Taking the Initial Steps Toward Understanding the Project Management Function in an Organization

When I meet with a client for the first time about how they might improve their project management function, I prefer to spend the first few meetings getting to learn about their organization, how the project management function is structured and perceived, and their long-term goals and objectives.

Let me describe one such meeting.

I was asked by a client "a services company" to help them get their hands around their project management practices so that improvements could be made that would help them meet a long term strategic goal of growing the organization by an additional 100 project management employees worldwide within 2 - 3 years and increasing revenue 50% + within the same time frame via the introduction of new products and services.

After the initial phone call or introductory meeting, I send off a list of questions for the client to answer about the project management function as it currently exists. I use the results of these questions to better prepare for my meeting with the client, and, I have found it really helps the client get a grasp of their project management function. In many cases clients "ask around" the organization to get these answers and/or ping the project managers to get their perspective. For some clients with a lower tolerance of preparing ahead of time, I either scale back on the questions or do more data gathering during the face-to-face meeting. My goal is to ensure that I have a deeper understanding of their project management function and the challenges that they face - and they will also gain a deeper understanding of their project management function.

Initial List of Questions

How are individuals assigned to project teams?

What methodology, if any, is followed by the project teams?

How is the project manager/project lead selected?

At what point in the project is the project manager brought in? For example,

During the initial project planning stages before the project is even decided upon?

During the initial project planning stages before the budget and timeline is set, but once the project has been decided upon?

After the budget has been set but the timeline is undecided?

After the budget and the timeline has been set?


How are deadlines set on the project? For example,

Top down?

By the project sponsor?

By the project manager/project team?


How is the project budget set? For example,

Top down?

By the project sponsor?

By the project manager/project team?


How much "push back" is tolerated/allowed by the project manager/project team on the budget, schedule, or other factors? For example,

Some, with tradeoffs

Only in certain circumstances

All the time - we rely on the project team's expertise




Do your project managers manage global teams?

Do your project managers manage outside contractors?

How accurately do your project teams do the following:

Make accurate cost estimates

Make accurate scheduling estimates

Plan for and manage project risks

Meet milestones

Provide status reports/project tracking

Manage multiple resources

Capture lessons learned from all projects and apply best practices

Develop Work Breakdown Structures

Manage changes to the project

What project software is used within your organization and for what purposes? Does everyone use the software? If not, who does use it (e.g. a particular division or business unit?)

How do you measure the success of projects?

The Initial Client Meeting

Once I meet with the client, I'm also interested in knowing "how" the projects are completed. For example, does the client rely on a few "heroes" within the project management staff to get things done? (Think of those individuals you know who can swoop in and save a project - they will pitch in and roll up their sleeves regardless of the task.) If they do, I want to learn more about these individuals - their background, number of years with the organization, strengths, behaviors, etc.

Are certain projects finally completed after many fits and starts? Do certain projects seem to be less troublesome than others? Do the project managers rely on functional managers for expertise, or do the project managers also have competency in functional areas such as application development or manufacturing?

I'm interested in understanding the competencies of the project managers themselves. Are they certified? How long have they been practicing project managers? What size projects do they commonly lead? Have they had formal training? How is their performance evaluated? What is the turnover rate of project management staff within the organization? What level of accountability do project managers have on projects?

How does the organization get newly hired project management staff up to speed? Is there a formal mentoring program? Specific training classes? Job-shadowing? What exists to prepare them for their role at the organization?

By gathering this information, I begin to develop a much clearer picture of the project management function within the organization.

So, let's pick up with the story. The client was provided the list of questions prior to a face-to-face meeting. Overall, the following was gathered prior to the meeting (responses based on the questions asked above):

Individuals are assigned to participate on a project team based on availability first and then based on experience.

There is no particular methodology followed.

Only a small number of the project managers had certifications.

The project manager is selected based on availability and is usually brought into the project once the budget has been provided and a desired due date for the project has been established.

Deadlines for the project and the project budget are set by the executive team/project sponsor (project sponsor is, in most all cases, a member of the executive team.)

Once a due date is set for the project, it is normally released throughout the company so that marketing and sales can begin preparations. In certain circumstances, if something major is missed, for example - a need for outside resources - the due date will be adjusted based on project manager recommendations. However, in most cases the company strives to make the due date by increasing the number of resources on the project (which increases the project budget). Rather than missing a deadline, they are more apt to increase the budget.

Project managers do not manage global teams or outside contractors. They usually select project managers from the area where the team is located (so, if the project is based out of the office in Madrid, the entire project team is from that office). Outside contractors, when used, are selected and managed by the Procurement department.

Overall, project teams seem effective in:

Status reporting

Working together as a team

Developing the Work Breakdown Structures and the project schedule

Working within the project scope and managing change requests

Meeting major milestones (although sometimes it means increasing the resources on the project to do so)

Some project teams use Microsoft Project®, others use Microsoft SharePoint® for all project activities, and still other offices use Oracle Primavera. There is no consistency among software used although there is a desire to standardize at some point.

The success of projects is not formally measured - however, projects are considered successful if they meet or come close to the due date (even if the budget is increased to meet a timeline.)

During the meeting with the client, we talked about some of their challenges and issues on projects based on their responses to the initial questions. We learned that:

Approximately 80% of projects went over budget by 5% - 25%. This was due to deadlines that couldn't be missed and individuals being assigned to projects without the proper expertise.

There were not enough project managers to go around and frequently project managers were assigned to 3 - 4 projects at a time and were being spread too thin to effectively take a lead role on the project. Turnover was approximately 2 in 5 project managers on an annual basis (over the last 4 years).