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What do you mean Project Leadership... isn’t that why we hire Project Managers?

Wednesday, 18 September 2013 | Van Rooyen, Karin

  169  LIKES  |   4225 VIEWS


Bahia Sarlie, PMP® - PM.Ideas Consultant

Project Management is a relatively young discipline (in comparison to engineering for example) and is constantly evolving. Similarly, the perception that the accountability for successful projects lies exclusively with the Project Manager has been consistently debunked over the past two decades. The Standish Group has been publishing their annual CHAOS report for the past 19 years. The highlight of this report, for many, is the factors which materially influence both the success and failure of (IT) projects.

Since the very first CHAOS report in 1994, the respondents of the survey have consistently ranked user involvement and executive management support as the two top reasons for project success. Conversely, in the latest version of the report (2012), The lack of executive support has been ranked as the fourth most common reason for challenged projects and fifth most common reason for impaired/failed projects . Some of the other factors that can be attributed to executives which ranked in the top ten of both challenged and impaired/failed projects include:
  • Changing requirements and specifications
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Unclear objectives
The Standish Group’s research in terms of project resolution between 2002 and 2010 indicates that while there is only a marginal improvement in successful projects, it is clear that the percentage of challenged projects is on a downward trend. Failed projects, however, illustrates that there is definitely need for concern, especially if we analyse this trend in relation to the global economic environment.

Companies all over the world are making decisions a lot more cautiously than they had prior to the economic crisis; entrepreneurs, business owners and executives are more circumspect about which projects they’ll invest their precious reserves in. The need to do/get more with less has become the way to do business for most if not all industries.

While the Standish Group’s research focuses on IT projects, PM.Ideas has recognised a similar trend across several industries over the past 18 months, including: IT, engineering, mining, construction and retail.

My (yet to be proven) hypothesis is that a major reason for executives’ perceived apathy towards projects is that they simply do not know any better, not for the most part anyway. Simply put, my sense is that executives do not understand how critical their roles are in projects; they do not consciously realize how much their behaviour influences project outcomes. From my personal exposure to these executives, very few of them have come up the ranks via project management, and those who have, neither have the time to effectively sponsor all the projects nor do they have the capacity and/or desire to ‘teach’ the rest of the executive how to sponsor projects effectively.

If we are to understand what defines good executive management support, the first place I would reference is The Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® GUIDE – FIFTH EDITION® Guide), Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013. In terms of executive project leadership, the PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition formally recognises only one role, i.e. the role of the Sponsor , as follows:
“A sponsor is the person or group who provides resources and support for the project and is accountable for enabling success. The sponsor may be internal or external to the project manager’s organisation. From initial conception to project closure, the sponsor promotes the project. This includes serving as spokesperson to higher levels of management to gather support through the organisation and promoting the benefits the project brings. The sponsor leads the project through the initiating processes until formally authorised, and plays a significant role in the development of the initial scope and charter. For issues that are beyond the control of the project manager, the sponsor serves as an escalation path. The sponsor may also be involved in other important issues such as authorising changes in scope, phase-end reviews, and go/no-go decisions when risks are particularly high. The sponsor also ensures a smooth transfer of the project’s deliverables into the business of the requesting organisation after project closure.”

The PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition further recognises the following roles and responsibilities of the Sponsor, as follows:
  • “The sponsor should agree to the scope and limitations of the business case.”
  • “For internal projects, the project initiator or sponsor provides the statement of work based on business needs, product and service requirements.”
  • “The project charter is the document issued by the project initiator or sponsor that formally authorises the existence of a project and provides the project manager with the authority to apply organisational resources to project activities.”
  • “The project management plan becomes the agreement between the project manager and the project sponsor, defining what constitutes project completion.”
  • In adaptive (change-driven or agile) life cycles, “the sponsor and the customer representatives should be continuously engaged with the project to provide feedback on deliverables as they are created and to ensure that the product backlog reflects their current needs.”
  • “The project sponsor works with the project management team, typically assisting with matters such as project funding, clarifying scope, monitoring progress and influencing stakeholders in both the requesting and performing organisation for the project benefit.”
  • “Every documented change needs to be approved or rejected by a responsible individual, usually the project sponsor or the project manager.”
  • “The verified deliverables obtained from the Control Quality process are reviewed with the customer or sponsor to ensure that they are completed satisfactorily and have received formal acceptance of the deliverables by the customer or sponsor.”
Perhaps another cause of the poor executive support of projects is the fact that the broader roles and responsibilities of executive leadership, beyond project sponsorship, are not well defined by PMI. In Harold Kerner’s (PH.D) Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling and Controlling (Tenth Edition) he further explains typical executives project roles and responsibilities, as follows:

  • Executive-client contact (liaison)
  • Objective setting
  • Priority setting
  • Project organisational structure
  • Project policies and procedures
  • Project master planning
  • Up-front planning
  • Key staffing
  • Monitoring execution
  • Conflict resolution
He goes on to explain that the Sponsor must be actively involved in the initiation or kick-off phase of the project, but that s/he must be passive during the execution phases, getting involved only on an as-needed basis.

Kerzner describes how in recent years, the role of sponsoring projects has been delegated to committees to mitigate the risk of favouritism to his/her line group and the consequent suboptimal decisions. A secondary risk typically exists when a committee is established to mitigate the risk of favouritism, etc. This secondary risk is the lack of availability/inaccessibility of the executives that constitute the committee. Their collective inaccessibility can lead to delayed decisions and/or escalating problems. Committee sponsorship has, however, been shown to work when a single member of the committee is anointed the prime sponsor for the project.

Furthermore, he explains that as project management matures and executive responsibilities become decentralized, more and more responsibilities are pushed further down into middle- and lower-level management. In these more mature organisations, senior management start taking on the following roles as it relates to project management:
  • Establishing a Centre of Excellence in project management
  • Establishing a Project Office or centralized project management function
  • Creating a project management career path
  • Creating a mentorship program for newly appointed project managers
  • Creating an organisation committed to benchmark best practice in project management in other organisations
  • Providing strategic information for risk management
Lastly, Kerzner goes on to explain the following executive role:

Executive Champion: Executive champions are needed for those activities that require the implementation of change… as part of an organisational change management strategy/plan. Executive champions ‘drive’ the implementation of project management down in to the organisation and accelerate its acceptance because their involvement implies executive-level support and interest.

In T.J. Kloppenborg et al’s Implementing Strategy through Portfolios and Projects (Harvard Business Publishing), they expand on the leadership roles to include:

Leadership Team: They are responsible for the results of all the work in a portfolio. (PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition defines portfolios as project, programs, subportfolios and operations managed as a group to achieve strategic objectives.) A portfolio is typically made up of a head of a business unit and the people who report to him/her. They are responsible to identify, select, prioritise, resource and govern projects.

Project Executive: The project manager reports to the project executive and s/he provides functional resources, governs methods, helps the project manager develop leadership competencies and delivers project results according to plan. He has specific task and coaching responsibilities and may be the project sponsor.

Chief Project Office (CPO): The CPO is responsible for developing the project management competency and facilitating the leadership team as they make portfolio decisions.

Chief Information Office (CIO): They make special mention of the CIO, as he plays a critical role in projects, particularly those that include information technology as part of their scope, which generally makes up a large percentage of the projects run in immature environments.

In the same book referenced earlier, Kernzer compares the project manager’s interface with the executive in an immature organisation to that of a mature organisation, as follows:

Immature Organisation vs Mature Organisation
  • Executive is actively involved in projects vs Executive involvement is passive
  • Executive acts as the project champion vs Executive acts as project sponsor
  • Executive questions the project manager’s decisions vs Executive trust the project manager’s decisions
  • Priority shifting occurs frequently vs Priority shifting is avoided
  • Executive views project management as a necessary evil vs Executive view project management as beneficial
  • There is very little project management support vs There is visible, on-going support
  • Executive is not committed to project sponsorship vs Executive is committed to project sponsorship (and ownership)
  • Executive support exits on during project start-up vs Executive support exists on a continuous basis
  • Executive encourages project decisions to be made vs Executive encourages business decisions to be made
  • No procedure exist for assigning project sponsors vs Sponsorship assignment procedures are visible
  • Executives seek perfection vs Executives seek what is possible
  • Executive is not involved in charter preparation vs Executives recognizes the importance of a charter
  • Executive does not understand what goes into a charter vs Executive understand the content of a charter
  • Executives do not believe that the project team is performing vs Executives trust that performance is taking place
Project Managers can use the above-mentioned comparison to gauge their performing organisation’s maturity, particularly as it relates to executive support and sponsorship.

Conclusion The maturity of an organisation’s project management discipline is a major contributor in an organisation’s project success and failure rates. Project excellence, according to Kerzner, is not the same thing as project maturity. You do, however, need to be mature as an organisation to be able to deliver projects excellently.

In an effort to improve project management maturity, executives need to recognise their shortcomings and make a concerted effort to learn more about what is expected from them in relation to project management. They must then seek the appropriate learning opportunities to close those gaps.

Project Management Professionals, especially those placed in immature environments, have a responsibility to navigate these organisations and be catalysts of the the improvement of the maturity by educating as many of the stakeholders, especially executives that they interact with on a daily basis.

Lastly, I would like to see PMI formally define the broader leadership roles across the project management discipline and create standards against which those role players can formally certify that they are knowledgeable and have the requisite skillsets for these roles. PMI is, however, constantly pushing the envelope as can be seen in the optimisation of the Program standard as well as the current pilot to define the Portfolio Management standard.

  1. The Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition, Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013
  2. PMP® Project Management Professional Exam Study Guide, Seventh Edition, Kim Heldman
  3. Project Management, A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, Harold Kerzner, PH.D
  4. Strategic Leadership of Portfolio and Project Management, Implementing Strategy through Portfolios and Projects, Timothy J. Kloppenbord







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