Project Management and Senior Management: Reconciling Their Needs

I’ve been developing and teaching techniques and metrics for managing the business value of projects for over 20 years. My first major article was “When the DIPP Dips: A P&L Index for Project Decisions”, published in the Sep/Oct 1992 issue of Project Management Journal. And the first edition of my Total Project Control book included techniques such the DIPP Tracking Index, the value breakdown structure (VBS), drag cost and the cost of leveling with unresolved bottlenecks (the CLUB): all techniques for managing and tracking projects for optimum value.

But something was missing. I would explain these techniques to experienced project managers in corporate classes and PMI seminars, and from time to time I’d be hired as a consultant to help plan a big project or pull in a slipped schedule. And then I’d leave and realize that I’d only handed the organization a fish. Despite my efforts, I had failed to teach them how to implement the processes to catch it themselves.

teach a man to fish

About five years ago, during the fourth day of a corporate class on the TPC methodology, an attendee said:

“Steve, these concepts and techniques that you’ve been teaching us are great – but we’re the wrong audience. We’re just the master sergeants. You need to be teaching the colonels and generals in this company. Because they don’t understand any of this!”

I started thinking: what is it that I’m missing? Why is it that senior managers have almost no interest in learning about the techniques of something that so clearly impacts an organization’s bottom line?

And so it finally hit me: the concept that I had been talking all around for two decades, the magic word that would make senior managers sit up and take notice. Investment! The thing that senior managers do understand! Not just understand, but respect and study and believe in planning and tracking and optimizing.

Project managers are subject matter experts. They are engineers and chemists and programmers and biologists and doctors and geologists and… They know a lot! They have not only extensive education, but experience in things that it is very important to know!

Where they often don’t have a great deal of knowledge is in terms of what some would call “business skills”: investment and economics and marketing. And you know what? That’s okay! Knowing how to make sure that the building doesn’t collapse, or the airplane crash, or the software consume the hard drive, or the pharmaceutical compound kill someone, or the ground water get polluted… That’s hard and that’s important! Yes, it would be nice if these smart and conscientious folks also had business knowledge and skills – but if we want those skills, they are going to have to be “add-ons”, because these people have been busy all their lives putting their energy into other very valuable knowledge. And that’s why corporations bring in people like me to teach their SMEs project management.

Executives have learned an awful lot as well: about investment and economics and marketing and taxes and interests rates and corporate bonds and organizational structures and behavior… and that’s all important stuff too. What they don’t know about is project management. And most of the time, they are not willing to attend project management classes.

Now, I’ve met some senior managers who seem to think that project management is somehow “beneath” them. (After all, what’s the big deal about delivering a mall or a jet fighter or an oil well or a cure for depression by an arbitrary deadline for an arbitrary budget, right?) But actually most senior managers I have met are bright and conscientious people, too! It’s just that no one has explained to them why knowledge of project (and program!) management – its techniques, metrics, and governance — is importance to what they do: especially investment!

This is where both sides have to learn! They have to learn a common language. They have to institute and use common metrics that are based in the investment information that senior management respects. But those metrics must then guide the project teams in making the right decisions, and senior management must know that this is occurring.

This is the approach that I took in my book Managing Projects as Investments: Earned Value to Business Value that came out last September. It was intended to provide the “common ground”, the knowledge and understanding that both senior managers and project managers need to share. And that is why it was so rewarding for me when the June issue of PM Network included that very nice review of the book by Gary Heerkens, himself the author of The Business-Savvy Project Manager, which I strongly recommend.

Gary’s review said: “But what about during the project? Luckily, in his book,… Stephen Devaux makes solid points about what can be done to maximize ROI during project execution, and it reveals a large void in my perspective on the business of projects.”

Do not be fooled by Gary’s humility! His own book and his regular writings in his PM Network column have taught me a great deal that I didn’t know. Both of us (and let me emphasize that I have never met Gary!) share a love for project management, a desire to learn and, most important, a willingness to admit when we don’t know something. But what makes me happiest is that he identified, without any assistance from me, the deepest intention of the book: to create, define and explore that crucial nexus between the project management discipline and its techniques and the senior management interest in, and concerns about, business value and investment.

I believe project managers must say that word again and again – investment, investment, INVESTMENT! – to project sponsors and customers and all of senior management (especially, when possible, to the Chief Financial Officer!) to establish that we understand why we are doing these projects. (And then, of course, we must be sure to manage them as investments!)

By the way, I have seen this work in a slightly different arena: job interviewing. I often mentor former students through the interview process, and I always urge them to say, at an appropriate point: “Of course, all projects are investments and really need to be managed as such.” They invariably report back to me that the hiring manager’s face lights up. The next former student that tries this technique and later reports that they didn’t either get the job or at least get another interview will be the first!

This territory is also where this blog will continue to cultivate and nourish the improved status of and respect for project management. I believe it is where project/program management and business management must come together for the sake of organizational progress and efficiency.

Fraternally in project management,

Steve the Bajan

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