Few would question that executives are responsible for ensuring projects are aligned with the corporate vision, goals, and strategy. Yet, everyone seems to forget that the business environment changes almost daily and initiatives must also to remain in line with these goals. To achieve this, executives (primarily the executive sponsor) have to be engaged with the project throughout its life cycle. This requires more than ensuring the project maintains its scope, schedule, and budget; projects must deliver value. Too many projects start with the inspirational support of upper management, but as the project (or company) drifts, the executives have long since disengaged from the project and are unable to straighten out the misalignment. This wastes company resources and hinders the company's ability to deliver.
The Shiny Ball Syndrome
Too often, project teams (both customers and suppliers), become enamored of numerous non-critical features, the shiny ball of new technology, or excessive process and drift from the strategic tenets of the project. The project executives (everyone from the portfolio managers, PMO directors, up to the CEO) need to monitor and guide projects to maintain their alignment, while the project manager shepherds the project within the approved scope, schedule, and budget.
Executives have the responsibility of maintaining focus on supplying value. Understanding the customer's business is critical to accomplish this. Rather than pedantically ensuring project charters, work breakdown structures, risk registers, and the like, are complete to some blanket standard, senior managers need to make certain the intent and content of these artifacts indicate the project's product is delivering the appropriate value. This goes far beyond the question "Is this document complete?" The question needs to be, "Does the document and its content add value?" If the document fails to do this, the project is heading the wrong direction. Project executives need to continually monitor value using all means available and realign projects that are not providing sufficient value or cancel them.
The Key is Value
There is no mathematical model for value. Like beauty, the eye of the beholder plays a significant role. It is not a ratio of what should have expended on the project compared to the expectations. A project can nicely meet those parameters and never meet the needs of the customer. Rather, value is the aggregate of the tangible and intangible, measurable and immeasurable benefits from its product. It includes how people feel about the project, the deliverable, ease of use, and the project is adopted.
One method to achieve this is enabling the project team to be involved with the customer earlier. Whether internal or external, early engagement with the customer points out subtle distinctions in their requests that can make the difference in providing value. In many cases, the limiting factor is the project team's managers. They are either too worried about the expense of such an endeavor or they are concerned about individuals stepping out of their roles and interacting with a customer.
In reality, executives do not need to be involved in every project—they need to be involved in any project where the impact of its failure is above the company's risk threshold. This is different for every company. For small companies that may mean involvement in every project and for multi-billion dollar corporations that may only be a select few. Top management is the group that has to agree to and sign-off on the risk. As risk attributes change, risks morph into issues, and new risks arise, they are the ones that need to re-assess the impact on the business. Without their continual, objective focus on the project's risk, mitigations will be missing, contingencies inadequate, and projects will fall into disrepair.
Executives cannot abdicate accountability. They are the ones who ultimately set direction, ensure that it is being followed, and commit resources to achieve it. They can delegate the actions and in doing so accept the consequences if their vision is not followed. This trust must, on occasion, be verified and validated against the changing winds of the business climate. Failure to do so will produce projects devoid of value.
And Your Experience?
How have executives supported you or, maybe even, let you down. Please, let's hear your thoughts.