Let the Customer be Aware!


Gary Heerkens’s outstanding column “Imposed Deadline Syndrome” in the March 2015 issue of PM Network (which I discuss in the article just below) has triggered me to think more about the topic of sponsor/customer knowledge and responsibilities. Additionally, some issues raised on the subject in the LinkedIn discussion group The Project Manager Network make me feel it is worthy of a lot more discussion.

First, let’s agree that it is in the interest of everyone – team members, project managers, sponsor/customers, corporate executives, stockholders and taxpayers – that project funds be used as productively as possible. A dollar that has been spent in a way that helps make someone’s life better or longer, in whatever way, is superior to one that fails to enhance the value of the project outcome, perhaps due to poor quality, unnecessary “gold-plating”, bad timing, simple waste or moral hazard.

That said, whose budget/resources/money is it that is being wasted? If an investor buys what turns out to be worthless stock or real estate, or just give their money to an investment manager who is either incompetent or a charlatan, they may have grounds for moral outrage — but they are the ultimate loser. So surely it behooves them to perform due diligence before turning their funds over?

And surely the same is true of the project sponsor/customer? Certainly the management and stockholders of the company or taxpayers of the country, who have entrusted the senior manager or customer with these funds/resources, expect them to invest wisely and carefully. One might say that this is the primary responsibility of every project/program sponsor, and it is a job at which, as Gary Heerkens’s article suggests and I agree, far too many are failing.

Over the years, I have had many thousands of students attend my classes to study project management techniques. Multiply that by the number of teachers/trainers of project management group and we’re probably into the millions every year. But what percentage of the people who attend such classes have as their primary job *at that time* (as opposed to later acquiring such responsibilities) the role of project sponsor or senior management? In my classes at least, the number is tiny.

We can argue about the quality of project management training courses – but surely there is little doubt that project managers and would-be project managers recognize that they need to learn how to manage projects. Do project and program sponsors feel that they were born knowing how to fill those roles? Instinctively understanding how to design the program and project scope in a way that will generate greatest value? How to communicate that information, perhaps via ESP, to the program or project manager to whom they now seem so willing to blithely entrust this crucial function? Were they born knowing how to run a progress meeting? How to write a project RFP and, even more important, ensure that the contract they sign for a project will meet their ultimate needs?

Or is it simply that they don’t care enough about the corporate or taxpayer funds of which they have been made responsible to educate themselves about the fundamentals of projects and programs? Certainly the skill set of a project sponsor/customer is different from that of a project manager – but surely there is a substantial amount of overlap? If I don’t have a solid grounding in the tactics and techniques of football, how can I possibly function as a competent head coach?

While organizations such as PMI and IPMA, as well as graduate programs for university MPM and MBA degrees, focus on the project and program manager roles, the crucial role of the project sponsor is given little attention. (The UK’s Managing Successful Projects (MSP) touches on the subject, but barely more than that.) Why is this? Is it that there is no market for such training/education?

If a chain is as weak as its weakest link, surely the weak link in project and program management is more likely to be where little or no education has been conducted on the needed techniques than where vast amounts of training has been focused for many years.

In writing my recent book Managing Projects as Investments: Earned Value to Business Value, I tried as much as possible to avoid “getting into the weeds” of complex project management techniques. (Some of those I saved for my upcoming book Total Project Control: A Practitioner’s Guide.) Yes, I felt that describing the methods for managing a project as an investment required me to cover the rudiments of critical path, drag and drag cost. But I stuck to simple finish-to-start relationships (the subset of people who need to know about SS, FF, SF and lags/leads being much smaller than those who just need to know what a critical path is). My goal in part was to introduce a new approach, but also to write a book that project managers and team members could get senior managers and sponsors to read without their eyes glazing over. Because if anyone should perceive projects as investments and want to know how to maximize their value, it’s the customer and senior management.

From many conversations I’ve had over the past couple of years, I think that the business world is getting ready to focus on the weak link in project management. I hope that link is about to get much, much stronger.

Fraternally in project management,

Steve the Bajan

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