Project Management Institute

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selling project management to senior executives


Selling Project Management to Senior Executives

by Janice Thomas,Connie L. Delisle, Kam Jugdev, PMP, and Pamela Buckle

Project management is not typically considered a concern of senior executives … until some crisis awakens their interest.

WORLDWIDE, PROJECT MANAGEMENT tools and techniques are gaining acceptance in many industry sectors. Increasingly, companies are espousing project management as a core competency. However, over 30 percent of organizational projects end up being cancelled in midstream, over half run as high as 190 percent over budget and 220 percent over the original time estimate. Although lost opportunity costs can be difficult to measure, KPMG's 1997 survey of over 1,400 organizations found the lack of top management commitment to be a key factor in failed projects.

Despite the pervasive high failure rate of projects and advocacy of project management by practitioners, serious, long-term investment in project management remains a tough sell. The difficulty in selling project management internally can be compounded by stiff competition from consultants and product sales representatives jockeying for senior executives’ time to peddle the wonders of their project management methodologies over those of others.

PMI® sponsored a research project on this topic. Presented here are the findings from Phase I of the research and some practical insights gained from interviews aimed at identifying practices that foster senior management's awareness of the value and benefits of project management to organizations. By exploring situations where project management has been successfully or unsuccessfully introduced into organizations, we begin to identify the compelling arguments of how project management benefits organizations and to articulate the practical and political approaches for gaining access to executives.

Framework for Research Initiative

A perusal of relevant project management, marketing, and organizational literatures provided a useful framework for understanding the issues around selling project management. Following is a summary of some of those most relevant to our research initiative.

Disconnect Between “Selling” and “Project Management.” The terms “selling” and “project management” seem disconnected in the eyes of most project managers. However, project managers do promote and advocate the use of project management in the course of their work. Most, unfortunately, focus on the features of tools and techniques of project management and their inherent benefits related to the priority triangle of time, cost, and scope. It is not often that their sales strategies tie project management outcomes to corporate-level outcomes and strategies.


Janice Thomas, Ph.D., associate professor of project management at the Centre for Innovative Management at Athabasca University, is responsible for all courses in the project management area. Prior to joining CIM, she was an assistant professor of management at the University of Calgary, representing the Management Faculty in the joint engineering/project management specialization. She remains closely associated with the program, supervising masters and Ph.D. research students. Her 10 years of “real world” experience as a project manager in the information technology and organizational change fields led her to undertake graduate research into the fundamental reasons for project failure. She is an active researcher who has presented her research to academic and practitioner audiences around the world.

Connie L. Delisle is completing her Ph.D. in the project management specialization at the University of Calgary; her topic is success in virtual projects and their teams. She also holds degrees in environmental studies and social psychology and in natural resources management. She has worked as an environmental advisor, engineering technician, and team leader.

Kam Jugdev, PMP, is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary specializing in project management. She has over 15 years of project management experience in a wide range of industries. Her areas of research involve the value of project management and understanding how it is marketed to and purchased by executives. She is also a member of PMI.

Pamela Buckle is a Ph.D. student in the human resources and organizational dynamics area of the Faculty of Management at the University of Calgary. Her research interests lie in exploring the alignment of sense-making styles between individual knowledge workers and the corporations in which they work. Her work experience includes project management, marketing, and consulting in nonprofit organizations and the executive search industry.

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What Are Senior Executives Looking For? Generally, senior executives look for information that will help them make sound business decisions as well as position them favorably in terms of their personal and professional growth. For example, they look for ways to measure and increase the return on their organization's investments and reduce expenditures. These outcomes tend to be tied to corporate strategy, not individual project outcomes.

How Do Sellers and Buyers Interact? Sellers and buyers act either tactically (short-term, quick-win) or strategically (long-term, slow-win). The tactical approach advocates a strong product focus, whereas the strategic one entails working with the customer to find the right solutions to business problems. Over the past 30 years, there has been a noticeable shift toward the strategic approach. Senior executives have less time for tactical approaches and are seeking business relationships. Developing a relationship as a trusted advisor improves the likelihood of a successful sale.

Selling and Triggers. Successful selling strategies trigger a need in the buyer to which there is a prepared response that situates the product as the best solution, with evidence supporting the argument. Sometimes the need is triggered by events or circumstances external to the sales effort, as in the case of a crisis. But these types of triggers are not as useful in the sales process, as the seller has little or no control over their timing or occurrence. Successful salespeople attempt to develop trigger strategies for their products that are more within their control by exploring the needs of the buyer and framing the product to address those needs.


This review made us speculate that the difficulty in “selling” project management may be caused by a misalignment between buyers and sellers around project management values. We set out to confirm this and gain some concrete insights into the magnitude and nature of the problem by exploring the following two questions:

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

img How is project management sold in organizations?

Our interviews with 25 senior managers, project managers/practitioners, and project management consultants/experts, representing a relatively diverse set of private sector organizations, yielded some interesting insights. (Note that public sector buying patterns, particularly in areas such as Defense and NASA, may be significantly different. Phase II of this research will broaden the sample to address any potential discrepancies.) A summary of the findings that relates to the questions we set out to answer is presented below. The first explores participants’ understanding of project management and its value, the second looks at the process of selling project management.

Understanding of Project Management and Its Value. Most interviewees defined project and project management in words analogous to PMI's glossary in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge [1996 edition, page 167]: “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service” or as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities in order to meet or exceed stakeholder needs and expectations from a project.” It was not described as a philosophy, and none of the practitioners referred to specific methodologies.

Once past the initial definition stage, a more varied understanding of project management came to light. Some viewed it as a tool or technique; others viewed it as a life style, a part of their belief system. It was often described in religious terms, with interviewees indicating that they had “found the religion of project management” and describing themselves as “converts.” Others were less passionate, tending to describe it as a tactical tool box for getting things done.

For project managers, the perceived value of project management lay in its efficiency in setting track records and achieving career goals and its effectiveness in satisfying customers. Measures that most interested them related to being “on time, on budget, and on spec.” As such, they focused on tactical strategies in selling project management (features, attributes) because they were “heads down, in the trenches” people and these were the values most important to them.

The value of project management to consultants rested on increasing revenue 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. Smaller consultancies tended to sell project management benefits relative to their individual skills and expertise.

As for senior executives, although they were interested in services that were aligned to their strategic business and personal goals, they did not consider project management capable of fulfilling these goals. As such, they were interested in buying tools or techniques that impacted strategic outcomes rather than those aimed at improving operations.

A disconnect clearly exists between perspectives about the value of project management and what it should accomplish for organizations. The literature in this field points out that successful sales messages must reflect the buyer's needs as the buyer understands them. Project management must be positioned as a solution to executives’ central business concerns and backed by evidence, rather than as a religion or a quick fix.

How is Project Management Usually Sold? Triggers to buy project management were related to a combination of internal and external factors as reactions to specific needs:

img Internally, the decision to buy project management was primarily related to an extremely troubled or failing/failed project or the advent of mega/complex projects.

img Externally, the decision to buy project management was primarily related to competition and market share issues.

The impact of these internal and external contexts left the companies feeling that they were in “crisis” situations.

Not one interviewee mentioned that project management was successfully sold proactively, as a strategic investment. 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 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 tended to avoid buying project management because the tangible benefits were not immediately evident, especially on larger projects that take a long time. The decision to invest in project management rested on only one variable, typically cost, which underestimated the value of project management in achieving larger organizational goals.

Triggered by crisis situations, executives reached out to specific project management consultants on the basis of prior relationships or referrals, 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.

There seemed to be three reasons why internal sources of information were not cultivated.

First, consultants had more credibility with executives than project managers. In many cases, the organizational crisis was in response to poor performance on in-house projects. Project managers were usually held accountable for these, and senior managers failed to appreciate the element of shared responsibility. This undermined 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 on the same level in the hierarchy and so did not have access to resources, influence, coalitions, and, more importantly, sometimes did not share a common language with the executives. When project managers focused on project minutiae, executives’ priorities lay elsewhere and they did not listen.

Finally, executives often got mixed messages from their internal sources, messages often in direct conflict with those being offered by the consultants. Generally, responses to queries about the state of project management in the organization ranged as follows:

img We do project management and we do it well, so we don't need help. This reaction reflects a resistance to change and is not conducive to project management improvements.

img 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 indicates an immature level of project management at the organizational level and significant resistance to change.

img We need help with project management. Thank goodness we are receiving help and our concerns are finally being heard. This level indicates a moderate level of project management maturity and signifies that improvements are possible.

Executives receiving the first two types of responses are likely to be either confused or angry in a situation where they have recognized the need for change or improvement. Unfortunately, executives receiving the third type of response are not likely to turn to this group for advice.

Internal proponents of project management are severely handicapped by the tendency of executives to explore project management only in crisis situations. Clearly, this group needs to develop better ways of gaining access to senior management and triggering interest in project management more conducive to proactive implementation.

Once the need was recognized and heightened awareness of project management achieved (learning), it usually led to acceptance of project management as a potential solution and an investment decision. 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 choices differ in that buying project management services reflects an organizational culture that views project management as a commodity. On the other hand, those companies that grow it internally support it as a core competency. These companies indicated that it took years to grow project management internally and that progress was incremental.

In 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 handle when the need arose. These project managers were often promoted up the technical ranks and awarded the title “project manager” although they often did not have the experience or training to fill the role effectively. One interviewee used the term “accidental project manager” to describe these individuals.

Our findings suggest a misalignment between what the sellers promote and what the buyers want to hear in the project management realm. Senior executives fail to realize the value of project management's connection to the goals of the organization. In addition, the “sale” of project management at present appears to be in response to internal crises or changes in the environment instead of occurring as a proactive business decision.

Selling project management to senior executives requires project managers to learn different skills and overcome the discomfort of acting in a “sales” capacity. Since they are the ones best situated in the organization to evaluate its benefits and needs, project managers could make excellent ambassadors, proactively promoting project management in business terms to executives.

As with any project, the attempt to “sell” project management at the executive level benefits from careful planning and preparation.


Based on the findings from Phase I of this study, those involved in selling project management to executives can benefit from honing their marketing and communication skills; for example, improving their listening skills in terms of 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.

Triggers. 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. 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 where executives respond on the basis of listening to their internal needs (reducing costs and increasing revenue), project management proponents need to be ready to respond to these external triggers. To increase the potential for proactive sales, project managers should focus on questions such as: What are the top five things that executives are trying to do for the company? What are their priorities? What keeps them up at night? They should listen for cues and insights into these areas. Once these are understood, project management can be fit into the appropriate context and sold proactively.

Responses. Sellers of project management need to move away from selling specific features (for example, tools and methods) and learn to reframe information in terms of benefits or values relative to the executive's priorities. One way of doing this is by drawing analogies about the impact of project failures on business strategy and discussing lessons learned. The goal is to stimulate a deeper understanding and appreciation of the values of project management and the ability to better visualize and control future projects, which would work toward the attainment of the larger business objectives.

Proof. It helps to provide anecdotal information, or “proof,” of the value proposition in a context that executives will relate to (for example, restate the value of project management as an effective and efficient strategy in the achievement of business objectives). A tight correlation between business goals and project management is required.

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 service sales. The insights from practitioners provided in this article can enhance project management proponents’ competitive edge by aligning their values with those of senior executives in the market for these services.

These insights also form the basis for the exploration of specific successful arguments and processes to be undertaken in Phase II of this study. Phase II will entail 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 project management in organizations.

Details of Phase I of this study are available upon e-mail request to ■

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.

January 2001 PM Network



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