Insight # 24 : Prove It! Selling a Project Culture to the Skeptic

How to Sell Project Management to Senior Executives Who Don't Want It

by Adrian Balfour

Adrian Balfour, chairman of Pcubed, lays out a plan for helping project managers engage with senior leaders to build a project management culture that adds real value to business performance.

Over the course of 21 years in working with organizations to get projects delivered, programs off the ground, and portfolios pared down to the most critical and promising initiatives, I've seen a multitude of project managers struggle to sell non-PM-savvy executives on the virtues of project management. Most often, they fail in these efforts because they're too quick to offer silver bullets to save the day - a project management office or a new PM application - or they're too broad and bold in their ambitions, making promises about transformation across the entire operation.

Engaging with senior people isn't as difficult as you might think. It doesn't require heroics, miracles, or nepotism. In this article I lay out a six-month step-by-step process for helping you to build a project management culture that will improve your business' performance.

Where Project Managers Should Focus

The situation at most of the clients where I've worked follows a distinct pattern: A tension exists between customer-facing divisions and internal supply teams. Customer demands for new products and services almost always outstrip internal capacity to deliver, whether in terms of resources, skills, equipment, budget, or something else. That gap between what's needed and what can be delivered is where the project manager needs to focus. (In fact, if I were you, I'd stop using that title and start using "delivery manager" instead, because that's what you're going to do.)

These organizations typically operate at a fairly low level in terms of their project management maturity. You're no doubt familiar with the capability maturity model, a roadmap created at the Software Engineering Institution in Carnegie Mellon University that lays out five levels of maturity. Level one of the PM maturity model signifies ad hoc practices. When a crisis hits, for example, plans are often abandoned altogether. Projects tend to be chaotic. When a project succeeds, it's often because competent individuals perform "heroic" efforts. Processes are figured out on the fly and therefore are fairly unpredictable. Governance doesn't really exist. Reporting on project status is unreliable; nobody believes the numbers. At the other end of the maturity roadmap is level five. In these disciplined organizations project management is fully integrated into the culture.

Multiple Sources for Maturity Models

The Capability Maturity Model (CMM) from Carnegie Mellon University is the original one, introduced in 1989 with five maturity levels. It's now known as the CMMI - Capability Maturity Model Integration.

The Portfolio, Program and Project Management Maturity Model (P3M3®) is the UK government's version of CMM, which adds a focus on helping organizations figure out what areas will deliver the most value for performance improvement.

The Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3) is the Project Management Institute's version, which reflects feedback from thousands of members around the world.

Carnegie Mellon University did a survey of 30 organizations to examine the impact on several performance categories when they moved from one maturity level to the next. Scheduling in those operations improved by 50 percent; productivity improved by 61 percent. In other words, as companies grow in their maturity levels, the payback is dramatic. These types of metrics will be important for you in the process of enlisting senior management to support your project management work.

Even moving from level one to level two, according to research by Gartner, helped organizations improve schedule variance by 145 percent. In other words, moving from chaotic processes managed on the fly to some fairly basic project management practices can help a company that misses its schedule predictions nine out of 10 times to actually hit its schedule 14.5 times more frequently.

Let's Get Delivery Improvement Started

Your first job is to target a person leading one of those delivery teams who is stretched to the point of breaking or a customer-facing person who has promised some feature he or she can't deliver. Why one of them? Because they'll have the chief operating officer's attention, since they have a problem that needs to be addressed immediately, which means it'll also come with a budget.

When you meet with this person, especially in an organization that has an immature project management culture, as most do, never use the term "project management." Focus on the specific pain they're in first, which is almost always the delivery of short-term, predictable results. Identify pragmatic objectives for the effort, what improvements the executive can expect, and by when - but never farther out than six months.

If the executive is open to the conversation, explain that you want to obtain external validity from an industry model to establish what would be most effective for the company. I wouldn't adopt any of the models completely, to be honest. The processes they promote need to be infused with your organization's culture, should reflect the practical experience you have for delivering projects, and should encompass what's actually achievable under the circumstances.

Explain how the given model you're adopting can improve the situation, and provide some statistics to back up your case. Then offer a roadmap for achieving the improvement in maturity level for this specific problem. I think you'll find a receptive audience. Most managers aren't strangers to capability maturity; they simply lack confidence in the internal organization to deliver the benefits. They've seen previous attempts fail or they've been part of failed changed programs in other companies. In other words, they bring their "baggage" with them, and they're fearful of failure.

But in my experience, if an individual comes up and says, "I can make this happen; you can trust me to make it happen; I've done research; here's the external model that I've validated myself against; and we can make short term impact," that'll get attention.

Only when you've clearly articulated pragmatic goals to create a delivery culture and you begin to show credibility in meeting your schedule will the executive start to move forward in his or her commitment. Even then the budget will be carefully controlled and the results inspected frequently. That will be your lot for a while.

Assessing Your Company's Delivery Maturity Level

Your chosen model will be quite explicit with recommendations about what steps your organization needs to take to move to the next maturity level. But first you'll need to do a careful assessment about where you currently stand in the maturity model levels and what's needed to move forward. That's tough to do internally. People are often constrained by personal experiences, including your customers and the executive sponsoring this. They may have predefined views of how this has to happen, and those visions may not sync with the views held by the rest of the organization. So focusing on the wrong team to define what level you're at can have catastrophic consequences.

I often advise executives to bring in an advisor to work up an objective assessment across the organization rather than focusing on those who are in your face with strong opinions about delivery problems and how to fix them.

The idea of the assessment is to examine qualifications across the delivery community within your organization, behaviors, specific knowledge of PM skills, experience in project management for key business and technical areas, and feedback on personal effectiveness in your current project.

The Capability Assessment Outcomes

You may see multiple outcomes from a capability assessment. Here are the common ones:

  • You'll identify organizational gaps in project management capabilities.
  • You'll identify systematic shortfalls in an individual project manager's abilities.
  • You enable the PM community in a wider improvement effort to gain recognition and buy-in to changes.
  • You'll get "from the trenches" feedback from project managers.
  • You'll gain some baseline metrics that can be used in annual performance reviews and development planning.
  • You'll gain a proposed roadmap of targeted activities to improve PM capabilities.

What does this look like? The first take is the high level assessment, where you do a cross section of people - risk managers, sponsors, and others who report to the management team. This one will probably gloss over issues and ignore some of the action items you'd like to see. Answers you get back will be very diverse.

That's why I recommend proceeding with a mid-level survey done through a mix of interviews and online surveys. This assessment will provide you with a more factual understanding of capability that stands up to scrutiny and challenge. Get input from the project managers and other functional managers. Seek out other stakeholders. Get responses from business units responsible for those staff members who are working with customers. Do interviews with a certain percentage of each group. This input process will also be the start of communications to participants that change is coming, and here's their chance to provide insights regarding next steps.

In some cases - but not always - I recommend a third assessment, handled strictly through an online survey and typically involving everyone in the organization. However, going this far often dilutes the impact of what you're doing, and you can begin to lose focus and go far afield of the initial delivery pain you're working to eradicate.

If your sponsoring executive pressures you to pursue a maturity level that requires leapfrogging the one that's next up the ladder, resist; otherwise, you'll set an expectation within that person's mind that you can't fulfill. And when you can't fulfill what he or she believes you've committed to, the problem becomes you.

Once the assessment is done, and the company's maturity level is understood, you may have a list of 40 or 50 areas where you could make improvements. The challenge here is to prioritize them ruthlessly until you've figured out the three or four action items that will make the greatest impact.

Schedule variance is where I recommend you start. That's where Gartner identified that 145 percent improvement in going from level one to level two. Getting that fixed doesn't require cracking a whip. It means you'll have regular reporting meetings, you'll develop discrepancy reports, you figure out bottlenecks (frequently lying with those staff members who are over-subscribed because they have key skills that tie into the given delivery challenge).

It's Time to Introduce the PMO

Only at this point in the process should you start introducing the formal phrases, "project management" and "project management office" to the business. You've created the change program. The maturity model has been accepted. Everyone has an understanding of where the organization is in its project maturity, and you know what tasks you need to do to move to the next level. After you've truly been chartered by the executives to go forth and improve delivery in the organization, that's when you make a play for establishment of a modestly sized PMO - three or four people at most. But even then, you need to keep the PMO solely focused on those tasks. Don't let anything distract you from achieving success with those.

The Value of a Central PMO

Here's an index-card sized cheatsheet to help you cover the basics of why a PMO can be a valued addition to your organization. A PMO can help you...

  • Define and operate processes for prioritizing portfolio delivery.

  • Manage the roadmap planning cycle.

  • Ensure resources are managed well.

  • Reduce the risk of delivery failure by identifying and using best practices and tools.

  • Ensure delivery is governed effectively and that people are getting the right data to make timely decisions.

A PMO can flex four governance muscles:

  • A clear process for managing the roadmap of the individual projects making up the program you need to deliver on.
  • A gate for managing the quality of the program itself, which means making sure the business requirements are understood and that the project will deliver those requirements.
  • A management hub for coordinating across different projects that are within the change program. These are intended to ensure each project is aligned with the organizational goals and compliant with any architectural standards in place. They also help guide efforts to use resources effectively and efficiently.
  • A jumpstart for driving the pace to continually inject a sense of urgency into activities day to day.

This fourth one is easy to ignore. Doing it well can go a long way to ensuring delivery success. How you define it will be determined by the culture in which you're working. At one company where I worked, that culture defined a pace that mandated 8 a.m. steering team meetings every other day and a full new build of the product every week. At another company whose projects were decades long, the steering team met every six months to discuss project status over glasses of wine in a country club.

Ultimately, developing a culture where delivery can be assured and where improvement is continual encompasses a lot of aspects of the organization - leadership, the environment, the experiences of the individuals involved and their skills and knowledge, how gaps in capability are addressed, how people help each other, and at some point, the processes and tools adopted to help people and teams operate. Note that I mention tools last of all. Many companies are quick to jump to tools first of all; but I've found that you need to explore the other areas to get a realistic sense of what you're trying to deliver and to obtain buy-in from managers for the journey you need to undertake.

There is no silver bullet in achieving powerful delivery management for your organization. You need to drill down on the business problem that's hurting the company; then you need to present a case for solving it in a measurable way. Six months. That's all it should take to get your operation moving in the right direction and to give you the momentum you need to start building a project management culture that will improve your business' performance.