Developing a dynamite project sponsor!

block buildingThe November 2014 issue of PM Network includes analysis from research focusing on the role of the project sponsor.  While there were no revelations as far as the criticality of the sponsor role or which are the key activities performed by a sponsor, one statistic did catch my attention.

Only 36% of the organizations which were surveyed provided development for the role of an executive sponsor.  This value is low given that the same study revealed that one out of three unsuccessful projects had poorly engaged sponsors as the root cause and having effective sponsors generated a 15% improvement in project success rates.

So why isn’t this happening?

It would be easy to blame low organizational project management maturity – that happens to be one of my favorite boogeyman for most project management “sins”!  However, that does not account for such a low percentage – my own empirical evidence supports the premise that even companies at higher levels of project management maturity rarely have any type of structured development programs in place to cultivate successful sponsors.  A more plausible explanation is that there is an assumption being made that when someone has become an executive that they have already gained the hard & soft skills required to be an effective project sponsor.

But is this really true?

Many executives reach their positions as a result of a track record of management success.  The competencies required to manage a line of business are very different from those needed to successful champion change.  Dr. John Kotter’s classic HBR article, What Leaders Really Do, covers this in depth and the following paragraph stands out:

Most U.S. corporations today are over-managed and underled. They need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership. Successful corporations don’t wait for leaders to come along. They actively seek out people with leadership potential and expose them to career experiences designed to develop that potential. Indeed, with careful selection, nurturing, and encouragement, dozens of people can play important leadership roles in a business organization.

One word in that last sentence is key – nurturing.

So what should be done?

Developing sponsors takes more than just turning them loose on a project – the same development strategies which are used with project managers could be adapted for sponsors.  Assessing skills and experience is the first step – those can help to provide insights into which executives are NOT suited to be sponsors.  Those assessments can also provide input into the creation of personal development plans which should combine formal training on project leadership with experience-based learning.  The latter might start with roles serving on steering committees and then moves into progressively more challenging sponsorship roles.

A sustainment component required within such a development program is an onboarding process which gets executed whenever a project is ready to kick off.  That process would provide the sponsor with a refresher on their role including expected behaviors and responsibilities.

Lies, damned lies and statistics can certainly be used to support just about any argument, but the better trained a sponsor, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to effectively support a project.

Categories: Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Active listening helps you become a better project manager

imageTwo of the most frequently raised questions in online project management discussion groups are: “Is project management more science than art?” and “Which is more important to succeed in project management – hard or soft skills?”

The usual consensus with such questions is that while one cannot ignore the need to develop a solid foundation of hard skills (the “science”), the lack of soft skills (the “art”) will be a hurdle blocking the career progression for most project managers.

In the pantheon of soft skills, active listening is a powerful method of proving the authenticity of your interest in what someone is saying and feeling, both of which are critical to gaining trust.

Active listening embodies the name of my blog – simple in theory but not easy in practice.

Our ability to focus on anything for more than a few seconds is impacted by a variety of distractions. Unhealthy levels of multitasking combined with the siren songs of smartphones, e-mail and other technology-driven “enablers” have made it too easy for our minds to drift even when we are sitting right across from someone. Our lack of focus becomes evident to the other party, and they tune out of the conversation.

How can we improve our ability to actively listen?

Set yourself up for success by minimizing the sources of distraction when holding important discussions. Book a meeting room instead of an open area. Mute and turn off the vibrate mode on your smartphone. If you are taking notes, don’t keep your screen up or your notebook open the whole time and exploit lulls in the conversation as your opportunity to document what you have heard.

Schedule discussions at a time when you are less likely to experience a wandering mind. Don’t book meetings back-to-back as you are more likely to spend the first few minutes of each meeting recalling the previous one, not to mention the stress of rushing from the last meeting.

Recognize when your mind is wandering and gently bring yourself back into the conversation. Exercises in improving mindfulness can help to increase your focus over a longer time.

Whether or not you believe that commonly quoted statistic of 93% of communication being non-verbal, I’m sure you will agree that accepting everything you hear as the truth is likely to get you into trouble. Active listening is your key to resolving issues, unlocking motivations, and understanding hidden agendas.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Project criticality should dictate how much effort gets spent in managing Unknown Unknowns

AreYouReadyThere is a great scene in the film version of World War Z where Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, goes to Jerusalem to learn how the Israelis had the foresight to build large walls around the city to keep the zombie hordes out while no other nation had taken similar measures.  The explanation provided by the Mossad agent he meets is that since the Yom Kippur war, Israeli intelligence had established the equivalent of a devil’s advocate office to reduce the risk that group think wouldn’t lead to very minor but highly critical data being ignored with resulting major impacts to the country’s security.

In his 2007 book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb wrote about a similar challenge to the one faced by the Mossad.  Highly impactful but extremely low probability risk events such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are rarely properly identified and managed.

Both of these references relate to one of risk management’s greatest challenges – dealing with Unknown Unknowns.  Yes, in previous articles I have written about the difficulties in effectively implementing risk management practices to manage Known Unknowns, but Unknown Unknowns are equally capable of derailing a project.

The common practice for dealing with Unknown Unknowns is to establish management reserves which are drawn upon based on approval from sponsors or other governance bodies when such risks get realized.  However, this assumes that use of management reserves can absorb the impacts of these issues.

In some cases, even a partially mitigated impact might still be lethal enough to cause project or even organizational failure.

Let’s consider the hypothetical scenario of a new regulation which establishes unlimited liability for non-compliance, regardless of the magnitude of the non-compliance.  If an unknown risk is realized late in the life of the project which is focused on establishing organizational compliance with the new regulation, even a partial impact to schedule or scope could result in dire financial and reputational impacts to the organization.

I am not providing carte blanche for teams to expend effort on managing the most obscure risk events possible.  That would clearly not be a good investment, nor would it help to raise the credibility in project risk management overall.

A project manager should ask the “What’s the worst the could happen if…” question regarding the project’s constraints to help scale the level of effort spent on risk identification and management.  On some projects, identifying and actively managing or monitoring a very small percentage of the total population of risks might suffice whereas on others, greater effort might be warranted.

In summary, criticality needs to be considered alongside complexity and scale when answering the question “How much risk management should I be doing on this project?”

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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