Selling project management to senior executives

what's the hook?

Janice Thomas, Ph.D., M.B.A, BSc, University of Calgary
Connie L. Delisle, Ph.D. Candidate, M.Sc, B.A, B.Ed, University of Calgary
Kam Jugdev, PMP, MEng, M.H.S.A., B.Sc, B.Sc, Project Manager, IBM Canada
Pamela Buckle, Ph.D. Candidate, M.B.A, B.A, University of Calgary

Worldwide, project management continues to gain acceptance in many industry sectors. Increasingly, companies espouse project management as a core competency. On one hand, we note a growing interest in using different elements of project management in virtually every segment of every industry. On the other hand, over 30% of projects end up being cancelled in midstream and over half of projects run as high as 190% over budget and 220% over the original time estimate (KPMG, 1997; Standish Group, 1995). Despite the pervasive high failure rate of projects and advocacy of project management by practitioners, the serious, long-term investment in project management remains a tough sell at the executive level. At the same time, KPMG‘s (1997) survey of over 1,400 senior organizations found the lack of top management commitment to be a key factor in failed projects. Clearly something needs to be done about this disconnect.

Over the last 10 years, the topic of selling project management has generated a significant amount of interest within the Project Management Institute (PMI®) as evidenced by papers presented at PMI conferences (for example, Block, 1991, 1992). Recently, PMI (1999) sponsored a research study to investigate the challenges of selling project management to senior executives. The authors of this paper were awarded the research grant. This paper presents the findings of Phase I of our two-phased study. In Phase I we investigate the root causes of the issue. This will be followed by Phase II where we will determine their generalizability across a wider audience. By exploring situations where project management has been successfully or unsuccessfully introduced into organizations, this research seeks to:

• Identify the compelling arguments of how project management benefits the organizations

• Articulate the practical and political approaches for selling at the executive level.

We set out to understand how the very people who best understand project management within particular organizations seem to have the hardest time “selling” it to their executives. At the same time we know that consultants and project management experts make a living “selling” project management to executives. Understanding this paradox provides a firm footing to better identify best practices necessary to build senior management awareness of the values and benefits of project management needed to sell the concept. Phase I was designed to be a small-scale exploratory study to build a framework for more extensive research. The research team interviewed three groups of experienced practitioners familiar with selling and purchasing project management— internal project managers, project management consultants/experts, and senior executives with project management purchasing power. A Grounded theory approach identified trends or themes related to successful and unsuccessful sales strategies as they emerged from the data. The researchers paid particular attention to the similarities and differences in how the sample groups understood project management and its benefits.

This paper provides a summary of Phase 1 of the research. The background literature sets the foundation for understanding the gaps in the knowledge this study aims to fill. The theoretical foundation provides a way to validate preliminary results and sets the boundaries for the field of investigation for the second phase of the research. In the next section, we summarize the most important findings and conclusions about marketing and selling of aspects of project management to senior executives.

Background Literature

We set out to explore the project management, marketing and organizational literature to provide a framework for understanding the issues around selling project management to executives. We tackled this vast body of literature by focusing on a number of questions we found most pertinent to this study, namely:

• How are “selling,”“marketing,” and “project management” related?

• What are senior executives looking for?

• How do sellers and buyers interact?

• Why do you need to align values in the sales process?

• How do you use strategy to trigger sales?

The following section summarizes the results of this literature review and shows how it frames this piece of research. The section concludes by introducing the specific research questions Phase I was designed to answer.

How Are “Selling,”“Marketing,” and “Project Management” Related?

According to the Webster's dictionary selling means to “promote the sale, acceptance or adoption of” (1984, pp. 628). Generally, companies sell project management methodologies to increase their market share and customers buy it as an aid to improve their bottom line and competitive position. Project management is typically sold as a service to customers or as a component of business solutions.

In contrast, marketing involves organizations determining “the needs, wants, and interests” of target audiences and delivering to that level of satisfaction “more effectively and efficiently than competitors” (Kotler, 1994). This definition connotes expectations management. The essence of marketing is to apply strategies including market intelligence work to increase/maintain market share by securing new/repeat business with a customer (Daft, 1987).

The terms “selling” and “project management” seem disconnected in the eyes and minds of most project managers. Typically, project managers view themselves as practitioners and do not consider the “marketing and sales” work as either their role or responsibility. A review of the project management practitioner literature shows that project managers do promote and advocate elements of project management in the course of their work. They generally promote it by describing the features of tools and techniques and inherent project benefits related to the priority triangle of time, cost and scope. Project managers infrequently tie project management outcomes to corporate business outcomes as part of their sales strategies. Frost (1999) takes the abstract concept of values and frames it as continuum that builds on the Gardner, Bistritz and Klompmaker (1996) model. This value continuum portrays Foundation Values of efficiency (e.g., return on investment, cost reductions, revenue generation, increased market share) and effectiveness (e.g., organizational effectiveness, customer satisfaction) at the far left of the continuum. At the other end, Innovation Values (market expansion, advantage creation) dominate. Frost's model portrays the promise-centric values (rather than product-centric) as critical to managers and defines value as key to understanding the relationship between buying and selling project management in tactical, strategic and competitive selling. Tactical selling involves both the vendor and customer being focused on the features of project management in short-term, quick fix relationships. Strategic selling involves a longer-term relationship between the vendor and buyer, whereas strategic solutions are sold to address business problems. Lastly, competitive selling involves a business-to-business partnership that is more encompassing in terms of its focus on both organizations. Sellers generally craft their messages based on their experiences; but successful messages reflect the buyer's needs as the buyer understands them.

What Are Senior Executives Looking for?

Senior executives represent the highest level of management in organizations. Traditionally, senior executives look for information to help them make sound business decisions as well as position themselves favorably in terms of their personal and professional growth. The type of information they seek fits within their own construct of truth, and any new knowledge flows through their self-defined filters. During business crises or in time-pressured situations, senior executives will turn to known consultants with whom they have had past experiences rather than seek out new, unknown ones. Most executives are focused on Foundation Values as noted by their search for ways to measure and increase the return on their organization's investments and reduce expenditures (Dinsmore, 1996; McElroy, 1996). As well, outcomes seem more tied to corporate strategy not individual project outcomes. At times, they look for ways to measure and increase the return on investment and reduce costs without recognizing the cumulative effects and co-dependencies of the actions taken on failed and successful projects alike (Dinsmore, 1996; McElroy, 1996).

Heidrick & Stuggles, a leading executive search firm reports that over half of CEO and CFO respondents held their positions for five years or less. With this type of turnaround at the decision-maker level, those selling project management services must strive to make more immediate and responsive connections with these individuals in terms of their existing and future business challenges. In marketing terms, this is often referred to as relationship marketing.

The connection between the selling intention and the business direction may be a prerequisite for using project management to substantially maximize shareholder value and move the buyer-seller relationship along the continuum toward the Innovation Values side. The initial step in raising of awareness about project management requires the identification of best practices that in turn can help senior executives understand how to use this knowledge. Part of the difficulty in raising awareness is that conventional definitions and treatment of value have a less direct connection to business strategy than what we assume to be the case.

How Do Sellers and Buyers Interact?

Marketing literature tells us that sellers and buyers act either tactically or strategically. Over the past 30 years there has been a noticeable shift in the sales proficiency toward strategic and competitive selling. A key issue appears to be that project management is rarely sold in isolation; it is generally sold as part of a solution or as a service to manage projects. Too often, tactical selling focuses on promoting the features of project management that will “save” time, and money to increase efficiency. The challenge of selling project management services then becomes one of identifying, articulating, and achieving deliverables that are directly linked to business objectives.

Another issue making project management a tough sell relates to trust between the seller and buyer. Gardner, Bistritz and Klompmaker (1996) researched factors that help salespeople develop trust and credibility with senior executives. They found that understanding the customer's goals/objectives and being responsive to requests to be the most effective way of establishing trust/credibility with executives. “The worst impression a salesperson can leave is wasted time” (p. 7). The relationship between the buyer and seller appears critical in selling services. Selling services involves the use of soft skills. Since services selling does not end once the sale has been made, the external project management team must demonstrate effective project management and strong interpersonal/communication skills with management to ensure the success of the project sold. Senior executives seem less interested in tactical approaches, flavor of the month quick fixes and more interested in seeking meaningful business relationships that help them personally and professionally (Gardner, Bistritz, & Klompmaker, 1996). Gardner, Bistritz and Klompmaker (1998) found that executives are willing to value salespeople whom they truly believed would help them solve the business problems they were facing.

Why Do You Need to Align Values in the Sales Process?

Part of developing a relationship with customers involves understanding and conveying the merits (benefits) of project management and bridging the connection to the buyer's values. Although the practical benefits of project management seem like common sense, Thomas (2000) found that even experienced project managers do not fully understand project management concepts. Organizations selling project management services fail to recognize the need to prepare the client for the sale by jointly working together to frame the problem instead of jumping directly into problem solving mode. They continue to convey project management's business value as “efficiency,” often promoting industrial-age tools and traditional financial metrics including tactical selling approaches, whereas senior executives may be open to considering very different value dimensions that are further right along the value continuum. It seems important to ensure that those trying to market project management to communicate values and benefits that remain consistent with and aligned to the indicators senior managers use to evaluate such offerings.

How Do You Use Strategy to Trigger Sales?

Successful selling strategies include an approach to trigger a need in the buyer, a prepared response that situates the product or service as the best solution coupled with evidence supporting the argument (Don, 2000). Sometimes the need is triggered by events or circumstances external to the sales effort (e.g., a crisis) but these type of triggers are not as conducive to strategic selling as the seller has little or no control over their timing or occurrence. Successful salespeople attempt to develop selling strategies that speak to internal triggers (e.g., what keeps senior management up at night) as a way of selling their products. This type of selling uses the needs of the buyer to intuitively frame the problem, and works closely with the buyer to address it with a solution.

Thus, part of the difficulty in “selling” project management stems from a misalignment of perception between buyers and sellers (executives, project managers and consultants) around project management values. In turn, this impacts the intentions around selling and buying behaviors. Senior executives often receive mixed messages with respect to the benefits of project management, leading them to disconnect their understanding (cognitive) and feeling (affect) about the values used to sell and those used to buy project management. Based on this review, we set out to confirm the magnitude of this hypothesis and gain some practical insights into the nature of the problem by exploring the following two questions.

• How do “sellers” and “buyers” understand project management's functions and value?

• How is project management sold in organizations?

The Study

Phase 1 consisted of 23 face-to-face interviews. Initially, participants from the Project Management Advisory Council (PMAC—companies that advise the Project Management Specialization at the University of Calgary) served as lead contacts. These contacts allowed us to use the snowball technique to identify additional interviewees. Where possible, paired participants were interviewed, e.g., a project manager and executive from the same company and at times, a consultant who had sold project management services to that firm. Interviewees fit into one of three categories:

Senior Managers (Executives, CEOs, CIOs or Vice Presidents): The influential group of individuals making decisions to purchase or not purchase project management (n=10).

Project Managers/Practitioners (Project Management Office Managers, Project Managers or Directors of Project Management): Those championing/selling project management largely in the context of their own organizations (n=6).

External Project Management Consultants/Experts (smaller and larger independent sellers): Experts whose experiences included both successful and unsuccessful attempts to sell project management to organizations (n= 9).

The qualitative, semi-structured interviews required that participants answer between 30–35 semi-structured, questions. Questions were of the form: “What is project management?”; “What is the value of project management to your organization?”; “If you needed to sell project management to your manager, colleague or peer, how would you do it?” The complete interview protocol is available from the authors. We pre-tested the questions on a panel of project management practitioners to ensure that they were meaningful and capable of extracting the information needed to address the research questions. Two researchers were present for almost all the interviews for validation purposes. Each interview was taped and transcribed. The transcriptions comprised the data we analyzed in this paper.

A Grounded theory approach served to make sense of the Phase 1 findings. Results are “inductively derived from the study of the phenomenon it represents … it does not begin with a theory and then prove it but begins with an area of study to allow what is relevant to that area to emerge” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, pp. 23). The analysis focused on identifying trends or themes related to successful implementation strategies. Grounded theory allows for the analysis of interview transcripts concurrently so that patterns become clearer during data collection. As anticipated, recurring patterns appeared by the 15th interview. Common themes and shared perceptions about selling project management appeared, and very little new information emerged after this point.

Data analysis consisted of five steps. First, all four researchers read the transcripts, identified key themes and processes. Second, we met as a group and came to consensus on the meaning and importance of the various themes identified. Third, these themes were summarized for each important question and for each participant in an Excel spreadsheet that allowed us to compare themes across questions and participants. Fourth, we met as a team to brainstorm the linkages and relationships between the themes identified and the underlying processes. Finally, we drew linkages from discussions with relevant academic and practitioner resources to support and verify the validity of these preliminary findings. Rigorous analysis using the ATLAS computer assisted qualitative analysis tool is occurring as of April 2000.

Participants represented a diverse set of organizations producing various products and services, including oil and gas, healthcare, new product development, and information technology. In terms of age, 14 (61%) were between 36–46 years, and nine (39%) were between 46–55 years. At the time of this research, two participants had their Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification and two were in the process of certification. In general, the participants represented an experienced and educated group of executives, project managers, and consultants.

Phase I is an exploratory phase subject to the limitations of the sample size of a distinct population subset. A few of the limitations of the study were that our sample size was localized to Calgary, Alberta and we had a small number of female participants. During Phase I we identified questions that will be relevant to ask in Phase II, e.g., project management's brand. The results of this study should be interpreted cautiously and within this framework.


This section presents our key findings and discussion on the two research questions identified above. First, we explore the participant's understandings of project management and identify any gaps that may exist. Then we look at the process of selling project management and the interaction patterns between the buyer and seller

Understandings of Project Management and its Value

Initially, when we asked the participants to describe project management and brainstorm words around it, they described it as a linear type of activity, much like the definition provided in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). “A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service” (PMBOK® Guide, 1996, pp. 167). “Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities in order to meet or exceed stakeholder needs and expectations from a project” (pp. 167). These definitions are tactical in that they address tools, techniques and skills. They also refer to a simple value statement of either meeting or exceeding expectations. The participants we interviewed described project management in tactical terms so it is understandable that as we asked them questions on selling project management, their approaches were tactical. None of the participants initially described project management as a philosophy and none referred to specific project management methodologies. In general, senior executives hold a fairly consistent, albeit, basic understanding of project management.

Although this initial definition gave the impression that project management principles were well understood in terms of the PMBOK® Guide, further questioning revealed a diverse understanding of project management. Some participants viewed it as a tool or technique and others viewed it as a lifestyle, something that was ingrained in them and they believed. Some described it as “part of their makeup” or an innate potential. It was described in religious terms on more than a few occasions and practitioners indicated they had “found the religion of project management” and described themselves as “converts.” However, the majority of executives provided less passionate or detailed depictions. They tended to describe project management as either a very high conceptual issue or as a tactical toolbox for getting things done. The consultants were the only group that described project management in strategic terms such as “a core understanding, belief, scalable, flexible and related to shareholder value.”

Looking at the understandings of project management expressed by our participants in another way, we explored the tactical vs. strategic understandings held by the buyers (senior executives, CEOs, CIOs) vs. sellers (consultants, project manager practitioner) group. When project managers were asked to comment on the value of project management, their feedback reflected its importance and worth relative to projects, e.g., use a proven, structured methodology to show project results. One described it as an “insurance policy.” Another described it as having the right people do the right thing at the right time. Many related the value to the project management priority triangle of “on time, cost and scope.”

The value of project management varied widely across our participant groups. To project managers, its value related to being more efficient and effective and helped them with their track records and career paths. As such, they focused on tactical strategies in selling project management (features, attributes) because these were the values of importance to them. To many in this category, the value of project management was so obvious it almost didn't bear explaining. The value of project management to large-scale consultants rested in increasing revenue through sales and establishing their presence on accounts. They preferred to focus on strategic level outcomes and to sell project management at that level; however, they were willing to focus on whatever benefits the client wanted to buy. Small-scale consultants were also interested in revenue but tended to sell project management benefits relative to their individual skills and expertise. The value of project management to executives related to being more efficient and effective in their business capacities and ultimately with their careers. They wanted to buy services that were aligned to their strategic business and personal goals. They were far more interested in buying tools or techniques that impacted strategic outcomes than those aimed at improving or sustaining innovative business operations.

In all the interviews conducted, only those at one projectized firm consistently described project management as providing strategic benefits; all others interviewed described it as a corporate tactic. The rationale given was that business priorities lay elsewhere. Consultants confirmed these views based on experience with the same clients.

Summarizing these findings on the understanding and value of project management, we noted that the participants used efficiency and effectiveness values in different combinations that seemed to relate to their overall strategic or tactical understanding of project management. We depicted these relationships as follows:

Exhibit 1 depicts the understandings and value of project management as viewed by the buyers and sellers. In quadrant 1 (Q1), project management is understood in tactical terms and purchased for efficiency values such as return on investment, reduced costs and increased quality. Project management consists of tools and techniques. Most project management sales relationships in the past have predominated in this quadrant. Some may purchase project management in quadrant 2 (Q2) when buyers are strategic and sellers are tactical, but not many. Instead, the buyers will seek out sellers that are aligned to their values. In quadrant 3 (Q3) where buyers are tactical and sellers strategic, executives that purchase these project management services may come to realize the added value of doing so but possibly at the risk of staff resistance to change as project management is introduced at a more advanced level. Those selling strategically to tactical buyers and those selling tactically to strategic buyers (Q2, Q3) will soon find that they are not aligned and either adapt their sales strategies or be given even less access to senior management. Those selling strategic solutions will be aligned with buyers seeking effectiveness values (customer satisfaction, collaboration, organizational effectiveness and knowledge sharing). This point may be viewed at the intersection of the quadrants. Quadrant 4 (Q4) is similar to Q1 in that there is alignment. The seller and buyer (Q4) understand the need to use project management for long-term success from an organizational and business standpoint. Buyers are seeking innovation values of market expansion (creating new markets, developing a global presence) and advantage creation (changing industry and market practices) (Frost, 1999). Sellers are selling relationships at the business-to-business level. We observed that this advanced case existed at only one firm where we interviewed projectized staff.

Exhibit 1. Project Management Understanding and Values Matrix

Project Management Understanding and Values Matrix

Barriers to Selling Project Management

The feedback on barriers to successful project management experiences indicated that project managers and executives do not view project management as useful for more than a control mechanism. This limited view leads to the dismissal of project management as expensive overhead that has little connection to business value creation.

Some executives see project management as “easy and something anyone can do.” Others cite resistance to purchasing project management as a lack of alignment between stakeholders as well as a lack of willingness to “put some skin on the table” and share in the project risk. Still others indicated that some executives lacked a clear understanding of project management, and that they viewed it as expensive overkill. One practitioner stated that “These people don't know project management, they don't trust it and they think it is make work.” The results showed that within the buyer's domain, there is a significant range of diverse opinions and attitudes toward project management.

Exhibit 2. Project Management Selling and Buying Process

Project Management Selling and Buying Process

Similarly, consultants believed that senior management did not understand project management or its true value potential. Some consultants indicated that executives did not understand what it takes to do projects well, nor did they appreciate the detail involved in project management. They saw the major barrier as a matter of changing mindsets and organizations at a cultural level. One interviewee noted that “people have to feel the value to change, not see it.”

Other examples of executive resistance to project management as cited by project managers included comments such as “don't tell me how it's done, just show me the results.” One key issue appears to be a mis-match between need and expectations. That is, project managers do not always use the right arguments to convince management that project management can address a particular management need. Thus, disconnects occur between the project managers who tactically sell the features and attributes (merits) of specific tools and techniques for project success to management. Instead, executives want results and benefits at the business level. Therefore, project managers need to convince executives of the value of project management by going well beyond the traditional metrics of delivering on time, on budget and within scope. This will require project managers to first understand what they do to add value to business objectives before expecting executives to change the way they see things.

These barriers to selling project management were common themes in the course of extracting meaning from the interviews. The barriers reflect a resistance to change and a desire to maintain the status quo. The barriers at the executive level related to their understanding of project management and frequently, their lack of experience with it to appreciate its merits. On the basis of the differing viewpoints, it becomes clearer why a difficulty exists in understanding the value of project management. In particular, the disconnect looms large when the intentions of the seller and buyer diverge significantly.

How is Project Management Successfully Sold?

To answer this question, we asked each participant to tell us the story of a time when they were involved in the “purchase” or “sale” of project management within an organization. A synthesis of the stories resulted in the needs based decision-making process depicted in Exhibit 2.

Not one interviewee mentioned that project management was successfully sold proactively, as a strategic investment. Block (1991, 1992) supports the difficulty of proactively selling project management. In organizations not rife with crises, the executives seem disinterested in spending money on project management due to the perception that it was overhead and expensive. This explains some of the frustrations and challenges internal project managers faced in their efforts to sell project management proactively.

The interviewees indicated that the triggers to buy project management were related to a combination of external and internal factors as reactions to specific needs. Externally, the decision to buy project management was primarily related to competition and market share issues amplified by the following driving environmental forces facing today's organizations including: time compression, blurring of industrial and organizational boundaries, knowledge intensity, increasing returns to scale and increasing IT intensity (Saway, Malhotra, Gosain, & Young, 1999). These external forces influence the value creation process and in turn, the very core of how a business functions. Internally (personally and organizationally), the decision to buy project management primarily relates to an extremely troubled or failing/failed project or the advent of mega/complex projects. The impact of these internal and external contexts left the companies feeling that they were in “crisis” situations.

Specifically, crisis situations forced executives to consider the merits of project management in terms of the business problem. Recognition that the firm needed to improve the project management processes was usually based on the “insurance policy” value of project management in reducing risk and buying them certainty or its contribution to their personal success. Senior management's Willingness To Pay (WTP) for project management is associated with their perception of the pay-off—total revenue must exceed total cost. They tend to avoid buying project management because the tangible benefits seem disconnected to the individual's WTP, especially on a larger project that takes a long time. Conversely, Willingness To Accept (WTA) the loss of project management as an option/strategy in the future becomes much more of a compensation issue that places the loss on a grander economic scale. For example, senior executives may be WTP for project management for $100,000 as an initial capital investment. However, the numbers may sky rocket when asked what they are willing to accept in terms of economic compensation for the loss of the opportunity to purchase this same opportunity in the future. In either case, the risk decision may rest on only one variable (typically cost), without reference to future opportunities over time, which acts to underestimate or overestimate the value of project management.

Exhibit 3. Selling and Buying Relationships in Organizations

Selling and Buying Relationships in Organizations

Decisions to buy project management are often triggered by “crisis situations.” Thus, when executives begin searching for information externally, they reach out to specific project management consultants on the basis of prior relationships or referrals, e.g., those that were “top of mind” for specific services or skills. Rarely did the executives seek out new relationships with consultants or establish stronger ties with internal advocates of project management.

The results show three reasons internal sources of information are not cultivated. First, executives tended to view consultants with a different degree of credibility than their own project managers. In many cases the organizational crisis was in response to internal poor performance on projects. Project managers were usually the ones blamed or fingered when projects were in trouble and senior managers failed to appreciate the element of shared responsibility (Jugdev & Hartman, 1998). This tended to reduce the credibility of project management proponents within the organization at the very time when executives might be ready to listen. Second, another challenge that internal project proponents faced in selling to their executives related to position power and language. Typically, project management proponents were not at a similar level in the hierarchy and so did not have access to resources, influence, coalition and sometimes more importantly did not share a common language with the executives. When the project managers focused on project minutiae, executives further disconnected in terms of both receiving the message and listening. Finally, executives often got very mixed messages from their internal resources, messages often in direct conflict with those being offered by the consultants. Generally, senior executives got responses to queries about the state of project management in the organization that range as follows:

• “We do project management and we do it well so we don't need help.” This reaction reflects a resistance to change and exemplifies denial in terms of project management improvements.

• “We don't need project management. We have managed to do projects ‘the old way for years’ and do not need to change our practices or learn new ways.” This reaction reflects a resistance to change as well as a lack of awareness of project management.

• “We need help with project management. Thank goodness we are receiving help and our concerns are finally being heard.” This level indicates a heightened level of awareness that improvements are possible.

Executives receiving the first two types of responses are likely to be either confused or angry where they have recognized the organizational problems and outcomes related to suboptimal project management practices. Executives receiving the third type of response are not likely to turn to this group for advice.

Those seeking to promote project management are severely handicapped by the tendency of executives to be triggered to explore project management only in crisis situations. Clearly, this group needs to develop better ways of gaining access and promoting interest in proactive project management in support of business objectives.

Buying-Selling Process

Once the need was recognized and heightened awareness of project management achieved, it usually led to acceptance of project management as a potential solution. Then, executives took action by either buying project management externally from consultants or growing it internally by training their staff, hiring project managers and augmenting this strategy with some consulting services. These two choices differ in that buying project management services reflects an organizational culture that views it as a commodity. On the other hand, those companies that grow it internally are more likely to support it as a core competency. These companies indicated that it took years to grow project management internally and that the progress was incremental.

In the cases where the need for project management continued to be denied at this stage, the practitioners believed that there would be no change. In these organizations, project management was simply something anyone could do when the need arose. In such companies, project managers were often promoted up the technical ranks and awarded the title “project manager” although they did not necessarily have the experience or training to fill the role effectively. One interviewee used the term “accidental project manager” to describe these individuals.

Based on the participant information and literature, we developed the following model that describes the way project management is sold/bought in organizations (Exhibit 3).

Traditionally, project management sales relationships follow the trend shown in Q1, where the tactical relationships focus on selling features of a business solution. Buying occurs at a reflexive level or involuntarily such that no real learning takes place. If the seller does not “elicit” the desired response, then no relationship can be maintained (Q2). If the seller does elicit the desired response, a dysfunctional relationship can be established such that no new behaviors are learned; instead, association are developed through pairing previous experiences with associations that are made in response to the belief that one has control over the external trigger events.

Currently, practitioners are selling tactically and demanding strategic respect. This puts us into a situation whereby actions and behaviors contradict and change feels chaotic, like the whirl of a tornado (Q3). Ultimately, to thread into the eye of the chaos to the level of true learning, sellers must sell strategically with the purchaser buying strategically. In terms of affecting change that resonates at a personal and organizational level, strategic selling must occur (Q4). As an intermediary step, sellers may initially reach buyers at a tactical level (Q3). The responsibility for where the relationship goes from here rests with the seller and buyer being honest about the benefits of the relationship rather than pushing the features of the project management solution. The seller as a strategist moves the buyer into an area of trust that nurtures a mutual proactive response to making a personal change. The seller can begin to identify how the business solution relates to internal issues (things that keep the executive up at night) as trigger events. Buyers can begin to see the futility of reacting reflexively and trying to control external trigger events such as market stability and politics as a way to affect change that resonates through an organizational system.

Q4 shows a healthy, sustainable relationship whereby new behaviors are learned. Sellers and buyers do not act out of past associations from failed or successful experience. Rather they jointly tell a story that makes sense because it resonates with each party. Both parties learn the desired behaviors instead of reflecting on what they perceive each other to want. This becomes more than a process of generalization and discrimination of the features that each perceives to be of value in sustaining and growing the relationship. Rather, the benefits of a mutual relationship emerge and grow stronger because each focuses only on what they can guide internally for themselves—what is true from them instead of exercising perceived control over external trigger events.

To summarize, our Phase I research indicates that:

• Project management continues to be sold from a foundation values perspective and has not evolved to the innovation values end of the continuum.

• There are a number of disconnects that relate to the understanding of project management and its perceived value in business terms. There is a lot of work to be done to improve how it is understood and valued by executives.

• Sellers of project management (including project managers) need to use effective marketing strategies and communication skills in presenting it to executives in a business, not project context.

• Sellers need to be mindful of the dynamics around change management and ensure that they adjust their sales strategies accordingly. Company cultures are ingrained and change can be painfully slow. Recommending small-scale project management initiatives and “quick-win” strategies will go farther than more dramatic changes.

• Organizations are evolving in terms of their project management maturity. This relates to the 2x2 matrices presented and sellers need to be aware of this as they develop their strategies of selling project management.

• Effective relationships between buyers and sellers built on trust and past experiences with each other are critical to future working relationships and potential sales. These relationships cannot be built over the course of a few meetings. Sellers need to ensure that they cultivate these relationships and develop their credibility with executives.

• The preliminary findings from Phase 1 reveal common trends or relationships that bear further research and elaboration. Positioning and branding of project management appear to be central issues in establishing project management as a strategic capability. Both areas warrant further research with respect to the complex topic of selling project management. We will be researching aspects of these two topics in Phase II.


Our findings suggest that disconnects exist between what sellers promote and what buyers want to hear regarding project management. A naiveté appears around the belief that project management should be valued for its own sake. Thus, senior executives fail to see project management's value connection with the goals of the organization. In addition, the “sale” of project management at present appears to be the response to internal crises or changes in the environment instead of occurring as a proactive business decision. Those interested in being more effective at selling project management will benefit from learning and applying the basics of marketing strategies, listening to their target audience, and ensuring that they align the sale of project management to match the executive's degree of receptiveness on the value continuum.

Selling project management to senior executives requires project managers to learn different skills and overcome a discomfort with acting in a “sales” capacity. Project managers’ experience with project management means that they best understand its value and benefits within their company. They appreciate its value and benefits when it is used effectively on projects and they appreciate its need when projects do not go well. Project managers are excellent ambassadors to promote project management in business terms to executives. They can develop skills in putting forth the arguments of how project management benefits organizations by applying best practices and heightening senior management awareness of the value and benefits of project management to realizing their business imperatives.

As with any project, the attempt to “sell” project management at the executive level benefits from careful planning and preparation. The results of Phase I provide some insights into the process necessary to “sell” project management and some of the arguments that others have found to be successful.


Our preliminary research findings suggest that the difficulty in selling project management at the executive level often results from cognitive gaps in the marketing relationships. For example, project managers sell features and attributes when executives want to hear about results and benefits. At times project managers and consultants are guilty of selling before the need has been identified let alone agreed to by executives (Houle, 1998). These disconnects could be viewed as misalignments between values and expectations. Those involved in selling project management to executives can benefit from understanding and applying some basics tenets from marketing and communication (e.g., improving their listening skills in terms to learn how to frame the problem executives want answered). This will enable them to make the right connections about what executives are receptive to hearing in business terms. We suggest using a three-point approach of triggers, responses and proof to explain project management benefits.

Trigger: Understand what the triggers to buy are for executives. Currently, the strongest triggers for the need for project management at the executive level appear to be an external crisis or negative project activity. Buying occurs at a reflexive or involuntary level associated with current problems and no real learning takes place. This relegates project management to a reactive fast fix. This cycle perpetuates itself on the underlying belief that project management will help control and diffuse external trigger events. From a sales perspective this means that sales will always be reactive. However, until we determine how best to sell project management at the strategic level, project management proponents need to be ready to respond to external triggers.

To increase the potential for proactive sales, project managers can initiate the trigger by focusing on questions like: What are the top five things the executive is trying to do for the company? What are their priorities? What keeps them up at night? Listen for cues and insights into these areas. Once these are understood, project management can be fit into the appropriate context and sold more proactively.

Response: Sellers need to move away from selling project management by focusing on specific features and learn to reframe the information in terms of benefits and their connection to values relative to the executive's priorities. One way of doing this is by drawing analogies about the impact project failures have on the business strategy and discussing lessons learned. The goal is to stimulate deep learning on both sides, as opposed to making uninformed associations about the negative value of project management based on a fear of repeating past mistakes.

Proof: It helps to provide anecdotal information or proof of the value proposition in the context that executives will relate to, for example, restate the value of project management in terms that support the business objective and corporate strategies. This requires a tight, yet responsive to change, alignment between business goals and project management is required.

Worldwide, PMI has listened to the needs of its constituency to research this body of knowledge. In this paper, we have presented preliminary findings on how project management is sold to executives and the barriers to doing so. Project management is a tough sell in a competitive environment characterized by a lack of boundaries and innovative partnering strategies. Credibility and trust are important advantages to have and contribute to successful services selling. The insights provided in this paper enable sellers to create value-based propositions better aligned with executives’ requirements. Helping practitioners and executives to better understand the value of project management improves project management's alignment with corporate strategies, which in turn facilitates the company's advancement from operations based on foundation values to those based in innovation values.

Future Research

The authors are currently using a qualitative software analysis tool called ATLAS to conduct three levels of analysis on the transcribed interviews for ideas, themes and concepts. The Atlas findings will be presented in a subsequent paper. Phase I has enabled the development of a more focused and in-depth approach to Phase II of the research. Phase II entails a web-based survey or Delphi study aimed at generalizing and elaborating, challenging and in some respects validating the findings of Phase I. The aim will be to provide concrete descriptions of important triggers, responses and evidence to be used to support the introduction of PM in organizations. Individuals or organizations interested in participating in the second phase are invited to contact us.


The authors of this study would like to acknowledge the Project Management Institute for visionary directions toward this research initiative. In particular, we are indebted to Dr. Lew Gedansky for his leadership and support. The authors would also like to thank the following organizations for their generous financial support:

• University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta

• IBM Canada Ltd., Calgary, Alberta

• Project Management Institute—Southern Alberta Chapter, Calgary, Alberta

• Computers in Information Processing Society—Calgary, Alberta Chapter

The authors would like to acknowledge the valuable insights contributed by the study participants. For further details on this research project or for a copy of the abbreviated version that will be presented at the Project Management Symposium in Houston in September 2000 contact Dr. Janice Thomas at [email protected]


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Thomas, J. (1997). It's Time to Make Sense of Project Management. Unpublished manuscript. The University of Calgary, Project Management Specialization/Faculty of Management. Email: [email protected]

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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000



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