Project Management Institute

Selling project management to senior executives

preliminary phase II findings

Janice Thomas, Ph.D., M.B.A, B.Sc, Athabasca University
Connie L. Delisle, Ph.D., M.Sc, B.A, B.Ed, University of Calgary
Kam Jugdev, PhD Student, PMP, M.Eng, M.H.S.A., B.Sc, B.Sc, University of Calgary
Pamela Buckle, Ph.D. Student, M.B.A, B.A, University of Calgary

In 1999, the Project Management Institute (PMI®) partially funded a three-year external research study on this important topic. Phase I of the study consisted of a series of interviews with executives, consultants and project managers and confirmed that project management is purchased or paid attention to in times of crises (project failures and problems). The preliminary findings were built upon to conduct the Phase II large-scale Internet survey described in this paper.

In a recent survey (Toney 1997), four problem areas within the discipline of project management were identified as:

1. Measuring the results of project management

2. Methodology issues

3. Promoting project management benefits

4. Personnel related issues (e.g., salaries, predicting individual performance, measuring training results, recruitment).

Work on project management maturity models attempts to address the first two points and human resources departments and managers working within corporations continue to address the fourth. The third issue is intriguing as it is an ongoing challenge for practitioners and consultants alike to effectively communicate the value of project management to executives. This research study set out to investigate this multifaceted puzzle, specifically: “What is the perceived value of project management?”“What sales strategies are most effective (and which ones are not)?”

For the purposes of this study, project management is operationally defined as the disciplines, methodologies, processes and standards applied to managing projects in the workplace. The construct of selling is defined as promoting and advocating project management to executives in an organized manner.

Study Significance

Although project management is perceived to have value in areas of improving operational efficiency and contributing to a firm's competitive advantage, the perceptions of its organizational benefits are not always aligned between executives who may buy or invest in the services, practitioners who apply the discipline, and consultants involved in selling it. Executives are focused on business goals, results and outcomes from projects, while practitioners and consultants tend to focus on the tactics of tools and techniques. The emphasis on different values of project management that the other party may not supports earlier work (Thomas 2000) that suggests there are substantial language barriers in project management, and considerable difficulty in developing a, shared understanding and appreciation.

The results of our Phase I study addressed the question of “Why project management is difficult to sell to executives?” by exploring how it is sold in organizations. Our results indicated that project management remains a tough sell for reasons that relate to the cognitive gaps between sellers and purchasers:

• When project management is purchased during times of crises (tactical buying vs. strategic buying), practitioners lose credibility, as management may view them as being responsible for project failures (Thomas, Delisle, Jugdev, & Buckle 2001a)

• Practitioners do not necessarily view “selling project management” as one of their roles

• Project management is generally perceived to have tactical value

• Sellers do not convincingly connect project management to business strategy, relegating it to the operational level of concerns that do not interest senior executives.

Project management is a growing discipline practiced in a challenging, competitive marketplace. It is “one of a few critically enabling strategies for strengthening a competitive marketplace posture” (Bounds 1998, p. 41). The issue of selling project management to executives is significant as successful project management involves senior management support, both financially and in managerial terms, and achieving support for the discipline enables firms to improve their competitive advantage (Belassi & Tukel 1996; Pinto & Slevin 1987; Shenhar, Levy, & Dvir 1997).

Considerable research has been done in marketing and a common theme is to present the service/product in a practical manner that speaks to the issues of the purchaser. The literature provides basic tenets of marketing that includes: developing rapport, meeting with the decision-makers and having credibility (Gardner & Bistritz 1998; Gardner, Bistritz, & Klompmaker 1996; Heinrichs 2000; King 1994, 1996; Marchetti 1997; OnTarget 1999; Price 1999; Weitz & Bradford 1999).Few have related these concepts specifically to project management (Block 1991, 1992; Thomas et al. 2001a; Thomas, Delisle, Jugdev, & Buckle 2001b). In addition, the strategy development literature does not address project management, supporting the premise that it is generally considered a tactical construct and not one that executives currently deem to be strategically valuable.

The objective of this survey was to collect data for statistical generalizability purposes to analyze the interaction of these concepts in the selling of project management.

Study Variables

In order to accomplish this goal, the dependent variable of executive support as an indirect measure of “buying project management” will be assessed in the context of such interdependent independent variables as:

Project management maturity (PMM) level: PMM models are not presently theory-based but they do assess processes, practices and outcomes related to the effective use of the discipline. Most of the models involve five linear stages of practice maturity: Level 1 (initial), Level 2 (repeatable), Level 3 (defined), Level 4 (managed) and Level 5 (optimized). The PMM models are based on the Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Models (CMM) (SEI 2001). We theorize that the level of PMM is related to executive interest and support for the discipline.

Seller credibility: Considerable marketing literature on selling services and management literature on presenting issues to management discusses how important it is for sellers to be perceived of as credible. We theorize that this is an important construct in being able to gain executive attention to project management (Bistritz, Gardner, Klompmaker, & Plunkett 1999; Block 1991, 1992; Duntton, Ashford, O‘Neill, & Lawrence 2000; Dutton & Ashford 1993; Dutton & Webster 1988; Gardner et al. 1998; Gardner et al. 1996).

Initiation and packaging strategies: Executive attention to project management is related to who brings it to their attention, the credibility they have and how it is presented (Dutton et al. 1994).

Packaging processes: Executive attention to project management is related to how it is framed (wording, emotional content).

Selling process: Executive attention to project management is related to the selling process e.g. who is involved, public or private channels, degree of formality (Dutton et al. 1993).

Research Design

The results from Phase I were systematically analyzed for patterns and themes using ATLAS.ti software. This enabled us to identify the independent variables for this study. We then developed a survey instrument using a combination of Phase I findings and drawing from the current literature.

The instrument was pretested for validity and reliability with a panel of academic colleagues and practitioners. The instrument consisted of a 105-item questionnaire using Likert scales including demographic and open-ended questions. A five-point Likert scale was used and the anchors were “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree.” The intermediate choices were “somewhat agree,” “somewhat disagree,” and “neither.” Instrument validity was strengthened through the pilot testing and by having all four researchers independently review the survey on multiple occasions. Criterion validity was addressed as we used groups of items (survey questions) to reflect the key constructs (independent variables) instead of single ones. Content validity was addressed through a use of the literature review to identify the constructs and through the pilot with academics to solicit their judgments. We have a large enough sample size to use a split half technique to test for internal consistency (Cooper & Emory 1995).

A company experienced with conducting international online surveys was used. SurveySite's™ role was to administer the survey so that aspects of email address confidentiality and participant anonymity were maintained. It also provided preliminary frequency reports and the data in an Excel spreadsheet format that we imported into SPSS. We used SPSS software for initial statistical analysis purposes for the purposes of this paper, and will be using AMOS™ software for the SEM analysis.

Full ethical approval was obtained from the University of Calgary and Athabasca University. The informed consent process involved a letter to participants before they began the survey; respondents were able to print a copy of the letter for their records if they chose to do so.

To capture sufficient data to allow for analysis of a number of uncontrolled variables that may interact unpredictably and to divide the sample into several subsamples for comparison purposes (Hill 1998), we decided to use an email-based survey and are aware that it can result in low response rates. Current literature indicates that there is no consensus on what an acceptable response rate for Internet survey research designs. Reports vary from 5% to 70% with the lower number more common in attempts to generalize to wide population categories and the 70% more commonly reported in within company surveys. For statistical analysis purposes, even when seven different formulae are used, an acceptable sample size can range from 35–400 respondents. The only consistency in the literature is the variation (Hill 1998). We will be careful to compare our sample demographics to the demographics of the mailing lists we used to identify potential nonresponse biases.

The sampling frame for the study was a combination of convenience, purposive and random sampling from the following associations as they represented project management personnel at the practitioner, consultant and executive levels: PMI™, ESI-International, Computers in Information Processing Society, Professional Engineers of Ontario, CIO, and Athabasca University's executive MBAs. CIPS provided us one time access to its entire mailing list and the rest of the organizations used a random number generator to provide us with a subset of randomly selected members; PEO only posted the survey on their website. CIPS, ESI and PMI used a combination of survey mail outs and URL postings. The range of organizations involved in our sampling frame allows us to make generalizations mainly to North American project management and the information technology industry involved in the discipline. We also tracked the number of emails that bounced to adjust the sampling frame number.

Table 1. Response Rates by Organization

E-mails sent 7,577 8,900 20,000 3,177 Website 1,200 40,854
Bounce back1
6,440 7,565 17,000 2,700 NA 1,020 34,726
Responses 812 450 298 173 0 104 1,838
Response rate 10.7% 5.1% 1.5% 5.4% 0% 8.7% 4.5%
Rate Minus
Bounce back
12.6% 5.9% 1.8% 6.4% 0% 10.2% 5.3%

1 We are still in the process of collecting and calculating this number. We are using an estimate of 15% given us by one of the mailing lists and consistent with other similar studies for the time being.

The survey was conducted from March 15–April 16, 2001. In total, we sent out 40,854 emails. However, due to the changing nature of email addresses we received a mail rejection rate of approximately 15% so the delivered email invitations would be approximately 35,000. Of these, 3,093 respondents accessed the survey for a response rate of 8.8%. A fair number of these respondents eliminated themselves from further data collection by identifying their role in the company as nonproject related. Thus, we collected 1,838 usable surveys for a response rate of 5.3 % overall. Response rates by organization are depicted in Table 1.

[Please note that we are still collecting data at the time this paper is being written. None of the statistics should be taken as final at this point. Further data cleaning and analysis may alter the numbers.]

[We are still in the process of collecting and calculating this number. We are using an estimate of 15% given us by one of the mailing lists and consistent with other similar studies for the time being.]

Sample Demographics

• In total we collected 3,093 responses. Of those, 1,838 categorized themselves into groups we wished to examine: as Project Personnel (53.5%), Consultants (26.0%), and Executives (20.5%). Of the respondents, 70.3% were male, 58.3% are between 36 and 50, and almost half (47%) of the respondents have over 10 years of project management experience. This is a highly educated group—75.7% had some university education and 48.6% had some post graduate education. However, when we look at project management education we find that 54.7% report taking individual project management courses and 8.2% report having taken no project management education at all. More than half (52.1%) the respondents report belonging to a professional Project Management association and almost 20% report holding a professional Project Management Certificate. Almost 30% report working for a company that reported more than 1B USD in sales in 2000. We appear to have respondents from every industrial sector with the largest representation in Consulting (16.6%), Information Technology (15.7%), Government (9.1%), Telecommunications (6.3%), and Manufacturing (5.3%). By far the majority is from Canada (34.6%) and the United States (54.2%). The next two largest countries represented were the United Kingdom and Australia at 1.3%.

Our next step will be to compare these demographics to the organization's demographics to get a good idea of how representative it is for each group. However, we are pleased with the make up of the sample and feel that it will provide the most representative answers we have to-date on these questions.

Result Highlights

Due to some delays in accessing email lists and in getting the technology in place, at the time of this paper we only have high-level frequency statistics to report. For the purposes of this paper, we provide some of the highlights of the results for consideration. More results will be highlighted in the presentation.

The following highlights our respondent's perceptions of the role of, and support for project management in today's organizations. Although it is early to project this, there appears to be strong support in these results for the model that we developed in the Phase I qualitative study.

• 71.1% agreed that the selling issue is an important one for their organizations (33.4% somewhat agreed, 37.7% strongly agreed).

• 45% somewhat or strongly agreed (12.4%) that selling project management was difficult to do within their organizations. At the same time, 39.5% somewhat disagreed and 11.3% strongly disagreed with this statement.

• 58.6% somewhat agreed that Project management is used in times of crises and 16.7% strongly agreed.

• Only 3% of 1,838 respondents strongly agreed “that project are consistently completed on schedule and on budget.”

• Many respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that project management contributed to improving both the financial success (67%) and the non financial success (70%) of the organization

• Just over 70% of respondents in their study strongly agreed that project management enhanced customer satisfaction.

• At the same time, only 53% of respondents (23% strongly agreed, 30% somewhat agreed) in the equal importance of the soft and hard side of project management. The concept of the Accidental Project Manager is well supported in this survey. 60.2 % of respondents agreed that the title project manager is usually not accompanied by increased pay or recognition while 57.8% agreed that little or no project management training is given to those who take on the role of project manager.

• 21.8 % of our respondents strongly agreed with the statement that project management is a valued discipline in organizations ranking with accounting, finance and engineering and 26.8% somewhat agreed. At the same time 11.8% strongly disagreed and 26.1% somewhat disagreed.

• 13.7% of our respondents indicated that they have been very successful in selling project management to executives but 61.4% reported being somewhat successful.

• Approximately 60% of respondents believed that senior management understood the cost of unsuccessful projects but only 20% agreed that their organization provided meaningful support for project management initiatives.

• Just under 60% report that project managers received little or no formal training.

Although these frequencies have not been broken down by subgroups, they do present some preliminary insights supporting the need to improve strategies used to sell project management to executives.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper presents preliminary results from an international web-based survey aimed at improving our understanding of best practices in selling project management to executives. To our knowledge, this is the first of its kind combination study on project management that draws from a diverse group of professional associations and uses Internet technology for an international study. We have collected a significant amount of very interesting data that will make a significant contribution to the field.

Our present conclusions are limited by the analysis conducted to date. Arguably the most important finding to date is that there appears to be significant support for the model developed out of the Phase I research project last year. Some interesting paradoxes also arise from the data and we look forward to analyzing them in greater detail. For instance, beliefs around recognition of project management's importance and value do not seem to be reflected in meaningful organizational support. The results suggest that project managers appear in organizations more on an accidental basis when the need arises to handle a technical problem. This supports the Phase I findings of how project management is typically introduced in organizations and the pervasiveness of the Accidental Project Manager in today's organizations. Continued more sophisticated analysis will allow us to present more comprehensive conclusions in Nashville.

Study Limitations

The study limitations are that the design is a cross-sectional survey involving a common method bias of self-report. However, efforts to use a large sample size were made to overcome this and achieve statistical generalization. Another limitation of the study relates to the use of the newer Internet technology with respect to the response rate. However, we believe the advantages of using this technology were outweighed the disadvantages.

A limitation of the Internet-based survey was the budgetary consideration. Typically, access to email lists is extremely limited for reasons of confidentiality as well as state laws. We overcame this by having the participating associations conduct some of the mail outs and by using the third party company. At no time did the researchers have access allowing them to track individual responses for the survey questions. The following summarizes the disadvantages of this method as compared to traditional postal/fax or other paper distribution methods (Dahlen 1998). The advantages of using this method were that it was fast, offered good response quality with less data reentry, was inexpensive, and protected respondent anonymity. The disadvantages of this strategy included:

• Self selection bias limiting the assumption of equal probability

• The survey being limited to those with current hardware and software

• Lower response rates due to people not noticing the survey

• Poorer sampling frames—What does this mean?

• Limitations related to survey length and layout

• It is not always possible to determine the actual size of the population of interest.

Many of these challenges are consistent with post or telephone survey designs.

Areas for Further Work

At the time of writing this paper, we were in the data collection stage and thus only able to present preliminary frequency statistics. This paper presents the initial frequency findings of a two-phased international, web-based study. It builds on the Phase I findings and targeted the same categories of participants—Executives, Consultants and Project Managers. We have captured responses from over 1,838 individuals at the time of this paper.

The next steps in this project are to apply sophisticated statistical analysis to the data collected. Since the project assessed construct interdependency, Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) techniques will be used to develop a path model on buying project management. SEM is a second-generation statistics technique well suited to the constructs being researched in this paper. SEM involves the development of a structural model (or path) and a measurement model. The path model relates the independent and dependent variables and the measurement model quantifies the relationships (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black 1998). This will be a relevant contribution to project management, as SEM has not been used in project management studies as far as we were able to discern from our literature review on methodologies. Using a range of exogenous indicators, we will examine a model of how the following constructs correlate to each other:

1. The organization's Project Management Maturity Level

2. Values of efficiency, effectiveness and innovation

3. The application of project management at the operational or strategic level

4. Elements of the sales process including initiation, packaging and process (Dutton 1993, 84)

5. Barriers and credibility factors

     6. Preliminary propositions are that:

• As an organization's maturity level increases, the firm views project management as more than a tactical construct and appreciates its value towards meeting strategic goals

• Firms that achieve higher levels of project management maturity are more likely to achieve/maintain a competitive advantage in the marketplace and support the program internally

• Effective selling strategies involve a combination of initiation, packaging and process factors.

In addition to the statistical analyses, we will be undertaking qualitative analyses using products such as ATLAS.ti or NUDIST on the series of open-ended questions in the survey.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank the PMI® and Athabasca University for their funding and support of this study. In particular, we are appreciative of the guidance and support that Dr. Lew Gedansky and Mr. Paul Shaltry provided. We would like to thank the organizations that supported this research (Athabasca University, CIO, Computers in Information Processing Society, ESI-International, Professional Engineers of Ontario, Project Management Institute, University of Calgary and SurveySite). And last, but not least, we appreciate the time and effort on the part of all participants in completing the survey and providing their insights.

For further details or clarifications on this study, please contact Dr. J. Thomas [email protected]


Belassi, Tukel, O. I. 1996. A New Framework for Determining Critical Success/Failure Factors in Projects. International Journal of Project Management, 14 (3), 141–152.

Bistritz, S.J., Gardner, A., Klompmaker, J.E., and Plunkett, A. (Eds.). 1999. Selling to Senior Executives II: An Update: An Expanded Analysis of Two Studies Examining How Salespeople Establish Trust and Credibility With Senior Executives. San Mateo, CA.

Block, T. 1991. Selling Project Management to Senior Management—An EDS Experience. Paper presented at the Project Management Institute Seminar/Symposium, Dallas, Texas.

Block, T. 1992. Selling Project Management to Senior Management—The Sequel. Paper presented at the Project Management Institute Seminar/Symposium, Pittsburgh, PA.

Bounds, G. 1998. The Last Word on Project Management. Institute of Industrial Engineers Solutions, 30 (11): 41–43.

Cooper, D.R., and Emory, C.W. 1995. Business research methods (5th edition ed.). Chicago: Irwin.

Dahlen, M. 1998. Controlling the Uncontrollable Towards the Perfect Web Sample. Paper presented at the ESOMAR Worldwide Internet Seminar and Exhibition, Paris, France. Dutton, J.E, Ashford, S.J, O‘Neill, R.M., and Lawrence, K.A. 2000. Moves that Matter: Issue Selling and Organizational Change. Academy of Management. In press.

Dutton, J.E., and Ashford, S.J. 1993. Selling Issues to Top Management. Academy of Management, 18 (3): 397–428.

Dutton, J.E., and Webster, J. 1988. Patterns of Interest Around Issues: The Role of Uncertainty and Feasibility. Academy of Management, 31 (3): 663–675.

Gardner, A., and Bistritz, S.J. 1998. Selling to Senior Executives: Part I. Marketing Management, 7 (2): 10–21.

Gardner, A., Bistritz, S.J., and Klompmaker, J.E. 1996. Selling to Executives: How Salespeople Establish Trust and Credibility with Senior Executives. Target Marketing Systems White Paper: 1–8. Atlanta, GA.

Hair, J.F., Anderson, R.E., Tatham, R.L., and Black, W.C. 1998. Multivariate Data Analysis (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Heinrichs, L. 2000. Sound-Bite Selling: Communicating Your Value. VARBusiness.

Hill, R. 1998. What Sample Size Is “Enough” in Internet Survey Research? Interpersonal Computing and Technology: An electronic journal for the 21st century, 6(3–4): 1–11.

King, J. 1994. Political Maneuvers. Computerworld, 28 (18): 91–95.

King, J. 1996. Say It Ain't So, Joe. Computerworld, 30 (50): 3,78.

Marchetti, M. 1997. Whatever It Takes. Sales and Marketing Management, 149 (13): 28–38.

OnTarget. 1999. Sales Management Best Practices: 1–33: OnTarget Inc.

Pinto, J. K., and Slevin, D. P. 1987. Critical Factors in Successful Project Implementation. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, EM 34 (1): 22–28.

Price, C.R. 1999. Creating Rainmakers: The Manager's Guide to Training Professionals: Book review.

SEI. 2001. SEI Capability Maturity Models, Vol. 2001: Carnegie Mellon University.

Shenhar, A.J., Levy, O., and Dvir, D. 1997. Mapping the Dimensions of Project Success. Project Management Journal, 28 (2): 5–13.

Thomas, J.L. 2000. Making sense of Project Management. Unpublished thesis. University of Alberta.

Thomas, J., Delisle, C., Jugdev, K., and Buckle, P. 2001a. Mission Possible: Selling Project Management to Senior Executives. PM Network, 15 (1): 59–62.

Thomas, J., Delisle, C., Jugdev, K., and Buckle, P. 2001b. Selling Project Management to Senior Executives: The Case for Avoiding Crisis Sales. Project Management Journal, Accepted for publication 2001.

Toney, F. 1997. What the Fortune 500 know about PM best practices. PM Network, 11 (2): 30–34.

Weitz, B.A., and Bradford, K.D. 1999. Personal Selling and Sales Management: A Relationship Marketing Perspective. Academy of Marketing Science, 27 (2): 241–254.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



Related Content