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What “Project DNA” Are You


Dr. Karen L. McGraw

Cognitive Technologies, Inc.

Ph: 512-380-1204

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Each organization has its own “DNA”—internal codes of working, behaving,
communicating, and relating. What’s in this DNA? Components include: formal
and informal systems, processes, management structures, guidelines. Other
organizational DNA includes norms for culture, communication and collaboration,
and approaches to learning and continual improvement. Because these
components are so pervasive and essential to “the way work gets done,”
organizational DNA has a profound effect on an organization’s ability to
successfully implement strategy and vision to achieve desired business
Organizational DNA tends to be Organizational DNA (whether good or bad) tends to be inherited and replicated
inherited and replicated throughout an by business or functional units throughout the organization. Many organizations
organization. operate in ways that limit opportunities to ”maximize the DNA.” Other
organizations have internal maturity surrounding its components, allowing the
organization to work to its fullest potential and optimize results. It is no surprise
that the fields of organizational/industrial psychology and human capital
assessment have focused on these components and their effect on the bottom
This white paper extends the concept of organizational DNA to large projects and
illustrates how you can optimize your project DNA to improve your chances of
project success. First, we define project DNA and discuss the value of
examining the impact of improved project performance on different levels of the
organization. Next, we posit a model of high performance for projects, based on
research in the field of human performance, and apply this model to the field of
project management. Finally, we examine two approaches you can use to
understand and improve the current state of your project DNA.

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What is Project DNA?

Large technology projects or programs are microcosms of an organization. They
display and operate from their own components of DNA— a charter, an
organization structure, project management methodology and tools, Project DNA consists of components
management, and the skill sets of people filling many job roles. Together, these including a charter, organization
components represent their unique ‘project DNA’. Large technology projects may structure, project management
exhibit weak management and poor control structures, particularly if the project methodology and tools, management,
or program is supported by many people from different organizational units or and the skill sets of people filling various
companies. And more often than not, large projects ignore the importance of project roles.
learning and continual improvement.
Project DNA can actually impede the success of the project, leading to budget
and schedule overruns, bad quality, and project team environments that are so
unsatisfactory that the retention of key people becomes a problem. Many project
managers are not even aware of the existence or impact of their project DNA
until it is too late. Worse yet, weak project DNA tends to replicate itself through
an organization as new projects are undertaken and new project organizations
are set up.

The Value Proposition

Successful projects matter. Figure 1 illustrates the 3 levels of performance
impacted by project success—the organizational level, the process level, and the
individual job/performer level. An organization’s ‘project DNA’ (and its ability to
influence the success of its critical projects) affects each of these levels.

• Business Results
Organization  • Customer Satisfaction
Level • Corporate Reputation

•Process Management
Process Level •Lessons Learned
•Continual PM Process Improvement

Individual  • Enhanced PM Skills
Performer  • Achievement of Job Goals
Level • Improved Engagement & Retention

Figure 1. Three Levels of Performance Impacted by Project Success.

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At the organization level, successful projects—those that have on-schedule

delivery, within-budget completion, and customer and/or end-user satisfaction—
impact the bottom line of the business and influence the corporate reputation.
This can enhance market recognition as a strong project management
organization, which in turn opens doors to future opportunities, bids, and
projects. In addition, well-managed projects provide a mass of historical data that
can be used in planning and estimating future projects to greatly improve their
chances for success.
At the process level, successful projects yield continual improvement of project
management methodology and processes. Successful projects can be reviewed
and mined to establish best practices and improve processes for project
management within your organization. In addition, projects can be examined to
identify “lessons learned” that contribute to continual improvement of processes,
tools, staffing models, etc.
And at the individual level, a successful project affects multiple performers,
ranging from business analysts and developers to project schedulers, team
leads, and project managers. Working on a well-run project is one of the best
ways to enhance the skill levels of project team members, which can then be
leveraged on future projects. And as project team members grow and develop
their skills and competencies, they are more likely to meet their job/career goals.
For all these reasons, a successful project improves the engagement and
retention of project team members.

Project DNA Issues

Our company provides high-performance project and program management to
Different organizations have their own improve the success of mission-critical projects. Working with clients of all sizes
strengths, weaknesses, and project across both government and commercial organizations, we have observed many
DNA. Project DNA is replicated when types of projects, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and project DNA.
new projects start up. Real and potential project DNA problems can be found in management
structures, tools, methodology and processes, staffing and job design, or staff
In many organizations, problems repeat from project to project without any
acknowledgement of their previous effect on the success of the outcomes. Why
is this so? Often the organization does not acknowledge the need to address the
project environment or recognize the benefits that come from developing a
successful project DNA. Organizations may not equip, fund, or staff projects with
the correct level and types of resources needed to insure success. Unfortunately,
this front-end failure always leads to problems down the road. And when
problems arise, most attempts to improve project management are “knee jerk” in
nature—overworked executives or project managers focus time and money on
only one piece of the puzzle, expecting to solve all of their problems. One
example of this is the organization that buys a complex, comprehensive toolset in
an effort to improve project management, but fails to address issues such as the
templates, processes, structures, communication, and skills required for success.
Although tools are typically a component of successful projects, this single
tactical action is not likely to affect the overall project DNA and success rate.

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Understanding your current project DNA requires a comprehensive look at the

various components that drive project success. It is useful to start with a model
of high performance for project management. By addressing all of the key
components of project performance, the organization can establish a structured
approach to consistently improve their project DNA and their projects’ business

Key Components of Project Success

The PMBOK1 clearly defines a project management methodology and the
primary areas of operation and processes essential for success. However,
because projects exist within organizations, we must look past the functional
requirements for the job and consider the way successful project managers in
your organization do the job, the information resources and tools used, and the
impact (both positive and negative) that influence their performance. Research in
the field of human performance improvement suggests that there are key
components required of high performance in any field. A model for optimizing
human performance can be applied to project management to help organizations
improve project success. Figure 2 illustrates the top-level schema for a model of
high performance.


& Tools

Key Work
Processes Outcomes
& Critical of the Job

Figure 2. Model of High Performance. (From research conducted by McGraw,

Holloway, and Mankin for ASTD, 2004)

Together, the components shown in Figure 2 contribute to successful, above-

standard individual performance in any job role. The following sections describe
each component of the model.

PMBOK stands for the Project Management Body of Knowledge, published by PMI.

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Outcomes of the Job

Outcomes are sometimes referred to as major accomplishments of a job. They
are the end result of performing a job that produces something of value for an
organization or department. (In other words, it is not enough that something is
produced—to be an outcome, the result must be valued by the organization.)
Outcomes are what is “left behind” at the end of the day, week, or other time
period after the job has been completed, and they must be measurable.
Examined collectively, outcomes enable the organization to meet its goals. Job
performers who cannot clearly explicate the outcomes for their jobs, and
organizations that fail to measure and set standard criteria for job outcomes,
cannot repeatedly produce successful performance.

Key Work Processes and Critical Tasks

A process is series of actions, changes, or functions that bring about a result.
Key work processes are the major chunks or groupings of tasks that comprise a
performer’s day-to-day work efforts and support the accomplishment of one or
more outcomes. Key work processes may be dictated by the project
management methodology the organization chooses to implement. Key work
processes should represent an appreciable part of the work effort. In addition,
job performers should be able to name each key work process, discuss its level
of difficulty and complexity, and describe its critical success factors. Each key
work process can be examined by looking at the critical tasks that comprise it.

Information, Resources, and Tools

While key work processes and critical tasks describe how the job gets done, the
information, resources, and tools required for high performance describe what is
essential for successful completion of the job. This includes frequent, accurate
communications shared with the right people at the right time and in the right
format to enable action. It also includes access to required resources, including
reference materials, templates, lessons learned, “how to” guides, contacts lists,
and the right people. Necessary tools include technology products as well as
templates that standardize and enhance performance. In a model of high
performance, it is not enough just to have the tool available. It must be
accessible and usable by the people who need to use it (who must be trained in
its efficient, effective use).

Managing Influences on Performance

Regardless of the job or organization, there are “influences” on performance that
are often overlooked by management until performance of a critical job role
becomes a problem. Job performance may be affected by any of the following:
• Managerial and organizational support
• People skills and staffing decisions
• Workplace (physical and social environment)
• Process and information flow
• Technology and tools

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• Personal motivation of the job performer.

Examining these areas to identify hidden barriers to success enables the

organization to make changes that can drastically improve the performance of
any job.

Applying the High Performance Model to Project Management

The high performance model has been applied in job roles throughout The high performance model can be
organizations—from the executive and managerial ranks to entry-level jobs. It applied to any job role in an
works equally well with line workers as it does with mid-level managers. Our organization.
company has applied the high performance model to project management in
order to help organizations improve the success of their projects.
When deciding how to apply the components of the high performance model to a
critical job role like project manager, we suggest that organizations seek the best
by looking at the people in that role who consistently perform above standard.
This allows the organization to:
• Find the best approaches to producing job outcomes and train
employees in those methods.

• Recognize and improve access to the information, resources, and tools

required for above standard performance.

• Manage the factors that influence performance.

Table 1 provides examples of how each component in the model relates to

project management.

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Table 1. Relating the High-Performance Model to Project Management

Model Component Examples of How it Applies to Project Management

Outcomes of the Job Project team members who know the outcomes they must
produce for the project to be deemed a success.

Standardized success criteria for project outcomes—

including entrance and exit criteria—are established.

Metrics that matter and can be used to drive the production

of project outcomes are documented.

Project outcomes are measured consistently.

Key Work Processes & Key work processes are identified for the critical project
Critical Tasks management positions. Examples of a project management
work process is “Planning and organizing the project.”

Critical tasks for the PM job are documented and used to

help manage performance, including setting standards and
criteria to determine success and linking each work process
with the output required.

Information, Resources, Clear documentation of communication specifics: who to

and Tools report to, when to report.

Standardized formats for communicating status information.

Effective meeting management tools.

Centralized tools for schedule, time, and resource


Managing Influences on Organizational structure that enables good resource

Performance management, with minimal bureaucracy.

Strong leadership support for the project.

Ability to staff the project from the beginning with the right
people and skills.

Organizational support for collaboration and sharing that is

essential to project success.

Elimination of processes that hinder success.

Empowerment by management.

Examining a project against the high performance model can enable

organizations to determine their project DNA and understand the kind of DNA
they are replicating.

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Approaches to Improve Project DNA

Most organizations want to improve the success rates for their projects; doing so
enables them to reap more business success when projects are delivered on
time, budget, and schedule. And success breeds success—project management
success brings future opportunities, improved retention of key project managers,
and improved recruitment of future PMs. One way to improve project success There are two primary approaches to
rates is to improve project DNA and the components that are replicated with improving project DNA: a top-down
every new project. approach and a bottom-up approach.

But where should an organization start their effort to improve project DNA?
There are at least two approaches that can be used. One is a “top-down”
approach that involves rapid implementation of a PMO using
tools/templates/techniques that reflect established PM best practices. The
second is a “bottom-up” approach that focuses on understanding and replicating
the code for successful project management in your organization. Of course,
organizations may decide to combine these approaches to speed the replication
of positive project DNA.

Top-Down Approach
The top-down approach to improving project DNA focuses on improving the
processes, management structures, project environment, and tools (including
training on tool use). This can be accomplished by implementing a fully
functional PMO and empowering it (and the staff that supports it) to succeed.
This approach establishes a strong foundation for project management success,
which ensures the replication of good project DNA. New projects take on the
processes, environment, tools, and management structures already in place,
making adaptations that may be required due to project size and schedule.
Advantages of taking this approach include project team member recognition that
the organization is serious about project management, as well as immediate
results. For example, our company has established key components of
enterprise PMOs for clients in as little as 90-100 days. Applying this approach is
not without its challenges, however. It requires strong organizational and project
sponsor leadership. It also requires effective training for all project managers
and other project team members. And to minimize negative reactions to the
change, it is essential that the organization carefully handle communication
before and during the roll out of the PMO.

Bottom-Up Approach
The bottom-up approach to improving project DNA is more organic in nature. It
focuses on understanding what is already working well in your organization and
using these as “seeds” to extend project management success to other projects
and parts of the organization. This approach analyzes your organization’s Successful project managers are those
successful project managers via the components of the high performance model who consistently perform above
presented previously. Our company uses an analysis methodology called standard and produce valued project
Performance DNA. Performance DNA is a 4-phase methodology that enables us management outcomes.
to recognize and document the code for successful performance, as well as the
current barriers that are impeding success.

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Understanding the following elements of successful project management in your

organization enables us to make recommendations for improving your overall
level of project management:
• How exemplary project managers work and deliver successful projects

• How they work around and remove common barriers

• Critical issues to which they attend

• What tools and templates they use

• What influences their success (from skill acquisition to work environment,

management support, technology, training, and motivation).

This type of performance analysis can be completed in as little as 8 weeks, but

may require 10-12 weeks if project managers are located in many different cities
or locations. Recommendations will vary, depending on the findings, but include
suggestions to immediately improve project success. These recommendations
may include:
• Revised hiring/skills profiles

• Specific training needs, including a curriculum plan that suggests which

PM training is most appropriate and when it will be most successful

• New tools, including job aids, templates, and project management


• Changes in the way middle management supports project managers

• Changes in some processes, including the elimination of non-value-

added processes to remove barriers and improve success

• Addressing workplace issues, such as work space, better collaboration,

and computer tools

• Revised motivation/incentives for successful project managers.

This intensive analysis reveals how exemplary project managers produce

success and how to increase the number of exemplary project managers in the

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Project DNA already exists in any organization with large technology projects.
Much like organizational DNA, it affects each project’s ability to achieve
successful outcomes. Good project DNA, when replicated throughout an
organization, improves project outcomes, creates positive “lessons learned” and
enhances the skills of project team members. Negative project DNA can also be
replicated throughout an organization, resulting in consistently mediocre project
outcomes, fewer project managers who feel successful, problems retaining the
best project managers, and a dampened reputation.
Smart organizations ask the question “What project DNA are we replicating?” By
asking the question, they begin the process of examining how their successful
projects and project managers operate. This puts them on the road to improving
their project DNA and consequently, their project success rates. This white
paper has presented a model for high performance that can be applied to project
management and has discussed two approaches that can be used to improve
project DNA. Organizations can use these as guides to examine their project
DNA and find ways to optimize and continually enhance it.

About Cognitive Technologies

Cognitive Technologies, Inc. ( provides consulting,

methodologies, workshops and tools to Fortune 1000 and government clients,
specializing in project management, software development, PMO setup, and
project implementation. It helps clients improve the value of technology-based
projects through performance analysis, job re-definition, change management,
and operational adoption of new technology.
For more information:
Phone: 512-380-1204

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