Framing the moves that matter

selling project management to executives, phase III



Selling project management to senior executives can be frustrating work; it takes time, and is difficult to do successfully. Anecdotal reports focus on identifying best practices and strategies for sellers to “get their foot in the door” and secure airtime with busy senior executives. Some of the key literature sources focus on the process of building a buyer-seller relationship, and emphasizes the elements of trust and credibility, which appears critical to relationship marketing.

Specific to project management though, there is little theory on how we sell or buy project management. Why is it difficult to get senior executives on side regarding the value of project management? Why is it hard to “sell” it to them? These and other related questions continue to perplex both practitioners and academics alike. Anecdotal reports focus on identifying best practices and strategies for sellers to “get their foot in the door” and secure airtime with busy executives. Some of the literature focuses on the process of building a buyer-seller relationship, and emphasizes the elements of trust and credibility, which are key to interaction marketing. However, there have been no generalizable empirical studies conducted within project management on this topic.

In 1999, the Project Management Institute (PMI®) identified the need to study the value of project management in both qualitative and quantitative ways. This approach was identified in response to membership feedback on the top issues PMI members were facing. This paper presents a summary of findings and interpretive analysis on the two year study sponsored by PMI® on this topic. The emphasis is on the second phase where the objective was to collect data for statistical generalizability purposes to analyze the interaction of preliminary concepts involved in the process of selling project management. Results from the first Phase can be found in the January 2001 edition of PM Network or the June 2002 edition of the Project Management Journal.

Although there are no silver bullets in selling project management and gaining executive attention, there are moves that definitely matter. This paper reports on arguments and processes that are statistically associated with success in selling project management to executives. By comparing and contrasting the following groups: very successful consultants, very successful project managers, and very unsuccessful project managers and consultants we provide some practical insights from the research. The paper includes a brief overview of Phase II methodology, study findings, and practical recommendations.

Phase II Overview and Methodology

Phase II entailed a large-scale online survey aimed at identifying “best practices” in selling project management to executives. The primary research question was “How do you successfully sell project management to executives?”

We used an Internet-based questionnaire to collect the data from executive, consultant, and project manager respondents in this phase. The instrument consisted of a 105-item questionnaire including demographic and closed and open-ended questions. A five-point Lickert scale for the closed-response questions was anchored by strongly agree (1) and strongly disagree (5). The intermediate choices were somewhat agree, somewhat disagree and neither. The instrument was pre-tested for validity and reliability with a panel of academic colleagues and practitioners.

We contracted SurveySite, a market research firm, to post the online survey on the Internet, initially sending 41,884 email invitation letters to individuals associated with the following organizations: Athabasca University (n=1,500), CIO Canada magazine (n=20,952), Canadian Information Processing Society (n=3,177), ESI International (n=8,954), and PMI® (n=7,301). The sampling frame was a combination of convenience, purposive, and random sampling. The range of organizations involved allows us to generalize results mainly to North American project management. The data was collected from March 15–April 16, 2001.

We collected 1,868 completed and usable surveys for a response rate of 5.3%. The response rate is within acceptable limits for online surveys (especially factoring in the “bounce back” and faulty emails provided for the email lists). This sample size is sufficiently large to produce a rigorous level of statistical accuracy. Specifically, a sample size of 1,868 will produce results that are accurate to within +/- 2.27 percentage points (19 times out of 20).

We ran exploratory factor analyses (EFA) on subsets of this dataset. EFA is a multivariate statistics method used to identify structures (e.g., correlations and interrelationships) that identify the variables within models that best account for how to sell project management. As an iterative technique, data is reduced and summarized to build the most useful models from the data that show which questions “hang together” to and tell the best story about how to sell project management to senior executives.

Data reduction identifies fewer variables from a large set of variables or it creates new variables. The variables are reduced in number and grouped to achieve a parsimonious set for the study models. In this study, we began with the 61 test items comprised of survey questions 2–12. The EFA allowed us to identify the top factors used to build models explaining how project managers and consultants “sell” or increase senior executive interest in, the discipline of project management. We used the project managers and consultants group as the “base model” from which to compare the very successful project managers and consultants as compare the very successful data files to the very unsuccessful data file. Then, we compared all the results to what the executives explained they were looking for when they purchase project management services. This process allowed us to confidently make a number of key comparisons and contrasts between the different eight different models. However, only the top five arguments within the base model are reported are specifically in this paper, with some reference to the main moves of very successful and very unsuccessful sellers.

Survey Respondent Demographic Overview

In general, the study participants represent a diverse group, reflecting the varied nature of organizations and individuals involved in project management in organizations today. In total 1,867 individual responses were used in the study. The survey has an accuracy rate of +/- 2.27% 19 times out of 20.

Study participants comprise a well-educated, experienced, and mobile group representative of the sample population. More than one-half broadly identify their role within their organization as a project manager (53%), 26% as a consultant or 20% as a senior executive. Seventy percent of participants are male and 71% are between the ages of 31 and 50. 63% are over 40. Three-quarters reported possessing at least one university undergraduate degree. The majority of participants live in either the United States (55%) or Canada (35%). Nearly six-in-ten participants (57%) have been with their current employer for five years or less and 42% work for companies that employ 1,000 or fewer individuals. Participants range in their responsibility levels from being project team members to those managing program portfolios or sponsoring projects.

On average, survey respondents have significant levels of engagement with the project management profession as indicated by their level of project management experience, and level of project responsibility. Additionally, over 50% belong to project management professional associations. At the same time, slightly more than 50% have taken no more than single, short project management training courses.

The survey respondents come from a wide variety of organizations in many industries and of disparate sizes. In general, most of the respondents come from functional areas within their organization where project management would be expected to be an important issue (70% information technology or project management). The industry distribution is a wide and varied selection of industries reflecting the increased projectized nature of organizations today. Approximately 50% of the respondents came from organizations whose main business activity falls in the following six industries: Consulting, Information Technologies, Telecommunications, Government, Manufacturing, or Engineering/Construction. Respondents are almost evenly spread across small and large organizations. While 30% of all firms had gross sales of less than $50 million (USD) during the calendar year 2000, a nearly equal number had sales of $1 billion dollars or more. Roughly, one-third of the organizations represented had less than 1,000 employees (26%) and one third (30%) had over 10,000 employees.

Study Findings

The amount and complexity of findings from Phase II is staggering. However, this paper summarizes the most practical findings. At a high level, the findings indicate that:

•   Senior executives recognize project management as having strategic as well as tactical value in their organizations. At the same time, there remains an average of 35% of all respondents who do not recognize any strategic role for project management.

•   It appears that accidental project managers who manage strategically important projects are not achieving the outcomes they expect, and are not using the appropriate project management tools and techniques.

•   By analyzing the data by participant position, industry, and country, the outcome statistics show that strategically important projects are not meeting specification, cost, or schedule expectations relatively consistently across these categories.

Very Successful Selling Arguments

Those respondents who report being very successful in selling project management to senior executives use statistically different arguments and processes than those reporting being unsuccessful. It is important to review these differences to deduce how we can increase senior executives interest in and support for project management. The following discussion explores the differences in what the very successful salespeople ultimately argued and did. Each of the five ways participants framed selling arguments, using triggers/descriptors as described in the base EFA model are described in the following paragraphs.

First and foremost, Phase II findings is that those successful in selling project management report the presence of crisis as most significant in triggering the successful “sale” of project management and those who sold under this condition did so statistically more often then those less successful. Although the specific trigger itself may be internal (CEO fired) or external (market crash), a crisis ensued and led to sales. This result corroborates findings from Phase 1. Knowing this, the seller has to be aware of potentially high risk of implementing project management successfully under such crisis circumstances. It may be that capitalizing on this most successful and common crisis milieu may actually make the successful implementation and future sale of project management more difficult.

The second most common response in selling related to making innovative arguments about new business opportunities to “trigger” senior executive's interest in new ways of working. This type of occurrence is apparently a fertile time to “sell” project management when sellers tie project management to the strategic direction of the organization in light of this new opportunity.

The third most common response was for sellers to highlight early successes. This learning reflects building a strategy of “small or quick wins,” using these wins to leverage more and future support for project management in the organization.

The fourth most common response sellers reported was to stress the potential corporate benefits achievable through successful implementation of project management. Respondents report describing project management in terms of potential senior executive/financial value, tying those arguments to long term/strategic benefits, and combining arguments with detailed explanations of project management techniques. They also reported strategically targeting project management by linking project management to corporate strategies as a way to help senior executives in meeting corporate and project goals and not just project outcomes. In other words, the best way to describe project management is as a management technique designed to improve the bottom line through supporting strategic initiatives while at the same time educating the executives as to the details and executive outcomes of good project management. It seems that executives are not necessarily “turned off” by the detailed technical descriptions if they can be described in business language and tied to issues of interest to a senior executives particular situation.

To summarize, the very successful sellers who use the fourth approach focus on tying project management to corporate goals and objectives, and second, they recognize the political nature and people dependent processes necessary to interest executives in this management technique.

The fifth most common response was to position project management as a solution to problems. This latter one, in particular, appears to be related to the crisis trigger situations identified in Phase I. They also tended to pay more attention to the people and political processes involved in selling. Sellers seem to pay more attention to the political nature and people dependent processes necessary to interest executives in this management. They built upon high credibility, high trust, established relationships with supportive executives to build coalitions.

While very successful sellers using this model create an “air” of tying project management to corporate goals and objectives by being politically astute, the sell relates mostly to stamping out a crisis or potentially flammable situation. These types of arguments may ultimately create long-term problems of gaining reentry to sell project management if organizations find that senior management expectations have not been met.

Conversely, very successful arguments that build on the trust-credibility relationship with the buyer help sellers to establish themselves and/or project management as a brand—or distinctive identity that promises value from project management. Branding helps the buyer and seller establish common value statements about the value of project management so that gaining entry for future sales may be more likely. For example, the actions of professional organizations such as PMI help to create a “project management” brand that may enhance the credibility of project managers over time.

Practical Recommendations

These findings lend themselves to the following recommendations for those interested in selling project management to senior executives:

•   Understand an organization's key business priorities and discuss project management in the context of measurable quantitative outcomes as well as effectiveness outcomes.

•   Explain project management in terms of the iron triangle (time, cost and scope) but do not overemphasize technical project language (tools and techniques).

•   Ensure that you as a seller have or continue to work on building a credible, effective, professional relationship with the buyer. In selling the services, it is less important to involve people at certain levels of project management within the organization—it is more important to focus on the building a common understanding using executive language to ensure effectiveness of the relationship between buyer and seller.

•   Frame project management as a fit for the organization in terms of operational and strategic goals and discuss it in those contexts that make sense. Thus, the seller has to be sensitive to and aware of the possibility of switching gears in mid-stream of the selling relationship should the context internally or externally shift significantly

•   Do not use dramatic or emotional terms (the silver bullet, huge failure, gigantic problems)—they seem less effective although very unsuccessful project managers and consultants still use this strategy. In addition, unsuccessful sellers present the “sale” as a hodgepodge of reasons as to why executives should pay attention to project management, essentially setting up to fail. It is important to be clear about the business results possible from project management and the expectations of senior executives by not promising more than is possible given the particular business context.

•   Do no fixate on references to competition within the industry—they do not appear to be a key factor causing executives to pay attention to project management. These arguments can also become entangled with the use of dramatic and emotional terms. Senior executives seem focused on the results they can achieve by using project management within the firm.

•   Do not second-guess what senior executives are thinking about. The seller's views on senior executive expectations being realistic and attainable do not seem to matter. Selling arguments that challenge the realism of senior executive expectations was not a highly effective factor for the very successful project managers or consultants.


Selling project management to executives is a complex undertaking and it can be difficult to figure out what works, what does not work, let alone try to understand why. This paper presents the findings of a two-year study on the topic. There is no silver bullet solution to effectively selling project management to senior executive. However, the study does identify how to frame arguments so that they matter. In particular, moves that matter relate to presenting project management in the business result context, relating its value to project outcomes, having an effective buyer-seller relationship and using executive language appropriately.

Senior executives appear to be looking for business results from project management that can be measured in qualitative or quantitative ways. They are interested in project results in terms of the iron triangle. They pay attention to project management when it is brought to their attention from someone with whom they have a professional relationship based on trust and credibility. The use of executive language is important in terms of using corporate goals and outcomes that fit with the business strategy.

Very successful project managers and consultants use moves that fit with what senior executives are seeking. They present project management by relating it to business results, the iron triangle, and use executive language.

In contrast, the very unsuccessful project managers and consultants sellers appear to use a “hodge podge” or spaghetti strategy. This involves putting various strategies into the pot, boiling it and then seeing what sticks to the wall. There seems to be a lack of regards for specific contextual issues to guide the selection of the best fit between project management needs and the strategic business goals. Although sellers talk about how project management aligns with the company's goals, they fail to discuss it in terms of business results This results in presenting project management as a mixture of solutions, descriptions of what the competition is doing, which is couched in dramatic or emotional language. They also involve people in the selling strategy based on their roles within or external to the organization.. They also fail to align their strategies to what executives are seeking. Overall, they do not successful use moves that matter.

The expanded version of study methodology and results of this research will appear as a research monograph to be published by PMI later this year.

Contributions of the Research

The research has a great deal of practical value in its ability to capture results that allow for interpretation of underlying reasons associated with why project management benefits are difficult to sell to senior executives. In answering the research questions we present arguments about how successful selling processes work that can be taken away and used by practitioners and consultants. The research also identifies the processes, arguments, and context that senior executives are mainly interested in as they deliberate an investment in project management. Knowledge about the best milieu for selling provides additional insights into what sellers and buyers could expect in managing and aligning expectations about what project management can do.

Researchers gain an appreciation for the usefulness and value of going outside the field of project management to other disciplines in to help expanding thinking out of the box. A multidisciplinary effort lends credibility to our efforts to create a theoretical base of concepts that can be rigorously tested by others in and outside the arena of project management research.

Empirically, this study appears to have one of the largest numbers of survey respondents of any research in discipline of project management to date. The generation of interest from around the world not only raises the profile of project management as a practice, but also as valuable research topic. The statistical rigor of the survey preparation and data analysis sets the stage future research of high quality. This study also challenges methodological assumptions regarding data collection methods, further propelling the use of Internet based as a reliable and useful medium to use in research. Our efforts may help to clarify outdated expectations about response rates regardless of the medium.


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). 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. Janice Thomas at [email protected]


Thomas, J. Delisle, C., Jugdev, K. & Buckle, P. 2001. PM Network, 15, pp. 59–62.

Thomas, J. Delisle, C., Jugdev, K. & Buckle. P. 2002, June. Project Management Journal.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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