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What thinking do senior management put into projects and project management?

Have you ever thought “where do projects and project managers sit in the thoughts of senior and board level executives?”. I know myself, I’ve had many hundreds of projects (IT Projects) running at various times in my port folios of responsibility, and realised That I don’t really know how these people (PM’s) really think – or really know anything much about the projects themselves. On the project managers, my own thoughts have varied from “thank goodness for the skills and tenacity that project manager” through to “I’d like to choke who-ever is responsible for that project”. But often these opinions and conclusions come about with very little information or thought about what the PM is actually dealing with at the coal face…and very little actual metrics on which to base the judgement. On the actual projects themselves, it boils down to – are they under running or over running? In the Senior management meetings, the $ side of it is the only real thing that gets thought about or discussed. It’s not good, but it’s a common reality.

A couple of years ago, we had a situation where a rash of projects were going bad. Where numerous projects are struggling, it’s not likely to be a PM performance issue, but more likely an environmental issue. In other words, as an organistion, it seemed we weren’t providing an environment for our projects and project managers to succeed. Getting to the source of the issue wasn’t easy, mainly as there were so many contributing factors that lead to one big symptom – huge cost overruns. A 600k scoped project, with a cost to date of 1.6m and a EAC of 2.1m is one example. This situation was being repeated across the board.  After much deliberation, I decided that I need to find out more about our PM’s and the world that they work in each day. So I did an ‘under cover boss’ style exercise (without being under cover). I started by actually going and sitting through their training, including the PMI course…even sat the exams (and passed! – just). Then I tracked through a project life cycle, including sitting with the clients at project spec time. It was a huge eye opener for me, with numerous findings and thoughts as to why we were getting ourselves into the situation we were in. All the classics – scope squeezed to fit a pre-conceived budget number at project kick off, only to expand like a balloon given air once the project started. Deliverable expectations shifting dramatically as the projects executed, sponsors not being good sponsors…you know the list.

So where am I going with this? The biggest issue I found, was that as an executive, was that I was blind.  I didn’t know there were issues until it was too late and the overrun was already at the table. By then it’s too late to do anything constructive with it. There is no chance to sit down with the client and negotiate. The money’s spent, the reputation’s been damaged. Critical communication was missing. Early communication from the PM’s to the executive and also the other way round just wasn’t there. So back to the original question – What do senior managment think about PM’s? Well often, not much at all, as it’s not front of mind and that is clearly an issue in our heavily projectized organisations.

So what can you as a PM do to help us at the management table, so that we can help you? Be constructively noisy. Speak often, speak clearly with simple messages. Short, sharp, regular. Most importantly, speak early so that you get the support you need to have your project succeed. Don’t be scared to deliver bad news, but also don’t be alarmist. Form your communication into a pattern that ranges from formal to informal and be regular and repeating with it.

Help your senior management help you, as the PM’s success is all of our success!

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One Response to “What thinking do senior management put into projects and project management?”

  1. Thanks for a glimpse into the minds of senior managers, Michael! In my early days as a project manager I was convinced senior execs were insane. Later I realized that they were making the best decisions they could based on the information they had, as well as a number of demands and constraints I had no visibility into as a junior person. Over the years I’ve found that execs need to clearly see the gap between where a project is and where it needs to be, and the options for closing that gap, so that they can lend proper support to the project. Visually demonstrating the situation with graphs, charts and pictures is far more effective than simply using text and verbal reports. I’m now convinced that a project leader’s job is to make the right decision so obvious that any competent executive willingly lends their support and makes the right decision. Those too fearful or lazy to do that won’t get far. Your encouragement to “speak often, speak clearly” is bound to be helpful to thousands of project managers worldwide.

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