Project Manager Credibility- Sell Yourself and the Project

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

If you want credibilty and support from users and executives you must “sell” yourself and your project.  If you ignore selling or you try to impress them with technical jargon they will see you as irrelevant to their issues.  Let’s look at a PM’s fantasy of how they are perceived by the user and then see the harsh reality.

PM’s Dream Credibility…(That Never Happens)

An expectant buzz of conversation fills the meeting room as the assembled “suits,” await the project manager.  Each executive knows that he or she will leave the project presentation enriched with new knowledge and a PURPOSE. Suddenly there is silence.  Then they hear a faint swishing noise as the PM’s belt-mounted cell phones, three pagers and two Palm PCs jostle against one another. The crowd parts and the project manager swoops into the room with a stack of Gantt charts in one hand and a pile of PERTS charts in the other.  The PM glides to the head chair, nods to the hushed throng and says, Selling projects“Here is the Project Scope:. The AFR443 project will have a gooey interface and 354 nano-gigabytes of ROM, RAM, TAM and PAM. We will not impact the bandwidth on advertisements for customers and will not inflict trauma on the techno-workers who morph customer service.”

The executives shriek their approval of the project plan.

One executive slams a hand on the oak table and shouts, “If anyone fails to cooperate instantly, you may flog them.”

Another flaps a sheet of paper at the PM and yells, “Here’s the title to my BMW.  If I ever suggest a change in the scope you have so clearly enunciated, you may have the car.”

A third screams, “You can take as long as you want and spend as much money as you need.”

Additionally, the support continued that same way for the life of the project.  People who said, “You have my full support,” actually meant it. There weren’t new #1 priorities daily that changed the scope.  Team members treated project assignments as if they really mattered and not as work for times when there was nothing more important to do.  No one vanished into the underbrush just when their critical path task was about to start.

Selling Projects – PM’s Real World

You can count on this fantasy or recognize the need to sell your projects.  This need is most clear before project approval. But it is required through the entire project and the lesions learned at the end. The twin concepts of selling the project and having people “buy” it are most obvious when you do a project for a client. But the are also necessary when the “buyer” is your boss or a user department.

So what are you selling? How do you sell it? And what are they buying? Do you sell a lot of technical lingo, a 40-page scope narrative and an endlessly long Gantt chart? Too often that’s all you have to sell.  It’s no wonder that few people “buy” it and whatever support exists on “approval day” fades quickly. With it go the odds of your project success.

Some PMs try to make up for the lack of value in what they are selling with a “silver tongued-devil” approach, like a used car salesman.  They may not wear a plaid outfit or mousse their hair but they say things like “I’m your strategic partner”, “we’re user-oriented”, and “I’m here for you.”  However, no sales tactic can make up for the fact that you have not created project value in the user’s, client’s or boss’s mind. So while you may be charismatic and cute, support based on “golden words,” strong personal relationships or charisma doesn’t give your projects the kind of support they need. This becomes painfully clear when you need more resources, need to cope with a problem team member or must exercise scope control.

Selling Projects – Project Positioning & Hidden Performance Pressures

In selling projects, you need to present your projects so the boss, user or client “buys” the value of the project’s business result.  The business result has value when it relieves a performance pressure that your decision-maker feels. What are performance pressures? They are the operating shortfall that the decision maker’s boss made a big point of at the last quarterly review.  They can also be what the newspapers wrote about last week that made all the executives frown.  The problem is that most of the time decision makers tell us what to do; not what performance pressure they want to resolve. And, whether or not they have told us about their performance pressures, they will judge the project’s success based on whether it relieves those performance pressures.

This sounds simple but there are a couple of problems when you are selling projects.  First, you must identify the decision-makers who have a stake in the project.  Often times, performance pressures ripple through an organization and the person who assigns the project may not know where the performance pressure came from.  Second, with the decision makers identified, you need to quantify the performance pressures they want the project to relieve. As projects get larger, your “map” of decision makers and performance pressures can become complex.  But keeping this mapping updated is a great tool for account management and positioning.

Let’s say you get a project assignment to change a billing system report by adding several data elements and altering others.  The billing supervisor who described the project may have no idea where the changes came from or what the higher up wanted to achieve.  As you probe for the performance pressures, you find out that things started with the CFO wanting to identify the biggest customers.  A marketing director complained about how hard it was to track the sales that resulted from special promotions to these big customers. When you convert these performance pressures into measured achievements (See AdPM™ Achievement-driven Project Methodology) you have value to sell these decision makers. That leads to higher odds of project success.

This sounds simple but there are some barriers to unearthing the decision makers and then quantifying their performance pressures.

Selling Projects  -“Buying Perception” Barriers

Why don’t many clients/users/bosses share this information?  First, sometimes it reflects badly on them and there are many who won’t talk about their problems or pressures.  Second, they may not know what upper-level performance pressures rolled down-hill to them.  But the dominant reason decision makers don’t tell you about their performance pressures is their buying perception of project managers.  That means what they think they are buying ,or can “buy,” from a project manager.  The worst project buying perception is when the user/client/boss sees you, the PM, as an order-taker.  With that perception, they share the same amount of information with you as with the person at the drive-through window at McDonald’s®. Here’s an example of a PM selling projects and probing for performance pressures with a decision maker who has an order-taker buying perception of the PM:

Decision maker says,”Here are the changes I want in the report layouts.”

PM says, “Great! Exactly why do you need these changes? What are you trying to achieve?”

Decision maker answers, “I need the changes by next week.”

PM says, “If I understand your business purpose then I can do a better job of …”

Decision maker says, “That’s not your concern. Just make the changes in these report layouts by next week!”

PM says, “You’re making me fly blind here.  If I don’t understand what you…”

Decision maker says, “Make the changes in these report layouts, you little geek.”

This PM made a strong effort to unearth the performance pressures that triggered the project request. But they pressed so hard that they angered the decision maker.  The PM failed to unearth the performance pressure(s) or the cast of decision makers involved. They don’t have much to sell and the decision maker doesn’t have much value to buy.  They PM only knows the decision maker wants them to start quickly and hit the due date.  This brick wall the PM hit was low-level buying perceptions.  It reflects poor positioning with the decision maker.  It might result from the decision-maker’s previous experience with PMs who operated in the order-taker mode and never even asked about the performance pressures.

But if you focus on selling projects, you know there are performance pressures behind the decision maker’s request.  You can just start work on the assignment and hope that the decision maker has correctly aimed the project so it relieves their “hidden” performance pressures.  This hoping happens too often. Hoping perpetuates the order-taker buying perception. And puts you in a position where you’ll need luck to have the project be a success.

Selling Projects – Building Bad Perceptions with Techno-babble

You can start to change poor buying perceptions when you work with the user/client or the boss by selling projects. However, what often happens when you get a chance to meet with a decision maker to discuss the project?  Out of nervousness, inability to discuss anything else or a desire to impress the decision-maker with your expertise, you drag the conversation into the project and technical details. You never focus on their performance pressures.  Is the decision maker impressed?  No, they’re thinking, “This person is really scary. They have absolutely no perspective on what we want to achieve for the business.” That’s another example of a PM’s bad efforts selling projects.

To get at a decision-maker’s performance pressures, you have to stop talking about the delicious technical details of the project and start selling projects. You must probe and listen for their performance pressures.  Even better, you will meet with the decision maker after you have gathered information about their likely performance pressures. You use these sessions to find out what they want to buy as an end result. That is very different from what they want us to do.

Selling projects is a process of positioning.  You work to elevate the user/client/boss’s perceptions of what they can “buy” from you.  Then you use those improved perceptions to position our project(s) to relieve their performance pressures.  Each time a project relieves a performance pressure, their buying perception of you improves, making it easier to get and hold support for this project. Additionally, it will be easier to sell the next one.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on