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Selling Project Management to Senior Executives | Project Research Institute

Selling Project Management to Senior Executives

What? When?

Title: Selling Project Management to Senior Executives
Date From: November 1999
Date To: December 2001

Summary in brief:

Two main research questions were asked in this research: Why is it difficult to sell PM to senior executives? and How is PM successfully sold to senior executives? Through a grounded theory approach using personal interviews the research investigates the relationships of selling PM successfully and uncovers the complexities involved. Within this, the research builds an informative perspective on the relationship between tactical and strategic PM and its relevance to senior management. A second stage using e-surveys presents a best practice approach to selling PM to senior executives informed from the successes and failures unveiled from the research data and analysis.

Who? Where?

Affiliations at time of study.

Dr Janice Thomas

Affiliation: Athabasca University

Program Director, MBA in Project Management

Centre for Innovative Management

Athabasca University, AB, Canada


Dr Connie Delisle

Academic coach

Centre for Innovative Management

Athabasca University, AB, Canada

Kam Jugdev

PhD Student

University of Calgary, AB, Canada


Assisted by Pamela Buckle - teaching assistant University of Calgary.




with significant contributions from :


    Athabasca University     University of Calgary     IBM Canada     Computers in Information Processing Society Canada     ESI-International     PMI Southern Alberta Chapter and     CIO Canada



PMI, through its members, identified a gap between the interest in PM by senior executives and  investment made in PM.  PMI’s interest is to how best to communicate the benefits of PM to senior executives.

A better understanding of the success of situations where PM has been implemented , will help increase senior executive interest in project management.

Two main research questions were asked: 

Why is it difficult to sell PM to senior executives? and  How is PM successfully sold to senior executives?

Organizational theory contributes to the theoretical basis of this research. Ideas such as wicked problems (Lyles 1987) and knowing-doing gap (Pfeffer and Sutton 2000) can illuminate the issues in communicating the benefits of PM to senior executives.

Guidance as to which are successful arguments, processes and how to read organizational context and frame the moves that matter are considered useful practice outcomes. 


Project Organisation

The project was organized into two phases

Phase One - Literature and Concepts Review

Literature from project management, marketing, and organisational theory were reviewed. A general framework around the concept of selling project management to senior executives was developed and interview questions were derived from the emergent key concepts.

The aim of this first phase is to understand the relationship and successes of  selling PM within an organization (by the project managers) and into an organization (by consultants and PM experts).

A grounded theory approach was used to answer exploratory questions ( what is project management; what is the value of project management to your organization; if you had to sell project management… how would you do it?)  and  identify the underlying concepts. 30=35 questions were asked in a  qualitative, semi-structured interview.

Personal interviews, 25,  were conducted with practitioners experience in selling and purchasing project management; project management consultants/experts and senior executives with project management purchasing power.

Phase Two - Data Collection and Analysis

The aim of the second stage was to identify best practices (in process, argument, and context) to successful sell PM to senior executives based on six key concepts identified in phase one.

An online survey of 62 questions  (sent to over 35,600  emails with 3.093 surveys completed with 1,868 relevant for the study). Questions were tested for reliability (using higher Chronbachs alphas) and correlational analysis before an exploratory factor analysis was used to reduce and summarise the data. Eight models of selling PM were produced.

So What?

Practice Outcomes

High level findings indicate:

  • Senior executives recognize PM as strategic as well as tactical. However, 35% did not recognize PM as "having a strategic role to play".
  • Accidental project managers are not using appropriate PM tools and techniques are are not gaining the results they expect on strategically important projects
  • Internal advocates of project management (compared to consultants or experts ) have the hardest time making a successful case to senior executives.
  • Analysis of research data showed strategically important projects are not meeting specification, cost or schedule expectations.

Selling is represented as a cycle and the study suggests following the cycle may be a successful way to sell PM to senior executives.The cycle is described as:

  • planning the initiative - identify the stakeholders, risks and purpose
  • reading the organizational environment - by asking the important questions
    • relational - about the people involved
    • normative - about the the way to present the case
    • strategic - about the organizational motivations
  • framing the moves that matter - identify the compelling argument and follow the correct process to make it

The plan must be adjusted as necessary.

Research Outcomes

This research seeks to get at the reasons why project management benefits are difficult to sell to senior managers. in doing so it proves selling project management to be a wicked problem as it unearths some of the many interdependencies of perspective on the value of project management itself. Project management is a young research discipline and the researchers grounded this work within management theory of organizational analysis and marketing to provide conceptual support. The research itself adds to the strategic literature that exists around selling. The methods that are employed in this study to capture empirical data using electronic survey techniques are interesting in their own right. They yielded a good volume of data of quality that has the capability of being the basis for furthur study (in relation to training and experience; project outcomes; and value).

Future Work

Future work would be beneficial in the following areas:

Investigation of how the perception of value  and the practices of project management vary between stakeholder groups. 

Further contribution to theory development in organizational theory surrounding organizational strategy and selling.

Conceptual and terminology sharing between project management experts and practitioners.


"We did not find a silver bullet or one right way to sell project management ... it is a complex, interdependent process." "...there are some ways to approach each individual context [of selling] that improve the chances of successful sales." Thomas, J., Delisle, C., Jugdev, K., & Buckle, P. (2002) Selling project management to senior executives. Newtown, Pennsylvania: PMI Publishing


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