by Dave Wakeman
If you read this blog regularly, you may have noticed that I’ve been focusing on strategy a lot lately. The reason is simple: The alignment between projects and strategy tends to be a significant driver of organizational success.
For this post, I want to focus on a crucial figure when it comes to alignment: the sponsor. In working to align projects and strategy, the sponsor really is the key to whether or not your efforts will be successful.
For this reason, it’s essential that project managers candidly communicate with sponsors. You need to understand how the project fits into the organization and how you can position your project in a way that will deliver on your organization’s strategy.
Here are three tips for optimizing sponsor relations.
1. Keep Pushing for Answers: We’ve all dealt with projects and clients that give us some variation of the classic line from our parents: “Because I said so.” That may have worked for our parents, but it won’t work too well for our careers.
As a proactive leader in your organization, you need to work with your sponsor to understand how the project fits into the organization’s strategy. For some of you, that may seem difficult, but if you frame the questions around wanting to understand where you may be challenged for resources or time, you can usually get the conversation started.
Other questions that will help you discover how well your project aligns with the organization’s goals are:
2. Communicate Consistently: One of the big challenges of aligning strategy and projects is that you’re busy, your sponsor is busy, and your team is busy. This is no excuse for not communicating consistently. In fact, a constant stream of demands is a reason you should be communicating consistently—that way you ensure that no one’s efforts are wasted on something that is no longer relevant.
To make sure you communicate consistently with your sponsor, use the following framework:
3. Embrace Change: I’m sure that at one time or another we’ve all felt humiliated and downtrodden because our most dear project has been shut down for no discernable reason and we can’t get an explanation from anyone.
These situations are challenging. But you owe it to yourself, your team and your sponsor to embrace change. You also need to proactively address the change, positive or negative, with your sponsor. This will help you gain information that will allow you to make better decisions. But it will also encourage an open dialogue with your sponsor.
Also, proactively dealing with change can be extremely helpful in assisting your sponsor on new courses of action based upon the new information and the new realities that your projects face.
To accelerate your ability to embrace change, ask questions like:
I’m curious to find out how you handle these kind of strategic communications with your sponsors. Let me know in a comment below!
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Witnessing so many unsuccessful projects these days, I keep asking myself why execution continues to fall through the cracks while organizations apparently grow in project management maturity.
If organizations are more mature in project planning, why aren’t we reaping better results? It’s easy to see we have an execution gap.
I think this is because some project managers are so immersed in the minutia of best practices that they don’t understand the big picture.
They don’t understand that project management processes, tools and techniques are only a means to an end. The final goal of every project is to jointly create value by engaging stakeholders to build a unique result under constraints (scope, time, cost and more). In other words, a successful project delivers benefits and satisfies stakeholders.
Execution demands proactivity. Project managers should embrace change, keeping their eyes wide open to take their project plans out of the paper. Making things happen is easier when you have a good plan, but it still demands a lot of energy and motivation.
Practitioners sometimes put their well-crafted, detailed plans on a pedestal as trophies of great project management. In fact, planning is only half, or less, of the way to the finish line.
To paraphrase the boxer Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” The real world is volatile and complex; missing and incomplete information is the norm. Will your plan survive the challenge? It depends on how well you execute. As many in the military learn, strategic, tactical and operational plans need to be executed with maximum agility. Adjustments, adaptations and unexpected decisions must be made along the road to project completion.
To execute well, you need clear goals, resilience, flexibility and a high degree of “alertness.” The OODA loop, created by John Boyd, revolutionizes goal-centered execution by adding flexibility and velocity in the decision-making process. Here are the four steps.
Figure 1- OODA loop (Source: Defense and the National Interest)
Next time you start execution on your project, put the OODA loop to work for you. It will guide you through the project plan as a series of linked decisions to help you make sense of the environment, update the plan and observe results.
If you have any comments—or perhaps a negative or positive story about execution—please share below. Thanks!
By Dave Wakeman
Last month, I wrote about how you can become a more strategic project manager. This month, I want to continue exploring the topic by focusing on a few ways to make sure your projects have strategic focus.
1. Always Ask “Why?”
This is the essential question for any business professional. But I am aware that asking the question can be extremely difficult—especially in the organizations that need that question asked the most.
Asking why you are taking on a project is essential to the project’s success or failure. Using the question can help you frame the role that project plays in the organization’s goals. It can also allow you early on to find out if the project is poorly aligned with the long-term vision.
This can make you look like a champ because you can make course corrections or bring up challenges much earlier, saving you and your organization time and money.
When asking about a project’s strategic value, you may find it helpful to phrase it in less direct ways, such as: “How does this project fit into the work we were doing with our previous project?” or “This seems pretty consistent with the project we worked on several months back—are they connected?”
2. Bring Ideas
As the focal point of knowledge, project managers should know where a project is in meeting its goals and objectives. So if you know a project is losing its strategic focus (and therefore value), generate ideas on how to make course corrections or improve the project based on the information you have.
There is nothing worse than having a team member drop a heap of issues on us with no easy solutions and no ideas on how to move forward. As the leader of your projects, don’t be that person. To help you come up with ideas to move the project toward success and strategic alignment, think along the following lines:
· If all the resources and effort expended on the project up to the current roadblock were removed from consideration, would it still make sense to move forward with the project?
· What actions can we take that will help alleviate some of the short-term pain?
· Knowing what I know now, would I suggest we start or stop this project? Why?
3. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
On almost any project I work on, more communication is a good idea. This is because the more the lines of communication are open, the more likely I’m to get information that will be helpful to me and my ability to achieve the end results that I’m looking for.
As with most things in project management, communication is a two-way street and loaded with possible pain points and missteps. As a project manager looking to deliver on the strategic promise of your projects, your communications should always be focused on information you can use to take action and move your project along.
To effectively communicate as a strategic project manager, ask questions like these:
· What do I need to know about a project that will have a material impact on its success or failure?
· What can I share with my team or stakeholders that might help them understand my decisions?
· What information does my team need to take better actions?
As you can see, adjusting your vision to become more strategic isn’t too far removed from what it takes to be an effective project manager. The key difference is making sure you understand the “why” of the project. From there, you need to push forward your ideas and to communicate openly and honestly.
What do you think? How do you bring a strategic focus to your projects?
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One of the most valuable project management lessons I ever learned in my professional life is: Key words at key moments are the key to success. Despite the foundational importance of social and emotional awareness, this “underlying competency” remains unknown to a lot of managers and leaders.
Without this awareness, how can they succeed?
The truth is that most of them don’t thrive. I’ve worked with professionals at all organizational levels, from the operational floors to the boards of directors. They are usually equipped with more knowledge than they need to effectively engage and involve stakeholders.
Nevertheless, I witness stakeholder management disasters every day. Unfortunately, weak sponsorship, untruthful partnership, empty leadership and irresponsible citizenship are the norm, not the exception.
Allay Stakeholders’ Fears
I’ve been researching stakeholder management and related topics for years to cope with my daily struggles as a project management practitioner and consultant. (I recently delivered a webinar on the subject that you can watch here.)
While compiling tools and techniques, developing frameworks and applying theoretical knowledge in pragmatic ways, I keep coming back to what has become my stakeholder management mantra: Key words at key moments are the key to success.
Technical and managerial knowledge are must-haves for project success, but so are underlying competencies—what are known as soft skills.
Here’s an illustration. Suppose you are in a hospital waiting to undergo surgery. The doctor enters the room, does his job successfully, and then leaves you by yourself without saying a word. How would you feel? Even if the doctor were highly skilled, you would feel disappointed, right?
Caregivers and medical professionals know the importance of a warm reception and voice-guided gestures. Showing that you care is even more important than caring about your patients.
So here’s a better course of action: First, announce what you are going to do and explain why. Then, do what you have to do, explaining details during the action as much as possible. Finally, announce that you are done and explain the results.
Stakeholders are afraid of change. Anxiety boosted by a lack of the right kind of communication creates huge misunderstandings. That is why—yes, let’s say it again—key words at key moments are the key to success.
How about your projects? Do you plan the type and timing of communications to facilitate change management initiatives?
By Conrado Morlan
When I was a portfolio manager, I attended many portfolio status meetings where projects were reviewed and assessed based on their status color. The status color—green, yellow or red—was usually determined by a combination of specific metrics defined by the organization's project management office.
Green meant the portfolio was on track, yellow meant the portfolio could be in danger of not meeting its goals, and red meant the portfolio was in serious danger.
Attendees’ behavior during these review meetings was always the same. To me, it revealed how simplistic or misleading the tri-color status system can be. Portfolios with a green status received no questions from the audience, even when a portfolio manager conducting the presentation specifically asked if anyone had questions.
On the other hand, yellow and red status portfolios produced expressions of surprise and/or contempt. The audience bombarded the portfolio manager with questions and asked for contingency plans to bring back those portfolios to green status.
At times I felt those portfolio managers were being punished for doing their job well. And I always wonder if people had dug deeper into the portfolios with green status, would they still have been so surprised or contemptuous of the other portfolios?
A portfolios status turns yellow or red because a risk turned into a problem or because of internal dependencies like other portfolios or external dependencies like new government regulations. When portfolios are aligned with the organization's strategy, portfolio managers must know all the risks identified in the strategy and assess how those risks will impact the project portfolio.
That’s their job. Furthermore, portfolio managers who create awareness among the portfolio steering committee about risks or external dependencies are being smart. They’re gathering input to decide which projects in the portfolio may need to be postponed, which may need to have their scope changed based on risk and/or internal or external dependencies, and which may need budget cuts or increases.
In other words, a yellow or red status can indicate a portfolio manager’s competence and sophistication, rather than incompetence and stupidity.
As a portfolio manager, how do you avoid surprise and contempt among your stakeholders?