire to characterize the project management culture: use of specialized software, specific training programs, project management initiation program, formalization of projects roles, formalization of project documents, specific internal manual in project management, use of specialized consultants, think tank. The general results for the sample are shown in Exhibit 6.

Exploring more precisely the findings we can say that the use of a specific manual in project management, the formalization of project roles are clearly in growing proportion with the size of the company. The very big companies are the champions of training programs in project management (57%). The sector public—although it is composed mainly of very big firms—seems to be more active in comparison with the private sector: respectively 57% vs. 40% for training program, 49% vs. 33% for project management initiation and for the formalization of the project roles, 42% vs. 30%. Evidently, the variable “project oriented company or department” is very discriminative: 67% of project oriented companies use specialized software against 42%, 34% have a specific manual vs. 26%, 56% develop training program vs. 39%, 48% formalize the project documents vs. 34%. Surprisingly, whether companies are project oriented or not, there are only 30% to animate a think tank in project management!


Undoubtedly, although the survey results presented here are in a preliminary stage and consequently very general, these statistical information leads to repeat the absolute necessity to more contextualize our knowledge in project management and to attempt to reinforce the external validity of project management research. This database in project management has already the sufficient size to offer a good overview of project management in France. The same questionnaire is going to be administrated in Quebec and international comparison could be realized. A benchmarking service on a web site will be proposed to French companies in the same spirit of Slevin and Pinto’s “Project implementation profile” and will permit to continually fuel the database. The following step should be to use it as an analysis tool to verify the pertinence of causal hypotheses, there are numerous as this paper suggest.

Leroy, Daniel. (1994). Impact et fondements du management par projets. PhD thesis, Université des Sciences et Technologies de Lille.

Turner, Rodney J. (1993). The handbook of project-based management. England: McGraw-Hill.

Boutinet, J.P. (1992). Anthropologie du projet. Presses Universitaires de France, 2nd edition, Paris.

Turner J.R., & Cochrane, R.A. (1993, May). Ill defined goals and/or methods of achieving them. International Journal of Project Management 11 (2), 93–102.

Slevin D.P., & Pinto J.K. (1988). Project success: Definitions and measurement techniques. Project Management Journal 19 (3), 67–73.

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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000



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