5 Critical Success Factors for Project Management Improvement

Geraldine O'Reilly
By | Updated January 3, 2018 | 10 min read
Project Management Improvement

For over twenty years, BrightWork has worked with customers across lots of sectors. In that time, we’ve learned a few things about successful project management! 


Learn more about BrightWork PPM software for SharePoint in our video demo


In this blog post,  I outline the five factors we have identified as being essential for successful project management and project management improvement in any organization.

To help you on your journey, I have included self-assessment questions to help you identify any missing factors.


1. Executive Sponsorship

Definition: Senior management recognizes Project Management as a strategic capability and necessity for the organization, and desires to improve this capability.

Executive sponsorship can mean one senior executive is supporting a company effort or even better, the entire senior management team. The effort, in this case, is the improvement of project management across the company.

Oftentimes, when you picture an executive sponsor, you see someone who has a “seat at the table” but is disconnected from the day to day running of the business.  hey simply secure the funding and initial resources needed for a project and disappear until the project is completed.

This is not the type of executive sponsorship you want or need for successful project management improvement.

The sponsor should be engaged from the beginning, ensuring the effort makes sense in terms of the overall company strategy and that it also has the backing of the other key decision makers.

The executive sponsor will help the project manager by providing direction and securing the company conditions needed to be successful. For example, a team member may be tied to numerous projects but really they need to be spending more time on this particular project.

The project manager may consult the executive sponsor and outline the case for a freeing up of the team members time. The executive sponsor will advise and potentially pull some strings from higher up to create the desired outcome.

The executive sponsor should have a good overview of how the project improvement effort is progressing but does not need to know about day-to-day work.

Keep them informed of key issues and deadlines so they can filter this information out to others when appropriate. An effective executive sponsor trusts the project manager and project team to deliver on the goals of the project. They are approachable and involved when needed.


  • Question 1 – Did the effort for project management improvement initiate or trickle down from the senior management team as a result of company objectives and goals?
  • Question 2 – Does the executive sponsor(s) check in to see how the project is progressing or have you set up a regular update or communication to inform them?
  • Question 3 – Do you feel comfortable enough to approach your executive sponsor(s) for support or assistance when you see an issue that you may need their assistance with?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, I suggest you take a look at ensuring you truly have executive sponsorship for project management improvement.



2. Project Management Champions

Definition: The organization appoints an individual or a team to drive Project Management improvement.

Project management champions go above and beyond their typical role to advocate and ensure the success of project management within the organization. In the case of tackling project management improvement, they are the individuals who use their position and expertise to create a winning environment. The more project management champions you have and the more senior they are, the better! A project management champion isn’t the project manager or project leader. The position isn’t a formal one.

In larger organizations, the champion can help you win executive sponsorship. In smaller organizations, the executive sponsor may play a dual role as the project management champion. In this case, it is advisable to appoint another champion who is not responsible for any monitoring of the project. Instead, they advocate for the project and gain the trust of those needed for it to be successful.

It helps to have a project management champion who is committed to this informal project role alone as it means the project will have more support when combined with the project manager and the executive sponsor.

In many ways the project management champion is an “all-rounder”, they understand the needs of everyone from the team member to the senior executive and suggest solutions for those needs. They are respected by the organization, have strong communication skills and can navigate the sometimes choppy waters of company politics.


  • Question 1 – Do you have a project management champion who holds a mid-senior level management role?
  • Question 2 – Is your project management champion respected by others in the organization?
  • Question 3 – Do you have project champions who are not your executive sponsor or not involved in any formal way with the project?

Did you answer “no” to any of these questions? I suggest you get working on enlisting some advocates for your project!



3. Problem Definition

Definition: The group understand and can prioritize the challenges associated with Project Management that they require to improve.

A project is a plan of work that ideally gets you to the desired outcome. Before a project takes place, you really have to think about and define why you are taking on the project. What are the issues and problems you are having that the project will address? In the case of improvement, what are the project management issues you face that you want to address– visibility, collaboration, technology etc?

Remember most problems are hidden and it is, in fact, the symptoms of the problem that you see. It is therefore important to do a proper root cause analysis so that you are not just treating symptoms but curing the condition!

Here at BrightWork our CEO, Eamonn McGuinness has a simple tip: Ask yourself the five whys. Keep asking the following question of the problem – “But why?” Eventually, you will get to a solid reason which is the root cause or the condition, not a symptom. In the 1950s, Toyota Motor Corporation’s pioneer of the Production System, Taiichi Ohno, implemented “kaizen” (a method of continuous improvement). He is said to have instructed his staff to “ask why five times about every matter” as “the root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution”.

Once the root causes or problems are identified,  a decision needs to be made about which problems to address first. The decision-making approach may differ from one company to another for example; simply using your gut, forming a holistic approach, or group consensus. When final decisions are made they should be documented and communicated to the entire team so that everyone is on the same page regarding the order of project work.


  • Question 1 – Have you done a root cause analysis or asked the “five whys” of your current project management problems?
  • Question 2 – Have you decided which project management problems to address first and has this been clearly documented and communicated to the wider team?

Answered “no” to either of these questions? Better get cracking on changing that answer!



4. Solution Definition

Definition: The group have an understanding or can recognize workable solutions to these Project Management challenges.

This factor really cannot take place without the previous step, Problem Definition. Once the team has an understanding of the issues they are going to address first, they can then begin to form solutions. This factor is really defining the work package that will deliver the end product.

In terms of project management improvement, there are many variables that will impact what solutions or work will be undertaken; time, resources, budget, technology, skills, and project management maturity.

The chosen solutions inform the “project scope” the plan of work needed to complete the project. Project scope management ensures the project includes all the work required, and only the work required, to complete the project successfully.

If work outside of the project scope begins to get added, there is a danger of “Scope Creep” – when minor (or what appear to be minor) changes or improvements to a project build up and have a knock-on effect on the time or cost of a project. For some projects, scope creep is inevitable but it is essential to measure the scope creep so it can be managed before it becomes detrimental to the project.


  • Question 1 – Do you have a clear understanding of what the project scope for the project will be?
  • Question 2 – Have you recognized that there may be scope creep and come up with a way to manage it?

Is it a “no” for either of these questions? Turn around and address them quickly!


5. Stakeholder Engagement

Definition: The designed solution is vetted by a representative sample of the key stakeholders (e.g. project managers, team members, senior executives) before deployment.

Stakeholder engagement, also referred to as user adoption,  is vital to project management improvement. If at the end of all your work, the people who are supposed to use the project management solution or follow the project management methodology aren’t happy and deviate from the solution, then there is not just a risk of project failure – it has failed!

It is important to introduce the solution to a small sample first to understand if there are any major issues that were missed or need to be addressed in the short term.

Oftentimes, stakeholder engagement is an afterthought, or the final step not only for a project management improvement project but also for many projects introducing new technologies or user experiences. There is a risky misconception of “Build it, and they will come”.

We recommend getting users involved from the outset, keep them informed of what is happening and what the benefits of the end product will be. This will help to foster enthusiasm. The problems they are facing should be understood and part of the Solution Definition. Consulting them early and often will help to foster trust. When you have both enthusiasm and trust in a solution then engagement is much easier achieved.

Enlist the support of your executive sponsors and project management champions to help with communicating the importance and benefits of the project management improvement. After all, that it is what they are there for! They can help to make sure new users are trained and understand the new solution. This will help introduce a feedback loop for future iterations to address what is working well and what is not.

When rolling out any line of business software or method, it can be difficult to get all users comfortable and on board for a variety of reasons.  Project management is no different.


  • Question 1 – Have you been getting feedback from stakeholders and general users from the beginning of the project?
  • Question 2 – Do your stakeholders trust and are they enthusiastic for the new solution?

Answered “no” to either of these questions? – Better get on it!

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2017 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

Geraldine O'Reilly
Geraldine O'Reilly

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