Gaining Commitment

By Larry Chester

The Two Key Factors for Project Success

Victor Vroom, the head of Behavioral Science at Yale, determined why some projects succeed and others fail. We can only know, of course, if a project succeeds or fails at the end of the project. Dr. Vroom determined two key indicators for success we can assess at the beginning of a project that will predict whether the project will succeed, or not. In his book, Leadership and Decision-Making, he identified these two key factors:

  • The best possible solution: Projects have several decision points. At each decision point we need the best possible solution, given our time and money constraints.
  • Commitment to implement: The team must be enthusiastically committed to the project and to achieving its objectives.

Dr. Vroom went on to state that having commitment was even more important than determining the best possible solution. For example, suppose that you have a “not bad” solution, but that everyone on the project team is totally committed to the project’s success. The project will succeed almost every time. With enthusiastic commitment, the project team members will find ways to overcome any obstacles to success.

Suppose, however, that you have created and developed the best solution, but that almost no one on the project team is committed to its success. Despite having the best possible solution, this project will almost invariably fail. Without commitment, even minor bumps will cause a project to derail.

Projects run on commitment. The fuller the project manager fills the commitment tanks, the higher the likelihood of finishing the project on time, within budget, and to the customer’s expectations. Let’s look at how we build commitment to the project’s objectives.

Responsibility and Authority

Two critical words on most projects are authority and responsibility.


Responsibility is the acceptance of an obligation to perform. More specifically, the project manager accepts responsibility to deliver the expected results on time and within budget.


Authority is the power to act or to cause others to act. You have the power to act on your own or you can delegate that power to others on the project team to act in your place.

Our research tells us that project managers seldom have the authority to meet the responsibility that they have accepted. In fact, most of the project team members do not even report to them. They report to someone else. So, what can the project manager do to bridge the gap?

Bridging the Gap

We have found only four ways to bridge the gap between the responsibility you have accepted and the authority that you have been given.

1. Negotiate for resources

Negotiate with the sponsor for the resources you will need as soon as you are given the project. The project sponsor, who is higher in the organization than you are, wants you to succeed. So, negotiate for the resources you need immediately. “Thanks for the project. I am delighted to accept it. These are the resources I will need to make it happen. Will you help me get the resources?”

Most sponsors will say, “Of course! What do you need?”

If you don’t know what you need up front, then temporize. “Thank you for the project. I will be back to you by Friday with a list of resources I need. Will you help me get them?”

Most sponsors will again say, “Of course! See you on Friday.”

If the sponsor does not offer help, you should look for an escape route now. You will not have sponsor support later.

2. Negotiate for support

Negotiate with the sponsor for his or her support if the project gets into trouble. “I am delighted to take on this project and, if it gets into trouble, will you be there for me?”

Most project sponsors will agree, “Of course I will be there for you.” Confirm their commitment by including it in a Roles and Responsibilities worksheet.

Project Roles and Responsibilities Worksheet

Name Role Responsibility
Project Manager Manage the projectDeliver the required results on time and within budget
Sub-Project Manager (Team Leader) Manage part of the projectSubstitute for the project manager when required
Project Team Members Participate in meetingsComplete tasks and activities to the required standards on time and within budget
Sponsor/Approver Provide the fundingRun interference when requested
Customer/User Determine project objectives (results, time frame, cost)Evaluate the results
Resource Managers Provide project resources (people, space, equipment, materials)
Support Provide assistance to the project team when requested

3. Build the commitment of the project team

Do everything you can to build the commitment and enthusiasm of the project team. In four years of engineering I only learned one thing: you cannot push a rope. However, you can pull it anywhere. In the same way, if you attempt to push the project team, it will push back and resist. If you can build their commitment to the project objectives, you can pull them along.

We have found only one method to build commitment: get their involvement and participation when setting project objectives. Involvement does not guarantee commitment; but you cannot get commitment without involvement.

When encouraging involvement, use the nominal group technique over the brainstorming technique. You will get increased involvement, more ideas, better ideas, and more commitment.

When the project sponsor has provided the objectives, get increased team involvement by having them:

  • Add more objectives if some have been missed
  • Clarify the objectives if some are unclear
  • Prioritize the objectives if there are too many

4. Engage the “fox”

Every organization has one or more foxes. Foxes find the scarce resources when no one else can. When the going gets tough, they get the work done. They seem to be able to get the project done despite organizational “red tape.” The best example of an organizational fox is Radar O’Reilly from the MASH television show. Radar was only a corporal but, when you needed to get something done, he could make it happen.

Find the fox. Tell him about your project: what is the problem or opportunity you are addressing, who is the customer, how important this project is to the organization. Every time you see Radar in the hallway, update him on project progress. Then, if you do get into trouble, ask for his help. He will probably give you the help you need to get the project completed.

Remember: Projects with commitment are robust; projects without commitment are fragile. Take the time to build commitment. We know that these ideas work. Try them. And, when they get you what you need, use these ideas on all future projects.

“First published in Project Times Spring 2001” (Project Times link

Previous post:

Next post: