Selling Project Management to Management or… Why is this so hard?

BusinessPeopleIt is a lament I hear almost every week. “How can I convince my management that we need to implement more project management?”

It’s not universal, of course, but the number of organizations where executive level support for the project control environment is either non-existent or openly negative is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that these same organizations often have executive level commitment or interest in better managed projects. What is it about implementing project control that makes executives so reluctant to take it on?

The issues break down into several categories:

By far the most significant category is a lack of understanding. Even with the advent of desktop project management systems such as Microsoft Project, the science of project management is complex and not grasped instantaneously. Part of the project is that project management and project management systems have become synonymous with project scheduling and project scheduling can be an involved subject. Network flow diagrams, Critical path scheduling, arcane terms such as “Total Float” or “Lag” make the subject even more daunting. Acronym such as “BCWS” don’t make it any easier for those people whose involvement in the actual workings of the project management process will be cursory at best. (By the way, BCWS stands for Budgeted Cost of Work Scheduled or, “the budget”).

Is the answer to this education? Special classes to train managers in how to calculate the Critical Path of a project? I think not. Why a manager should know all these terms is somewhat beyond me. In almost no cases will this make the person a better manager. Management’s input into the project management process is not to analyze the intricacies of a detailed project schedule.

To compound this problem, a second favourite category is the complaint of many project managers and schedulers is that on the subject of project management their own executives seem to have the attention span of a gnat! Decisions that, for a project scheduler involve detailed consideration of reams of data simply do not interest executives. In fact, the most common request by executives of their project managers is for single-page reports.

This problem can best be seen in public service. A cabinet-level politician or bureaucrat is so inundated with the day-to-day details of their department that they are often given no more than several minutes on a monthly basis in order to make momentous decisions on multi-million or multi-billion dollar projects. It is not that these people are not interested, just that this is the amount of time available for this type of decision at this level. I’ve seen several situations where this level of government official is given 3-5 minutes to give a go/no-go decision on continuing or cancelling a project worth well over $100million. To the project manager or scheduler, this lack of executive attention must be unbearably curt. Yet it is as common in the private sector as the public.

A solution? More time you say? I’m afraid not. Even doubling the amount of time spent at this level will still result in a ridiculously short amount of time spent analyzing the data. The problem is a difference in perspective.

Yet the demand in the executive suite for more effective management of projects is intense. Economic pressures increase the need for even more efficiency every day. For those executives or management teams struggling to understand what they must do in order to implement such systems, other differences in perspective continue to make selling project management to management difficult.

One of these differences in perspective is the notion that choosing the right software will solve the problem. The combined world-wide marketing efforts of the project management software hype-meisters leaves promises of effortless “enterprise-wide” project management on the pages of almost every major computer publication in existence. (Yes, I know, I’ve been guilty of this myself). With the current craze for ERP systems, and Office Suites which include project management functionality, this kind of promise is held out to executives as the holy grail of solutions to their woes.

Does this mean that software will make no difference? Of course not. But software is only one aspect of a solution and, in my experience, software implementations which occur in a vacuum devoid of management support, process changes, cultural consideration and a commitment to change inevitably result in failure. No, software alone does not solve this problem.

If you have been tasked to sell project management to your own executive or, if you are part of an executive and wondering why you should be interested, here are a few factors to consider:

  • · First and foremost, distinguish the perspective of the players involved. It is inappropriate to think that the interests of an executive responsible for the outcome of dozens or hundreds of projects and for the overall viability of an organization are identical to the interest of a project scheduler responsible for bringing several projects on time and on budget. This means that whatever presentations, reports, analyses, meetings and so on, must be tailored to who is involved. I’ve done hundreds of presentations on our own project control timesheet software and almost always have someone from the executive level of the firm in attendance. But I almost never have that person attend the entire presentation. We organize the agenda and schedule of the presentation so that the executives can attend the section most appropriate to them and leave if they wish (They almost always do) before starting the “nuts and bolts” of how the software works. Executive briefings almost never last more than an hour.
  • · Next, organize regular project management reports and presentations for management with the knowledge that there will be never be an understanding of the arcane terms and science of project scheduling and project cost control. Remove references to such items from your reports. If your project management software is incapable of doing things like renaming terms like “Late Start” to “Projected Finish”, start thinking about new software. In this case, less really is more. Keep your reports to a page or less and, if you must, keep a 2nd level detail in reserve to back up your analysis.
  • · Third, apply project management principles to your project of selling project management to management. Can I say this enough? The most infrequent users of project management are project managers on their own projects! How does this apply here? It doesn’t take much imagination. Define clear goals, get a project sponsor, set a timetable…you know the rest.
  • · Don’t be enthralled by the notion that the purchase of any one piece of software will instantly and completely solve all of your project management problems. The implementation of software is sometimes a perfect time to effect a culture change. Sneaking in a new paradigm of behaviour on the back of a project control system is a favourite technique of mine.

You’ve got to look at the whole project control process whenever you’re interested in improving the effectiveness of project management. If you’re interested in selling project management to your own management, start with identifying management’s role in the process. Where do they fit, what is their contribution and what impact will that contribution make to the enterprise? A request for input when that input will clearly make a direct difference to the outcome of something is irresistible to almost everyone.