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A New Way to Recognize the Achievements of Project Managers

A New Way to Recognize the Achievements of Project Managers

By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D., Senior Executive Director for Project Management, IIL

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are well underway, with athletes from all over the world being awarded medals for their achievements. Military personnel, police departments, and other professional organizations also recognize the achievements of their labor force through medals and ribbons. So, why shouldn’t we do the same thing for project managers? This could be significantly more important to a worker or project manager than a simple handshake.

We begin our projects with the greatest of intentions. Some people view project management as a series of contests or challenges beginning with a well thought out plan that everyone agrees with. When projects do not necessarily go according to plan, we may end up with rigorous confrontations that can lead to skirmishes and even battles with stakeholders. Some battles on projects are so intense that we consider them as all-out wars.

Years ago, many aerospace and defense industry projects were managed using war rooms. There was a reason why we called them war rooms. These were rooms with one door and no windows. On the walls were scope, scheduling, and financial information as well as other key metrics. It was called a war room because this is where the battles between project teams, executives, stakeholders, clients, and contractors took place. The concept of project war rooms still exists today.

If we look at the literal definition of war, we can see the comparison to the project management environment. This appears in Exhibit 1.

Dictionary Definition of WarProject Management Interpretation
An often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or partiesDisagreements between the project manager, client, contractors, stakeholders and governance groups, lasting possibly for the duration of the project
A concerted effort or campaign to combat or put an end to something considered injuriousEach of the disagreements can be viewed as injurious as seen through the eyes of each involved party; interpretation of changes in the enterprise environmental factors is an example
An intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities, and therefore is defined as a form of political violence or interventionEveryone has personal and/or political values which can be the source of the war; the personal values can become more important that the project’s values
An armed conflict or a state of armed hostilityWeapons of war are more than words; they include schedules, budgets, specifications, requirements and other competing constraints as well as the organizational process assets
A condition of active antagonism or contentionA war of words, a war of how to interpret the requirements or a contract price war

Exhibit 1 A Project Management Interpretation of War

Both victors and losers in war are often given ribbons and medals to commemorate their heroism in the face of adversity or simply to show their participation in a military campaign. This should be done for project managers and team members. The PM’s battles can exist on several fronts: battles with the client, the stakeholders, the project team, the governance group, and even with your own senior management. Each battle can be a different type of combat and they can all be taking place concurrently. This is one of the reasons why most PMs have good health insurance plans.

If each project is viewed as a military campaign or even a war, then what would life be like if we were to award ribbons and medals to project managers the same way we do it for military personnel? There are numerous challenges in project management and people should be recognized for overcoming these challenges. Of course, this will probably never happen, but it is still something worth considering.

The Competing Constraints Ribbon:

For more than 40 years we defined project success using the triple constraints of time, cost, and scope. But today, we have competing constraints which go well beyond just time, cost and scope. Other constraints, which are often not listed in the project’s requirements, but may be important include:

  • Using the client’s name as a reference after project completion
  • Probability of obtaining follow-on work
  • Financial success (i.e. profit maximization)
  • Achieving technical superiority (i.e. competitive advantage)
  • Aesthetic value and usability
  • Alignment with strategic planning objectives
  • Meeting regulatory agency relationships
  • Abiding by health and safety laws
  • Maintaining environmental protection standards
  • Enhancing the corporate reputation and image
  • Meeting the personal needs of the employees (opportunities for advancement)
  • Supporting and maintaining ethical conduct (Sarbanes-Oxley Law)
  • Hoping for a better assignment on the next project

Today, our projects are becoming more complex. We realize that meeting all of the constraints may be too challenging and even impossible on some projects. The solution may be to prioritize the constraints and hope that we can perform at a minimum within all of the high priority constraints. It is entirely possible that performance within all of the constraints may be more wishful thinking than reality.

For those project managers that perform within all of the competing constraints, they may receive the Competing Constraints Ribbon shown in Exhibit 2. Since the color green is often used to portray success, it is only fitting that the colors on the ribbon be various shades of green. The star in the ribbon can be a variety of colors signifying the number of projects that were successfully managed within all of the competing constraints.

Exhibit 2: Recognition for Meeting All of the Competing Constraints

The Pain and Suffering Endurance Ribbon:

When projects get out of control, whether it is the result of changes in the enterprise environmental factors or the personal whims of stakeholders, project managers end up taking the brunt of all of the pain. The pain can come from physical, verbal or emotional abuse. Some projects are completed without pain and suffering, but these are usually in the minority. Unfortunately, projects will get into trouble. When this happens, not all project managers know how to perform under this type of pressure or stress.

The criteria for this award is based upon:

  • Number of trips to the emergency room over the duration of the project
  • Number of bones broken or mutilated over the life of the project
  • Number of stitches received within a given time frame
  • Criteria does NOT include issues at home (although maybe it should)

Exhibit 3 shows the Pain and Suffering Endurance Ribbon. Since the color blue seems to be the most commonly used color in the medical profession, it is only fitting that the award be various shades of blue. The symbol in the medal is a common symbol used in the medical profession. The alternate choice for colors in this ribbon would be black and blue, and I am sure we all know why, and no further explanation is necessary.

Exhibit 3: The Pain and Suffering Endurance Ribbon

The Project Recovery Ribbon:

We know that projects have a tendency to get into trouble, yet not all project managers possess the necessary skills to recover a failing project. Sometimes people with special expertise are brought in to take over the possibly failing projects. These people may have the title of recovery project managers and wear armor and a bullet-proof vest.

Exhibit 4: The Project Recovery Ribbon

The ribbon for successfully recovering a failing project is shown in Exhibit 4.  The colors in the ribbon identify the direction in which the project must go, namely red (in trouble), yellow (there’s hope) and green (out of trouble). Recovery project managers may also be awarded the Pain and Suffering Endurance Ribbon.

The Global Project Manager Ribbon:

Some project managers become very good at managing internal projects and may receive numerous Competing Constraints Ribbons. Yet the same project managers may become failures at managing global projects because of their inability to deal with cultural differences, politics, power struggles, and rapidly changing enterprise environmental factors based upon who is in power in the host government at that time.

Exhibit 5: The Global Project Manager Ribbon

Exhibit 5 shows the ribbon awarded for successfully managing global projects. The seven colors in the ribbon represent the seven continents. People that are awarded the Global Project Manager Ribbon may also be awarded the Pain and Suffering Endurance Ribbon. It is unlikely that they will also receive the Competing Constraints Ribbon.

The Professional Responsibility Ribbon:

The project management environment offers numerous ways for project managers to get into trouble. Typical ways include:

  • Inappropriately giving or receiving gifts
  • Failing to report violations
  • Getting involved in bribes for giving or receiving contracts
  • Insider trading due to privileged information
  • Untruthful reporting of information

The Project Management Institute (PMI)® Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct should be adhered to and people that abide by the code should be identified and rewarded. Exhibit 6 shows a typical ribbon and/or medal for such people. People that fail to abide by the PMI® Code of Ethics Professional Conduct could end up with prison sentences and voluntary admission to the witness protection program.

Exhibit 6: The Professional Responsibility Ribbon

The Say “NO” Ribbon: 

Perhaps the most important and rarely used word in the project manager’s vocabulary is the word “NO.” No matter how well the project’s requirements are thought out and the fact that everyone initially agrees on the project’s requirements, changes seem to occur. While some changes are necessary, many changes are requested because of the personal whims of individuals, including senior managers and executives, and these requests may not be in the best interest of the project.

The ultimate purpose of a change control system is to prevent unnecessary changes from entering the project. Scope changes result in baseline changes with the ultimate effect of elongating the schedule and driving up the cost. Project managers must be prepared to say no. Project managers should be rewarded rather than punished when correctly saying no to the clients and stakeholders. The ribbon for this is shown in Exhibit 7 below.

Exhibit 7: The Say “NO” Ribbon

 The Innovation Ribbon: 

Innovation is generally regarded as a new way of doing something. The new way of doing something should be substantially different from the way it was done before rather than a small incremental change such as with continuous improvement activities. The ultimate goal of innovation is to create hopefully long-lasting additional value for the company, the users, and the deliverable itself.  Innovation can be viewed as the conversion of an idea into cash or a cash equivalent.

While the goal of successful innovation is to add value, the outcome can be negative or even destructive if it results in poor team morale, an unfavorable cultural change or a radical departure from existing ways of doing work. The failure of an innovation project can lead to demoralizing the organization and causing talented people to be risk-avoiders in the future rather than risk-takers.

Not all project managers are given the opportunity to manage projects that require true innovation. The criteria for the Innovation Ribbon in Exhibit 8 should be not only the creation of a unique product or service, but one that creates long-lasting value and possibly profits for the company.

The Profitability Ribbon: 

Not all project managers have the opportunity to manage projects designed to create immediate profits. Some project managers do not have profit and loss (P&L) responsibility and end up managing internal projects where the measurement of actual profits may be difficult and may not occur until well into the future.

But those project managers whose efforts directly contribute to the profitability of the firm should be recognized perhaps with the ribbon shown in Exhibit 9. There’s no apparent need to explain why the color green is used in the ribbon. However, there must be reasonable criteria established for what constitutes significant profitability. Also, the criteria should indicate that this is done without any sacrifice to quality.

Exhibit 9: Corporate Profitability Ribbon

The Power of Acknowledgment Ribbon: 

Today, we are asking project team members at the end of a project to evaluate the performance of the project manager and whether or not they would like to work for this project manager on future projects. If the project team members feel that they were personally challenged and motivated by the project manager to the point where they ended up performing to the best of their ability, they will most certainly want to work for this project manager again.

One of the secrets to effectively motivating the team, without incurring any detrimental results, is by using the power of acknowledgment. Exhibit 10 shows the Power of Acknowledgment Ribbon. Effective acknowledgment goes from your heart to the heart of the team members. Using the proper words when acknowledging the efforts of the team will unlock their hearts and motivate them to higher levels of performance. That’s why the heart appears in the medal and, of course, I assume we all understand why various shades of red are used as the colors.

Exhibit 10: The Power of Acknowledgment Ribbon

The Quality of Life Ribbon: 

Having the first nine ribbons and medals pinned to your chest may have no meaning unless you have a family to share the recognitions with. All too often, project managers become so in love with their job that they forget about their family and the community.

The Quality of Life Ribbon appears in Exhibit 11. The criteria for the award should be established by the spouses of the project managers based upon criteria that might include:

  • How much time does the PM spend at work as compared to the time spent with the family?
  • Does the PM remember the names of his or her children?
  • How much company work is done at home?
  • Does the PM attend and support community events?
  • If you have a dog at home, does the dog recognize the PM or bark as though the PM is a stranger in the house?
  • If applicable, how much time does the PM spend with the children?
  • How much travel is required in the PM’s job?

This award, in my opinion, should be presented at a public ceremony for all PMs to see. Maintaining a stream of successfully managed projects is a nice accomplishment as long as it is not done at the expense of your family.

Exhibit 11: The Quality of Life Ribbon


There are numerous battles that project managers must participate in to be effective. These battles can occur at any time and last for the duration of the project. In this paper, I have identified just 10 possible battles and project managers should be somehow recognized for their ability to have won these battles. We all know that there are other battles that project managers must endure, and perhaps the list may be as many as 30 to 40 battles. But at least we see the need to recognize some of the critical accomplishments made by project managers.

About the Author

Harold Kerzner, Ph.D. is IIL’s Senior Executive Director for Project Management. He is a globally recognized expert on project management and strategic planning, and the author of many best-selling textbooks, most recently Project Management 2.0.

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