Saturday, 07 November 2015 12:22

The Executive-Project Manager Gap

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It was such an innocuous question, "Working on an article; what is the biggest problem you see with project governance at orgs? Can you comment?" Can I comment? Really? That is like cheese to a mouse. Where could I start—bureaucracy, draconian process, poor executive sponsorship, disengaged leaders? Plenty of fodder, because they all lead to project failure. I fired off, "Creating an over bureaucratic morass stifling innovation & implementing process instead of cultivating leaders." Then the maelstrom started and it went directly to the gap between the executives and projects managers. Naomi Caietti, Robert Kelly and I had a great conversation. Most of the thread is below.

The Gap

What gap, you say? The gap that happens in any project review where project managers come into the room with charts and graphs that say there are 243 tasks completed since the last review and 17 more falling behind schedule (due to 3 change orders ). The earned value is 11.3% better that the last review, but that could be because the offshore resources do not understand how to use the reporting tool. The estimate at completion is now 28.9% higher than reported three months ago due to the charge orders and the customer is anxious about their operations team really understanding what is changing in their processes.

The executives keep a steady gaze on the charts and, with a troubled look, the CEO asks, "Will we deliver before I have to announce the quarterly earnings and are we maintaining our margin?" The PM looks back with a blank stare.

I am talking about that gap—big, gray, and looks like an elephant.

The Problem

The problem is pretty simple project managers have no clue what an executive does for a living and the executive has probably never run a project. After all executives most likely came up from the sales, marketing, or operations. They were always on the receiving end of projects—the customer that got the project's deliverable. They had operational things to do.

Operations: the Antithesis of Projects

Let's remember the definition of a project a temporary endeavor to create a unique product or service. That is not operations. Operations never end (hopefully). Projects are temporary undertakings that add some new capability. They change the organization and, as what they are doing is new, they have risk. How many people in operations like change, risk, or both? Yep, none. Therefore, on one side to the table there are a bunch of risk averse, stay-the-course executives, while on the other side are project managers who like the temporary nature of their work, change is cool, and risk makes the job exciting. No wonder there is communication gap.

Unfortunately, neither party interprets this correctly. Project managers feel that executives do not think that project management has value. Executives think... well... let me give you a quote: "I hate being an executive sponsor. The PM comes in and spends ten minutes spewing out a bunch of techno-babble that has no bearing on how to run a business and then they want me to make some decision on what to change in the project."

What is Done Too Often

Some people (mostly my project manager friends) say the answer is to train executives in project management. Seriously? You are going to send your CEO to a PMP® or PRINCE2® prep-course? Others think you should add a PMO to translate the project techno-babble into executive speak. So they create a PMO, promote a couple of great PMs into the manager ranks, and you have the same issue as the people running the PMO are former project managers. Their solution is to interview the executives and find out what data they need and then filter every project status report to fit that format. The result is executives getting the wrong data as the real status does not fit into the PMO's "box." Still, no one knows if the projects are on target to support the corporate goals. This is why hiring outside contractors is so valuable in rescuing troubled projects—they cut through the filters

What You Should Do

The answer is role-appropriate education. Three actions need to happen:

  1. Capture how the corporate goals relate to each project. Disseminate this to everyone in the organization. Use a tool like balanced scorecard so that everyone from the CEO to the janitor understands how they are contributing to the corporate goals.
  2. Define the executive sponsor role with a formal job description and hire coaches (probably from the outside) that can work with the executive sponsors to make sure they are addressing the project managers' issues.
  3. Send your project managers to leadership training. This is far more important than methodology training (PMP or PRINCE2). They need to understand how to lead without authority. This is 80% of their job. They rarely have authority over their team and the never have authority over their stakeholder.

This will yield results beyond your wildest dreams. True failures will become a bad memory of days gone by, troubled and problem projects will diminish, communication will happen, people will be excited to come to work, your customers and stockholders will be happy, and your company will meet its goals. What else do you need?

Your thoughts?

What have you done to accomplish this? We would all love to hear!

Following is a excerpt of the Twitter conversation referenced in this article. Please feel free to reply or re-tweet any of these items and continue the conversation.
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