Educating the Boss

As seems to happen periodically, a thread that I started in a LinkedIn discussion group about one of my blog posts has led to a spirited discussion of the problem of getting the project sponsor/customer to fulfill their role responsibly. There are some cogent responses expressed, which I will not plagiarize, but you can find them here. I started to respond within the thread, but then realized that what I’d written was a suitable topic for this blog.

Some opinions in the LinkedIn discussion are very pessimistic: senior management is ignorant and stubborn and will not change. I have certainly come across senior managers whose attitudes would lead to that conclusion. But I’ve also met others who are very smart and positively motivated – they need only a corrected vision of what project management is all about to lead their organizations to the promised land of less chaos and more profitable projects.

And we in the project management community need to provide that vision.

Other opinions in the thread suggest that, faced with impossible project goals, the PM should “manage” the sponsor and set more realistic expectations. I agree. In addition, I believe that whenever possible, the dog should stop its master from walking into the quicksand, the locomotive should slam on the emergency brake if the engineer doesn’t recognize that the track ahead is out, and the cart should lead the horse to water (but it can’t make it drink!).

Cart before horse

Yet in most cases these options are neither satisfactory nor sufficient. The horse will rarely accept being led by the cart. I fear that human societies will always be led by the Golden Rule — whoever has the gold, rules. And the sponsor has the gold.

In general sponsors and senior management are not stupid – but they are uneducated about projects and project management and we in the PM community need to start educating. Currently, the vast majority of senior managers don’t know their elbows from a hole in the ground when it comes to project management, and, as I write in my book, couldn’t find a critical path with both hands and a mirror.

Yet it’s really not their fault. Most have simply not been taught. They’ve been taught other things: marketing and finance and public health and a variety of other specific subjects. As far as I know, no professional PM organization — not PMI, IPMA or AACE — has taken it upon itself to educate senior management and project sponsors/customers. And the “project management” that is taught in the vast majority of MBA programs is, for the most part, laughable.

About six years ago I made a presentation to the Mass Bay Chapter of PMI titled “Project Value Drivers: How Sponsors and Customers Should Enable Value”. The reception among the project manager attendees was so positive that I started thinking about the problem. (If any readers would like me to send them the 26 slides of that presentation, I’ll be happy to – just send me an email.)

Finally, I decided to try to change the situation. I began with my new book Managing Projects as Investments: Earned Value to Business Value which came out last fall. Yes, I believe the new techniques have value for PMs and team members. But this book was also written for senior management. Without getting too much into the weeds, it explains all the value they can get from good processes and knowledgeable PMs, and the organizational procedures that will enable those PMs rather than, as is so often the case currently, sabotage their efforts. Counter-productive procedures like:

#1. Deadlines;

#2. Utilization rates;

#3. Elimination of schedule and cost reserve;

#4. Organizational rejection of, or obstacles to, comp times;

#5. The standard version of the schedule performance index for schedule tracking.

Et cetera.

I believe we have to start by changing the standard definition of a project. Every project is an investment — no one can reasonably dispute that. But projects are not defined as such, planned as such, measured as such or tracked as such.

Small wonder then that senior management and sponsors, who well understand the concept of investments and jump to salute whenever someone mentions the word, fail to recognize the importance and value of good PMs and the need to create a culture and processes that will empower them in maximizing the business value of the investments. Instead of recognizing projects as investments, they all too often regard them as cost centers, and the PMs as overhead on cost centers! (And that’s why good PMs are so often underpaid in comparison to their value.)

These organizational procedures can only be addressed at the organizational and senior management level. But it all has to start with project management itself: with a re-thinking of the essence of every project and program, and then using the techniques and metrics that truly support and reflect good decision-making and management.

I may have chosen the wrong rock to push up the hill, but it is the one I have chosen and, with the book and now this blog, I have started the journey. If someone who looks at this blog and reads my new book disagrees with the approach, I hope they will raise it in the comments right here. I respond very well to constructive criticism, and would also love additional ideas and input. But I hope that anyone who reads the book and likes it will do two things:

#1. Spread the word that this is “not your father’s PM book”, that it contains new ideas, techniques and metrics (some of which we have touched on in other articles here) that can improve our discipline; and

#2. Lend their copy to the boss, sponsor, customer, VP or CEO. (Don’t make them buy their own copy — you know how they can be sometimes!)

Fraternally in project management,

Steve the Bajan

12 thoughts on “Educating the Boss

  1. Very good article. Pushing to move forward projects is allways a challenge with Management whom many times may not have minimal experience in the matter. It is our duty as PMs, to communicate and lead this effort.
    Could I get your 26 slides of what you presented for ‘ Project Value Drivers’ at ferba72@yahoo.com

    Thanks

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    • I’m so glad you enjoy the blog, Fernando. I plan to cover many more topics in the coming weeks, so I hope you’ll stay tuned.

      I just sent you the slides.

      Fraternally in project management,

      Steve the Bajan

      Like

  2. Steve, great insight that projects are investments but senior managers often view them as cost centers (with PMs as overhead). I would like a copy of the value drivers presentation as well. Thanks!

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    • Susan, thanks so much for your kind words. Coming from someone with your experience and credentials (I see you have a textbook titled Mastering Project Portfolio Management, a topic that should definitely be offered in MBA programs), I am very flattered. The UK course Managing Successful Programs often refers to a “tranche” of projects. between that term and “portfolio”, I thing a lot of people are coming to the recognition that projects are investments and must be managed as such within both programs and portfolios.

      Again, thanks for your comment, and I have forwarded the slides.

      Fraternally in project management,

      Steve the Bajan

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  3. Hi Stephen, a great article……and yes thats a very larg boulder to push up hill. Very good arguement for educating senior managers. As part of the project controls team this is an uphill struggle we have had to face for years.

    Could you send me the slides for “Project Value Drivers” to michael_rbentley@hotmail.com

    Many Thanks

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    • Hi, Michael. Thanks for your kind words — glad you enjoyed the article. As long as folks like you think I’m helping, I’ll keep pushing.

      Look for the slides in your inbox.

      Steve D.

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  4. Hi Steve,
    I am a danish teacher in PM courses. Many of your sentences are spot on in my views of project management and especially the view on projects as investments. I using a lot of effort on emphasing this in my teaching – for instance when we are working with objectives hierarchies (Project Managers themselves are forgetting the overall purposes of the projects and tend to focus too much on deliverables and costs).
    We also makes courses for project group members with some succes, but our attempts to educate managers in increasing the value of project management has been a failure: we can not get any managers at all to attend the courses – even though the content (and title) are aimed at this group.
    I will surely buy your book – I hope it will provide me with new “ammunition” to the battle.
    Could you please send me your presentation on “Project Value Drivers” to cbma@ibc.dk.
    I would appreciate it.
    Yours sincerely,
    Claus Bjoern Madsen

    Like

    • Hi, Claus! It’s great to get such a comment from a fellow teacher who has been fighting the same battles! The slides have been sent.

      You wrote: “Project Managers themselves are forgetting the overall purposes of the projects and tend to focus too much on deliverables and costs.”

      I think that’s absolutely true. Yet I really can’t much blame PMs for focusing on deliverables and cost when that’s all their bosses are telling them to focus on, too! And it’s often hard getting those deliverables done.

      “…but our attempts to educate managers in increasing the value of project management has been a failure: we can not get any managers at all to attend the courses.”

      That has been quite similar to my experience, as well. That is in part why I have started focusing on the re-definition of projects as investments — because senior managers usually do understand the concept of investments. What they don’t understand is (1) how to manage projects as investments [i.e., investment metrics for planning and tracking projects], and (2) the techniques of project management [value breakdown structure (VBS), drag cost and true cost, resource availability drag (RAD), and the cost of leveling with unresolved bottlenecks (the CLUB)] that, given the crucial data from senior management (i.e., the value/cost of time) will allow the project teams to better execute projects in a way that delivers more ROI.

      “I will surely buy your book…”

      I appreciate that, Claus, and I do believe that you will be excited about the new techniques, metrics, and overall approach — but for me, more important than buying the book, is that, if you are excited about the concepts, you help me get them out there so that people will actually use them. As a teacher, you are in a great position to influence that with your students. But anything else you can do to spread the word — internet posts, articles, blogs, scholarly papers, even a review on Amazon.com, will be most appreciated.

      And in return, I promise to help you in any way I can: exercises for your students if you want them (I’ve got plenty of them, but there is also an extensive exercise, with answers, at the back of the book) or to answer any questions that arise. I believe that I have just scratched the surface of this “projects as investments” approach and that others will substantially expand the concepts, and expand them into disciplines like healthcare, where poor project management practices are leading to deaths every day throughout the world. And I can’t wait for such expanded application of these ideas to happen.

      Thank you so much for letting me know that my blog is having some impact, Claus, and please stay in touch.

      Fraternally in project management,

      Steve the Bajan

      Like

  5. Indeed, stakeholders/bosses often fail to foresee the losses caused by impossing impossible goals or deadlines and would be in need of some “education”:-( Thanks for an interesting article; I’d be interested in your slides as well: joris.vleminckx AT gmail.com.

    Like

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