Have you ever had an executive sponsor desert you? What can you do about it? Are you stuck with a bad sponsor? Or, maybe it is not the sponsor at all, could it be you?
I recently had a great chat with one of projectmanagement.com's prolific contributors, Elizabeth Harrin, in her Project Management Cafe group and we talked about just this topic. Please watch because there are some great tips on leading your executives.
Ranking challenges on a project, culture has to be in the top five root causes for failure. An ally in that is Kristine Briežkalne who contacted me a few weeks ago to get my thoughts. After all having worked in Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Israel, United States, and Canada, I wear many scars of both blatant and subtle cultural violations. I also know that within a culture one person's success is often another person's failure. Kristine, a masters candidate studying at Riga International School of Economics and Business Administration, is writing her thesis on culture and project success. So, after dispelling concerns about clicking on some random email link, I completed her survey (please feel free to take it yourself). She has some interesting views and presented me with a Venn diagram showing four aspects of a project (business, client, project management, and growth perspectives) and how they intersected. As the diagram is part of her Master's thesis, I will let you ponder the how to label the overlapping areas (an eye-opening exercise).
Ignoring Culture Begets Failure
Anyone running an international project will be in for a nasty surprise if they ignore culture and expect their project to succeed. Will a US-based delivery team actually be able to claim success in an Israeli delivery if they do not forfeit scope on a regular basis? Will they succeed in Asia if the client loses face at any point? It is doubtful. Understanding success criteria has to be done very early on, long before the project starts. You can deliver your definition of value (much different then scope, schedule, and budget) to all parties and never get asked back to do another project. Or, maybe your culture does not care about repeat customers.
It Is All About Value
We need to get back to the basics of describing success. Too many companies define it in terms of scope, schedule, and budget. Yet most customers, regardless of culture, say that if a project delivers something they will not use, it is a failure (regardless of whether it met the scope, schedule, and budget). Granted, some cultures need to save-face and say the project was a success whether or not they like it. Hence, the challenge is determining the value in the eyes of those who have the most clout.
I am steadfast in the belief that value is the measure of success. That, however, just creates one more definition to resolve—value. I am not arguing semantics. Focusing on value, rather than success, creates a different mindset. People include intangibles when they describe value. They realize the value for the delivery organization is different than value for the customer. Cost is a huge component of customer value and margin for the delivery group. So is usability and referenciblity, respectively. Some cultures value low cost, others saving face, some argue in more scope, others look to efficiency for value. It depends on the frame you view it through (see Table 1).
The Wood Stove
Recently my wife and I bought a thermocouple-driven fan for our wood burning stove. It was expensive as fans go at about $110 (USD). (Walmart sells personal fans, which are close to the same size, for about 10% of that cost.) I would not trade it for boxes of Wally World other fans. It sits atop of the stove silently recirculating hot air. Would others see the value? A few people would. Would people question me paying that much for a fan? Yes… but a little less after they sat in front of the stove on a cold winter night. I am way over budget on the fan, but I am happy because I see value.
Culture has a huge impact on success. They questions are:
I suggest you take Kristine's survey, help her out, and see what her results are. Or, you can add a comment below.
As we are well into the last half of this decade, it is time to reflect on our past and contemplate the future. With the New Year we think about our families, our friends, our successes and failures; we think about our jobs, our professions, and the world of possibilities. We must reaffirm our true north and stay the course, make corrections, or find a new destination. As project managers, we must look at the changes in the discipline and translate those into a plan for our professional development—a plan that meets our needs and the needs of the discipline.
Tomorrow's Project Manager
As project managers, we have seen significant change. Over the last couple decades, the project management field has grown to be recognized as a professional discipline and many have benefited from the changing views of how projects are run. We have witnessed or implemented processes and procedures and have seen project management offices spring up to help prioritize enterprise portfolios and manage resource loading. It has been an exciting time.
In the last half dozen years, many have seen project management become a commodity. Various organizations push their certificates as the end all of employment requirements and companies have created checklists to qualify good project managers just as one might look at the functions required from a personal accounting program. Employment firms relying on high-volume placements capitalize on this attitude, realizing how cost effective the screening process can be. Meanwhile, thousands of people clamor for their project management certification so they can jump into the resource pool.
It takes more than a certification, however, to make a good project manager. The most valuable experience is coordinating all the stakeholders to achieve a common goal. These traits are difficult, if not impossible, to acquire in a class, let alone grade on a test. Process is a vital component; however, project managers must step beyond the role of processes and aspire to be leaders. This will manifest itself in three grades of project managers.
Tier One: The Coordinator
Today's certifications equip project managers to be coordinators. The expectation is that they herd cats. They work reactively at the rear and the flanks keeping the cats all going the same general direction.
This is a comfortable non-confrontational roll where a majority of project managers feel comfortable and nearly every company requires the trait. The coordinator implements processes and procedures, monitors timelines, reacts to problems, and escalates out-of-control issues. This is the area where project management has become a commodity—if you can get projects to be proceduralized anyone can manage them.
Tier Two: The Negotiator
The negotiator has a different set of skills—they run with the cats and apply reason getting them to head the correct direction. This requires that the project manager understand the stakeholder's needs and values and can mediate a compromise.
Once the portfolio develops past the point of repeatable projects, there is no longer a single possible goal a project. The project manager has to coax people to compromise and develop a mutual endpoint that provides value to all stakeholders. This is the first level of leadership.
All negotiators understand there is a process to follow—planning how to approach the negotiation, exploring options, proposing and bartering a solution, and executing the plan. However, few question that the majority of negotiation is art. The way people support their viewpoint, handle their demeanor, show confidence in their beliefs, and deal with rebuttals make or break a successful negotiation.
By managing a team in this manner, they begin to self-correct and adjust their course realizing the power of the team and ineffectiveness of running off on a tangent.
Tier Three: The Leader
The project manager that walks in front of the herd, the cats following, is at the highest level of aspiration. Leaders understand their mission, mold and maintain a vision aligned with the strategic goals of the organization, communicate the direction to the team, and inspire people to achieve that vision. The team becomes self-directing.
Leadership can be learned, but not from a book or class. It is acquired from understanding the tools and applying them. It requires experience and an open mind.
The opportunity to enter into a leadership role presents itself to nearly everyone. We need to recognize that situation and know how to step in and lead the team to success. Our biggest obstacle is the courage and confidence to move in that direction—to know when the cats will follow. The first few attempts often lack the polish and finesse of the accomplished leader, but experience brings it rewards.
How to Get There
The key to the future is acquiring the soft skills to aspire to new levels of management. Minimally this requires education in organization development, sociology, business management, and leadership. However, the cornerstone is real-world experience. As with any discipline, education pales in the shadow of experience. Moving from a reactive to a proactive approach where identifying and addressing problems prior to them becoming issues is critical. This requires a calm, methodical approach and open communication channels with all stakeholders. The result is a high-performance, self-directing team that drives any project to its appropriate goal.
What Are Your Thoughts?
How do you see project management changing over the next five years? Please let us know.
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.
Vision, honesty, and transparency: three key ingredients for project success. I reminded of this when thumbing through the archives this week and ran across an interview I gave on Blog Talk Radio's Tom on Leadership program. His audience, primarily from the C-Suite, is keen to understand the connection between troubled and failing projects and their organization's overall health. Projects are, after all, the proverbial canaries in our organization's coalmine. Projects stop performing because there is trouble in the organization.
Honesty is at the core of any healthy organization's culture. Without honesty, all is lost. This is never more apparent when projects seemingly fail over night. We call these watermelon projects (green on the outside and red on the inside) projects are indicative of a leadership culture that punishes bad news.
Honesty must permeate the company from the board to the individual contributor. Project teams in healthy, honest organizations, report status accurately. Unpleasant news brings offers of assistance as opposed to criticism.
Honesty requires trust. Trust, however, cannot be blind. Every organization has a representative slice of humanity; unfortunately, this includes people who may not hold honesty as a virtue. Furthermore, there are times when our teams simply do have the insight to know they are getting into trouble. For these reasons, every trustful manager has to verify intentions quietly and discreetly. This is not mistrust; it is a prudent measure to ensure the organization as a whole is functioning properly.
Without identifying a vision or goal, the team is directionless. Failure to develop and communicate a vision is a primary responsibility of the executive sponsor. He or she must maintain a clear vision and clarify any adjustments to meet changes in the business environment. Most executives in companies with an inadequate vision are in denial that the condition exists. Their organizations are steeped in mistrust and dishonesty. It starts at the top, where management denies there is an unclear direction and manifests in an apathetic team unwilling to take the political risk of highlighting management's error.
In these organizations, projects languish in the indecision. Without knowing the proper direction, no one can make critical decisions (as that implies accountability), and projects stall.
Transparency comes part and parcel with an honest organization. One of the key features of an honest organization is that they are transparent. An honest organization has nothing to hide. Honesty, however, does not guarantee transparency. Within any organization, denial and ego can create pockets of problems that management must diligently discover.
In trusting, honest organizations, it is often difficult to find these enclaves of opacity. They produce just enough data to maintain a façade of openness. Even in non-covert situations, transparency takes confidence and constant communication. The best of intentions to complete a set of difficult tasks can create an environment where groups, focused on their goals forget to ask for help. It creeps over them slowly like an evening fog, enveloping the workday, eliminating the ability to stand back and assess the state of affairs.
Transparency needs management's help. Management must be involved with their people—mingling, asking questions, looking for stress, and proactively proposing solutions.
The Canary's Song
Just like a canary, projects in a poisoned organization go silent. There is little realism in their reports and management must ferret out the problems. If the organization is unhealthy, it takes an outside party to untangle the mess. Someone must call attention to honesty's absence, abused trust, and unclear visions. They need to look inside the opaque box and point to the political problems hindering a transparent operation.
Any parent knows this warning sign. Children play in a normal cacophony of clangs, thunks, and bumps. To a degree, parents are numb to these sounds. However, the instant those noises stop, mental alarm bells ring. Parents know there is trouble in the offing. The same is true in project management. The minute the project goes quiet or the troubles seem to disappear, it is time to start asking questions. The team is probably in trouble and unwilling or unable to recognize the issues.