Creating Productive Project Cultures

“Many of the delays in individual projects arise from problems at the senior management level”
– Eli Goldratt, “Critical Chain”

How productive is your organization’s culture with regard to projects? As a project manager, are you often frustrated with your organization’s project culture and lack of support? Here are 7 things you need to do to make sure your project culture is supportive and productive.

1. Take responsibility for your individual role in ensuring project success

It’s wrong to lay all blame on senior management for the problems experienced in the management of projects and their outcomes. Rather, it is also up to Project Managers to educate their sponsors (generally members of senior management) in what is expected of them, which will help to ensure project success.

How Should Project Managers Educate a Sponsor?

It is not uncommon for Sponsors to be unaware of their responsibilities in helping to ensure project success. Sponsors are generally strategically focused; not task focused, and as such do not need to understand the details of managing a project. That’s the project manager and project team’s responsibility.

It would be great if all project sponsors could attend a full project management workshop, but realistically, they wouldn’t have the time necessary to learn the entire project management process. As well, they wouldn’t be managing the project at a micro level and the knowledge gained would be of a lesser value than for those assuming a project manager or project team role.

The sponsor does, however, need to understand the project management process and the role they have to play in helping ensure the project’s success. This requires far less of a time commitment on their part.

The project manager should advise their sponsor (thereby providing them with knowledge and education) on some of their responsibilities:

  1. Approval of the scope statement:
    When the scope statement will be ready for the Sponsor’s review.
    The requirement of both project manager and project sponsor to sign-off and form agreement on the project’s scope.
  2. Sign off on the project plan:
    When the sponsor should expect to see, review and approve the high-level project plan.
  3. Project Milestones:
    When the sponsor should expect to see reports with a listing of all the established project milestones.
  4. Project Plan Updates:
    The frequency in which sponsors may expect to receive project reports and updates and the timeframe for approvals.
  5. The Process for Managing Issues:
    The expectations of both the project manager and sponsor in regards to issue management. How will issues that may arise be handled?
  6. The Process for Managing Change:
    The expectations of the project manager and sponsor in regards to management of change.
  7. The Process for Managing Project Risk:
    The process for identifying, accessing, and managing project risk and the role of the sponsor in assisting in risk management.
  8. Project Closeout and Evaluation:
    The process for a closeout evaluation of the project.

2. Be prepared to address management’s issues about project management

Gaining Management’s Commitment

The questions senior management is likely to wrestle with are: Why bother? Why change? Even if they understand the potential positive impact of managing projects more pragmatically, it still tends not to be enough of a motivator to create the change. Oftentimes, management does not truly see the benefits for change.

Management may be asking, ”How will project management affect our organization? Customers? People? Profitability? Quality?” The answers to these questions are the drivers towards change. The other key concern may be, does it have to be done now or can it wait?

One more issue for senior management is, if they give their projects over to project managers, will they lose power? Management may be experiencing a “perceived” loss of power when managing by projects. Initially, this can be difficult to overcome with them.

To address these management concerns, project managers must be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the benefits of project management to the organization?

    It’s astounding how often this piece is missed. What are the real benefits to the organization? To its future? Its profitability? Its customers and staff? If they have the answers to these questions, then the change will be easier to accept. Research indicates that there are many benefits for organizations that manage by projects such as: increased profitability and customer satisfaction due to more on-time, on-budget, customer-focused project management techniques. However, management must determine its own drivers for change.

  2. Are other organizations doing it?

    Perhaps yes, but so what? Using examples of other organizations is not always a motivator for change. Every organization has different products, customers, culture, etc. It is better to show management the unique benefits to their own organization rather then to attempt to make comparisons to others.

  3. Will I lose power as a senior manager to project teams?

    When an organization creates more work to be done in teams either as a project, for process improvement or reengineering, senior management may sometimes become concerned about a perceived loss of power. While this is usually more their perception than it is reality, management may fear a loss of control because their day-to-day routine and decision-making is taken away and moved downwards within the organization.

Project managers need to address this fear by reassuring management about project planning parameters and the control mechanisms that senior management could and should set to ensure they are involved in the “important” decisions, rather than all decisions. Senior management needs time for planning the organization’s future. Project management provides them with a chance to push decision-making down while at the same time establishing control mechanisms and parameters for teams, so they remain in control.

3. Link project management with quality processes and matrix management structures

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. If you always change and improve what you’ve always done, you’ll always exceed what you’ve always done.
–Michael Stanleigh

In my experience the application of quality systems and processes to projects results in more successful projects. As part of this, it is important to consider the complexities of how employees who work on projects will be managed. Since many organizations work within the complexities of a matrix management structure, successful execution of projects requires negotiation between line and functional managers as well as between project managers and the functional manager.

To complete projects successfully, organizations require:

  • Teams
  • Partnerships with their customers
  • Strategic Planning
  • Quality systems and processes to manage these

On a project, the project manager is responsible for identifying:

  • What tasks must be done in order to achieve the objectives of the project?
  • By when is it necessary to complete the tasks?
  • Why is it that the tasks have to be completed?
  • What is the value of the tasks (i.e.; how much it is worth paying to carry out the tasks)?

On a project, functional managers are responsible, within their own areas, for identifying:

  • How the tasks are to be done (i.e.; the procedures and quality standards)?
  • Who will do the work?
  • When resources are to become available to do it?
  • Where the work will be done (in the functional organization or in the organization requiring the service)?

The question of when the work will be done generally is a matter for negotiation between the line and functional managers. Where the work will be done may also be a matter of negotiation between the project manager and the functional manager.

4. Make sure the project will contribute to achieving the organization or department’s strategy

The Process of Creating Projects:

Projects can often happen at a grassroots level within the organization. Without a structure put in place to ensure that these projects are managed in a consistent manner, success will be hit and miss. Oftentimes management will not support the project if they do not see the benefits.

Alternatively, when strategy development is used to identify key organizational projects and when a process is put in place to link all of these projects together with other, more specifically departmental projects, the result will be a continuous stream of successfully achieved strategies.

5. Create a Quality Project Office to drive projects and establish central communication between project teams and management

The Quality Project Office

Very current thinking links Quality to Project Management. Quality Steering Committees and Quality Councils have been in effect within organizations for some time now. The creation of a Project Management Office is a copy of these councils. Current thinking is to establish an office which oversees all projects and all quality systems. The prioritization of work is not centered only on projects, rather it includes key processes to be improved and/or reengineered in order to better meet customer and other stakeholder expectations. Similarly, the resourcing of quality systems impacts the resourcing of projects. An organization must look at the resource requirements of both.

A Quality Project Office acts as a prime driver for a corporate transformation and ensures a consistent approach and methodology for:

  • Managing projects
  • Developing business plans
  • Creating policies
  • Improving processes
  • Measuring performance
  • Driving cultural change needed to create a customer service & fiscally responsible driven organization
    Communication—a communications breakdown leads to project failure in almost half of all projects. Communication is crucial to a project’s success. It must be made an integral element of any organization’s project management process.

Therefore, the prioritization of all projects, processes, planning and other team initiatives, such as Benchmarking, (as this type of initiative impacts organizational resources) are best managed by the Quality Project Office.

6. Establish success criteria for each project & measure against it

Success criteria will vary with each project. Some of the success criteria that we see project teams establish include:

  • On-time project completion
  • Within-budget project completion
  • Client/Customer satisfaction levels
  • Quality standards established
  • Met project objectives
  • Enhanced organization’s reputation
  • “Ground breaking”
  • Clear requirements set and met
  • Committed Sponsor and Project Manager
  • Clear vision
  • Strong project team with clear and open communication
  • Availability of proper skills
  • Transition plan included in project plan

7. Recognize and reward job performance on projects

Proper financial compensation and rewards are important to the morale and motivation of people in any organization. Projects are no exception. However, there are several issues that make it challenging:

Job Descriptions:

Issue – Job descriptions do not usually exist for project management staff. They generally exist only for the more traditional jobs and job classifications throughout the organization.

Solution – Develop job descriptions for all levels of project personnel. Include appropriate job titles which reflect their level of responsibilities, authority and accountability. These can then be benchmarked against existing compensation scales within the organization to determine relative worth and pay scale range.

Reporting and Accountability:

Issue – A matrix organizational structure illustrates a dual reporting and accountability relationship for the Project Manager and project team members.

Solution – Job descriptions should include reporting relationships. They should also include accountability and decision-making authorities. Performance Reviews should reflect not only the work completed by the individual on their job, but also take into the account the work completed by the individual on the project(s).

Rewards Determination:

Issue – These are often difficult to establish, quantify and administer. The criteria for “doing a good job” are difficult to quantify. They appear easier within a traditional role.

Solution – Clear job descriptions coupled with specific job goals, which include objectives for job performance and project performance. Some organizations separate job performance from project performance in their salary and compensation structures.

Rewards take many forms. They include a public thank you, a letter, a plaque, or monetary award. Each organization has their own methods. It is very important that the project team be rewarded for the extra effort required to complete the project, in particular, if successful. When a person had a rewarding experience, they are more willing to serve the next time they are asked to join a project team.

Rewarding Project Managers

Criteria that can be used to manage, measure, and reward Project Managers include:

a. Success in leading the project toward pre-established deliverables:

  • Budget
  • Schedule
  • Milestones
  • Quality
  • Technical accomplishments
  • Market measure, new business, follow-up on contract

b. Utilization of organization’s resources:

  • Overhead cost reduction
  • Working with project team
  • Working with other organization’s resources
  • Cost-effective decision making

c. Ability to build effective project team:

  • Project staffing
  • Communications
  • Conflict management
  • Work with support groups

d. Effective planning and implementation:

  • Plan detail and measurability
  • Commitment to delivery
  • Management involvement
  • Contingency provisions
  • Reports and reviews

e. Customer/client satisfaction:

  • Perception of overall project performance by sponsor
  • Communications with customers/clients
  • Stakeholder analysis and follow through
  • Responsiveness to change requests

f. Participation in business management

  • Keeping management informed of new project/business opportunities
  • Bid proposal work
  • Management of RFP process

g. Technical skills:

  • Technical task completion
  • Administrative and organizational complexity
  • Multi-disciplinary functional management
  • Staffing and start up of project

h. Scope of the project:

  • Total project budget
  • Number of personnel involved
  • Number of organizations and sub-contractors involved

i. Changing work environment:

  • Nature and degree of changes and re-directions
  • Contingencies developed


While there may be some risks to consider, for an organization, when moving into a truly productive project culture, there are also many rewards reaped by organizations. Creating a productive project culture using the above 7 steps will help you achieve the many rewards and reduce or even eliminate the risks.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at