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International Journal of Project Management 20 (2002) 93±98

www.elsevier.com/locate/ijproman

Working towards best practices in project management:


a Canadian study
Robert Loo *
Faculty of Management, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada T1K 3M4
Received 9 February 2000; received in revised form 27 June 2000; accepted 9 July 2000

Abstract
This study examined the best practices in a heterogeneous sample of 34 Canadian organizations having professional project
managers. The study also examined barriers to best practices and the organizational context in terms of leadership styles and
organizational culture. Like other studies, these results revealed a mix of technical and people-oriented best practices and areas for
improvement. Recommendations are presented for organizations. # 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Best practices; Leadership; Organizational culture; Planning

1. Introduction construction industry and found that `preparing and


organising' and `developing project de®nition' were
Best practices may be described as optimum ways of among the highest ranked tasks.
performing work processes to achieve high performance Best practices do not emerge from a vacuum, rather, an
[1,2]. While much of the best practices literature organizational culture must exist that values and nurtures
addresses best practices in the context of competition best practices [3]. One key element is the existence of
where organizations benchmark against the best, world- competencies where competencies may be seen as a set
class organizations for targeted processes such as new pro- of knowledge, skills, and abilities competencies; a task
duct performance [3] or a human resource management or activity competency; an output competency; and a
process such as training [4], there is also the context of result competency [9,10]. In terms of leadership, three
internal benchmarking. As Thurow states, ``Great com- di€erent kinds of competencies are required: leadership
panies compete against themselves. They may be the competencies such as the ability to lead change; func-
best but they are never good enough, they can always tional competencies such as technical and human
become better.'' [5, p. 285]. O'Dell, Grayson and resource management skills; and personal skills such as
Essaides [6] devote a book to methods for the internal high achievement motivation and persistence [11].
transfer of best practices rather than focussing on Besides the competency literature, there is a substantial
benchmarking against external organizations. Similarly, literature that focusses speci®cally on project leadership.
Toney and Powers [7] examined best practices in a project For example, Zimmerer and Yasin [12] reported that in
management benchmarking study of Fortune 500 com- their study of American project managers, the highest
panies. They identi®ed some 19 key success factors rated characteristics for e€ective project managers and
grouped into three areas: project strategy (e.g. strategic for project success were team building, communicating,
communications), project management professionalism demonstrating trust, and focussing on results among
(e.g. optimize employee compensation), and standar- others. Similarly, the key project tools for success were
dized methodology and procedures (e.g. emphasize project scheduling, budgeting, and execution planning
project and people management). Striving for best among a others. They concluded that their pro®le
practices also ®ts the TQM approach to management ``reveals a leader who recognizes that it is absolutely
where one is involved in benchmarking and continuous essential to build a project team, reinforce positive
improvement. For example, Jawaharnesan and Price [8] behaviour, communicate, demonstrate trust and respect,
studied project management best practices in the UK develop team members and empower them to perform
and set goals while remaining ¯exible to respond to the
* Tel.: +1-403-329-2174; fax: +1-403-329-2038. inevitable changes'' [12, pp. 37±38]. Kerzner [13] has
E-mail address: loo@uleth.ca done a notable job of tying together these di€erent
0263-7863/01/$22.00 # 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S0263-7863(00)00042-9
94 R. Loo / International Journal of Project Management 20 (2002) 93±98

contributors to best practices in project management While a higher response rate is desirable, it is appre-
with his six components model of excellence: integrated ciated that project managers are themselves under great
management processes, organizational culture, manage- time pressures and many were interested in participating
ment support, training and education, informal project in this study but unable to ®nd the time to complete the
management, and behavioural excellence. questionnaire as stated in their e-mail messages to the
The main purposes of the present study were to have author. The respondents tended to have been in the
project managers identify (a) the best practices in their project management profession for a long time
Canadian organizations, (b) areas for improvement, (c) (M=16.5 years, S.D.=9.2) and also in their present
barriers to best practices in their organizations, and (d) organization for a long time (M=11.2 years, S.D.=9.2).
to rate important organizational contexts for best prac- A wide variety of organizations are represented in the
tices, namely, organizational culture and leadership styles. responding organizations: high technology (7), manage-
ment/engineering consulting ®rms (6), manufacturing
(5), construction (5), oil and gas (4), utilities (4), gov-
2. Method ernment (2) and one unreported.

2.1. Sample
4. ``Best PM practices'' in my organization
A random sample of 150 Canadian organizations was
selected from the population of 168 organizations having The qualitative content analyses of responses and
professional project managers in the province of comments yielded a rich variety of themes that were
Alberta, the researcher's location. The sample cut across grouped into categories that were, in turn, grouped into
private and public-sectors, organizational size and industry two clusters, technical and people clusters.
groups. One project manager was randomly selected from
each organization's listing of project managers in the Pro- 4.1. Top ``best PM practice''
ject Management Institute-Canada membership list.
In response to the question asking for the top ``best
2.2. Questionnaire development practice'' in their organization, there was an almost
even split between ``technical'' and ``people'' themes
The questionnaire was developed from a critical mentioned. Four technical themes emerged as the orga-
review of the literature on best practices in management nization's top best practice: having an integrated Project
and, in particular, project management as well as on key Management System (PMS); e€ective scope manage-
organizational context factors, speci®cally, leadership ment of projects; e€ective project planning, scheduling,
style and organizational culture. The questionnaire was and controlling; and e€ective contract management.
®rst pretested using two university instructors and then There were four people-related themes that emerged
pretested using 12 project managers randomly selected from the comments: having high caliber project teams;
from the research population. Only minor revisions having stakeholder participation; e€ective communications
were required; for example, minor re-wordings to ques- within teams and externally; and customer satisfaction.
tions to remove ambiguities and slight changes to the
layout of the questionnaire to improve readability. 4.2. Second most important ``best PM practice''

2.3. Procedure and analysis Responses to the question asking for the second most
important best practice resulted in four technical
The questionnaire was mailed during the summer-fall themes: having an integrated and appropriate PMS for
1999 with one follow-up mailing to non-respondents to projects was noted here as with the top best practice;
help increase the response rate. Besides the descriptive e€ective scope management; e€ective resource manage-
statistical analyses of quantitative data, qualitative con- ment; and contingency planning. Three people-oriented
tent analyses [14] were performed on the participants' ``best practices'' emerged from the data: continuity in
written comments to identify themes underlying the client contact; e€ectively managing human resources;
comments. All participants received a detailed feedback and e€ective communications.
report on the survey results in December 1999.
4.3. Third most important ``best PM practice''

3. Results Finally, participants were asked to present the third


most important best practice; analyses of comments
The response rate was 22.7% with 34 of 150 organi- resulted in four technical and one people-oriented theme.
zations returning completed questionnaires for analyses. The four technical themes were the PMS; controlling costs
R. Loo / International Journal of Project Management 20 (2002) 93±98 95

and budgets; the importance of preplanning; and the . No PM `champion'. Not having strong leadership
importance of thorough project documentation. The or a 'champion' of PM principles in the organiza-
one people theme centered on the importance of e€ec- tion was seen as an impediment.
tive communications and meetings. . Leadership and the organizational culture. The
Overall, it was interesting to see the best practices split concern was raised that senior management cannot
between technical and people practices rather than just ®xate just on the bottom line, there is a need to
emphasize the technical aspects of PM. As several par- attend to process (e.g. planning) and people
ticipants noted, it is through people that the work gets aspects too.
done. There were several best practices that recurred . Inadequate investment in training. Organizational
over the top three places, namely having an integrated short-sightedness was seen as one impediment to
and comprehensive PMS, e€ective planning including investing funds in training for the longer-term
preplanning and contingency planning, e€ective scope payo€. The costs of training and time away from
management, e€ective client and contract management, the job for training courses were seen as barriers.
e€ective resource management, and e€ective commu- . Resistance to change. Sta€ resistance to learning
nications. and using PM tools meant that some managers
and sta€ are not prepared to change nor do they
4.4. Most important areas for improving PM practices see a need to change.
in my organization . Individual versus team compensation. It was noted
that compensation systems typically rewarded
Participants were asked to identify the top three most individual contributors rather than the team for
important areas for improving PM practices in their team performance; thus, individuals are reluctant
organization. Comments for the most important or top to share information and PM tools with others.
area for improvement were organized into three technical . Time pressures and constraints. Everyone is already
themes and one people theme: implement standard PM busy and improvements would require allocating
practices; improve scope management; improve budget even more time and energy into work at the
management; and the need for more manager and sta€ expense of personal and family time.
training.
Some seven themes, six technical and one people- The noted barriers to improvements presented no
oriented theme, emerged from comments about the second surprises given the body of literature in both the PM
most important area for improvement: integrate project and more general management literature on the di-
control methods; apply PM principles to small projects; culties of change. Fortunately, the literature includes
the need for organizational learning; the need to success stories and tips on change management [15].
empower teams; the need for project reviews and audits;
the need for ecient and e€ective resource planning;
and the need for more e€ective planning and preplanning. 5. My organizational culture
Some ®ve themes, four people and one technical
theme, emerged from comments about the third most Overall, the ratings and rankings on organizational
important area for improvement. The need for PM culture, as seen in Table 1, reveal organizations that are
training and education, particularly, training in plan- perceived to be very ethical (``good ethics is good
ning tools; the need for project documentation and the business'') and to have very diverse workforces. On the
sharing of project tools, techniques, and templates; the other hand, some of these organizations might consider
need to better manage human resources; the need to re-examining their systems for individual and group
promote e€ective communications and trust among all the rewards/compensation, sta€ involvement/empowerment
stakeholders; and the need to improve interpersonal skills. in areas such as decision-making, their approach to
training and development, and willingness to take
4.5. Potential barriers to achieving these improvements risks.

Numerous potential barriers were identi®ed to 5.1. Comments about my organizational culture
achieving the sorts of improvements to PM noted in the
previous section. Analyses of comments about their own organizational
culture led to four themes.
. An over-inclusive view of PM. The view that some
managers hold that there is one way to do PM and . Changing culture and managing change. The fact
that everyone in PM needs to know everything that organizational cultures are not stable but are
about PM was seen as an impediment to improve- constantly changing and there is a need to e€ec-
ments. tively manage change.
96 R. Loo / International Journal of Project Management 20 (2002) 93±98

Table 1
Describing my organizational culturea

My organization Strongly agree Agree Disagree Strongly disagree Rankings

1 2 3

Takes risks 17.6 52.9 23.5 5.9 10.3 2.6 5.1


Welcomes change 32.4 50 11.8 5.9 17.9 5.1 2.6
Has a diverse workforce 29.4 55.9 11.8 2.9 17.9 5.1 2.6
Invests a lot in training 20.6 44.1 26.4 8.8 0 10.3 5.1
Emphasizes ethical practices 58.8 35.3 5.9 0 12.8 10.3 5.1
Has e€ective communications 26.5 52.9 14.7 5.9 10.3 17.9 5.1
Uses TQM principles 25 45.8 29.2 0 7.7 2.6 5.1
Uses teams a lot 39.4 39.4 18.2 3 7.7 2.6 5.1
Involves employees in decisions 8.8 55.9 26.5 8.8 2.6 2.6 12.8
Rewards individual performance 20.6 44.1 29.4 5.9 0 2.6 12.8
Rewards group performance 26.5 41.2 26.5 5.9 0 0 0
Has strong organizational culture 26.5 47.1 20.6 5.9 5.1 0 7.7
a
All table entires are percentages (%) and might not add to 100% due to rounding errors.

. Pressures for innovation. Downsizing over the able to actively contribute to problem-solving, decision-
years has placed a heavier burden on remaining making, and the like. The emphasis on situational leader-
sta€, therefore, innovative PM improvements are ship makes good sense given the diversity within project
seen as very important in organizations. teams (e.g. di€erent professional and technical disciplines
. Bottom-line focus. This theme re¯ected the view and degrees of PM experience). Finally, while transfor-
that, unforunately, the prime focus in organiza- mational leadership did not receive relatively high ratings,
tions is on the bottom line, people are viewed as a this style has an important role in organizations; as one
necessary evil and there are too many people. participant noted, we are in a very competitive world
. Distrust. This theme noted the mild distrust and Canadian organizations need to change.
between executives and sta€.

7. Shaping the future


6. The leadership style in my organization
Having examined the current state, participants then
Not surprisingly in PM environments, this sample looked towards shaping the future, particularly the
described their organizations as stressing both task- and important role of leadership and organizational culture
people-oriented leadership styles while minimizing a seeing as ``best practices'' take place within the larger
laissez-faire leadership style as seen in Table 2. Given organizational context.
that PM environments tend to have highly educated and
motivated sta€, then the high ratings for participative 7.1. Best PM leadership style in my organization for the
leadership are expected seeing as project sta€ should be future would be

Table 2 Comments were presented about four styles of leader-


Leadership style in my organizationa ship that would be best for their particular organization in
the future.
The leadership style in Strongly Agree Disagree Strongly
my organization is agree disagree
. People-oriented leadership (25.8% of respondents
Task-oriented 36.4 51.5 6.1 6.1 endorsed). Respondents mentioned people-orien-
People-oriented 38.2 41.2 11.8 8.8
ted leadership because projects are completed
Directive 26.5 55.9 14.7 2.9
Participative 38.2 38.2 2.9 8.8 through people. One noted that he had seen this
Laissez-Faire 5.9 20.6 52.9 20.6 style work while other styles failed and another
Situational 14.7 52.9 23.5 8.8 respondent stated, ``Treat them well and they will
Transactional 12.1 63.6 21.2 3 remain loyal and the company will succeed.''
Transformational 36.4 30.3 27.3 6.1
. Participative leadership (22.6%). Not surprisingly,
a
All table entries are percentages (%) and might not add to 100% a participative style was endorsed given that pro-
due to rounding errors. ject sta€ are typically well-educated and articulate
R. Loo / International Journal of Project Management 20 (2002) 93±98 97

sta€ who have much (specialized) knowledge and . to invest more in training for sta€ and managers
experience to contribute. One person noted the alike especially in the areas of con¯ict management,
inclusion in decision-making and fostering of stress management, team building, motivation
creative freedom as important characteristics techniques, and communications skills; and
associated with this style. . to implement e€ective team-based compensation
. Transformational leadership (16.1%). Several respon- and recognition in addition to the commonly-used
dents advocated transformational leadership, with individual-based compensation systems.
one stating, ``Because most Canadian organizations
are lagging behind the world's leading organizations, The results and recommendations for these Canadian
though this is not apparent since the [dollar] exchange organizations are in line with those reported in studies
rate advantage for Canada has hidden weaknesses from other countries [3,7,8,12,13] which have shown the
such as the low productivity of labour.'' important role of both technical and people compe-
. Situational Leadership (12.9% respondents). Several tencies, project leadership, and a supportive organiza-
mentioned situational leadership with the following tional culture among other key factors in best practices.
quotes illustrating the rationale for the situational Therefore, these results are generalizable beyond this
style. Canadian context and sample.
``Situational leadership appears to ®t the future
needs the best...this style appears to ®t with the
needs of project management and has the ¯ex- Acknowledgements
ibility that is required in diverse workforces.''
``Each project is the consequence of a unique This research was supported by a grant from the
contract.'' Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
``No one [leadership] style is right for every Canada. More detailed results are available from the
situation. Thus, situational leadership Ð which is author at the Faculty of Management, The University
a style of styles Ð is best but dicult for many of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada T1K 3M4.
people to develop.'' E-mail: loo@uleth.ca.
. Transactional (6.2%), Directive (3.2%), and Task
Leadership (3.2%) styles were rarely endorsed.
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