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!).
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:
#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.
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