Bob Ferguson: Getting Management Support

Few people will doubt the need for management backing throughout the life of a project. In fact, lack of interest from management can result in issues ranging from a project becoming irrelevant to the goals of the enterprise, to one which slowly starves from lack of funds and the ability to attract capable people to staff the work effort. Many project leaders have struggled with how to maintain the successful flow of project work and deliverables, and the essential factor to all of them is continued and active management support. Support takes many forms including participating in periodic status updates, providing advice to the project team, ensuring the flow of funds and people resources as needed, removing barriers as they develop, and helping to sell the project to the rest of the organization. This discussion describes some of the most significant things to bear in mind to get and keep management support during project startup and throughout the many phases through implementation and follow-on to succeeding projects. Take the 7 step project “health check” to get a sense of emerging issues.

Every successful project manager needs a clear understanding of its governance structure. Successful projects usually have a one individual sponsor, typically a senior executive. The sponsor must be high enough in the organization to make all key decisions about funding and staffing. The sponsor must be the visionary, and be able to make decisions quickly to help the project stay on track. One example where this principle worked well was a provincial government who wanted to combine its social assistance department with that of the largest city in the province to eliminate service redundancies, reduce costs and improve service to social assistance recipients. Although there was considerable resistance to change from the city welfare department which threatened to derail the project work, the single executive in charge, in this case the Deputy Minister, was able to make decisions and rule on disputes with minimal impact to project schedules.

One sponsor “where the buck stops” was not in place in another example. In this case there were 2 government departments which were asked to combine their services to clients to enable a single case worker to handle the needs of clients. One department provided the necessary social assistance payments while the other delivered employment-related training with the overall goal of increasing employment and decreasing dependence on social assistance. Neither department had the clout to make overall decisions and make the two groups work together. There was no single, accessible executive senior enough to oversee the project for both departments. In order to get decisions made, the project manager had to perform “shuttle diplomacy” working with each department individually and lead combined planning meetings to try to find common ground. The results were missed project deadlines, costs above budget, with both departments frustrated.

Scope / Focus – Keep it Small, in “Bite Size Chunks”

It may sound like common sense, but many projects take on too much scope and risk failure. Often senior management, who are motivated to achieve success for the enterprise, are pressing to broaden the scope of projects, to accomplish more in less time. Project leaders should weigh the risks of a broad scope versus the likelihood of diluting the management focus when too many projects are in play at once.

A major hospital in Ontario recently initiated over 20 sizable IT projects, at the same time across multiple hospital departments including clinical care, finance, administration, and HR. The hospital vision of a brighter future for patients and staff and funding were in place. The enthusiasm for tackling a huge project scope was high, everyone from the CIO to the project team members was keen on taking on as many projects as possible. Within a few months, issues started to appear. Missed project milestones, lack of financial tracking, unclear project objectives, and high project team turnover resulted in lack of confidence from Board members and major changes to senior IT and Project leadership. The key lesson learned was to take on fewer initiatives at one time, with frequent checkpoints and communications on progress with senior hospital and management and Board members.

Timing is Everything – Create Sense of Urgency

A successful project has many interim deadlines to create a sense of urgency which when combined with doable scope of effort results in a sense of accomplishment that project sponsors and team members can feel good about. One of Ontario’s highly visible waste diversion initiatives was important to the government and the implementation date was established largely for political reasons with most experts thinking the time to implement was unrealistic. However, the tight five month deadline served to focus the project sponsor and team to doing what was essential to getting the job done.

Financials – Start with a Compelling Business Case

A project should start with a business plan which outlines the key financial objectives including savings, increased revenue, increased profit, and often all three. Projects without a financial plan really are not projects at all, there is no concrete way to measure outcomes or effectiveness.

A medium-sized urban hospital decided to embark on several simultaneous projects, mostly related to new or updated technology. There was an overall budget for all the projects, but the budget was not assigned to individual projects and there was no requirement to report actual costs regularly at the individual project level. Too late, senior management realized the financial plan was essentially out of control and the result was a major rethink of the entire initiative including changing the executive in charge.

Trust and Sound (Two-Way) Relationships are Key

At the end of the day, the essential factor to maintain management support for a project is trust. This means the project leader must gain the trust and confidence of the project sponsor. Trust can be elusive, a single missed deadline, or report to the Steering Committee, or cost overruns above budgets are among the many things that can cause trust to falter. Regaining the trust and support of the management team can be a lengthy process and may never be fully achieved. A project leader can take steps to ensure trust, starting with an intensive effort to establish and maintain relationships with senior management. The basis of building this relationship is two-way communication and this can include regular weekly and monthly checkpoints with highlights documented, informal one-on-one meetings, often daily, and formal written status projects.

One example of a successful trust-building effort was a provincial government project to merge 2 similar organizations into one with fewer redundancies. The key to establishing trust in this case was frequent communications to all staff with information on the status of changes to individuals’ jobs including work locations and reporting structure, to be able to answer “how does this change affect me?” This trust was based on visible management commitment and buy-in to change the mind-set of the staff and supervisors that this is a new way of doing business.

Project “Health” Checklist

Getting and keeping management support for any project is vital to its success in providing value to the organization. There are 7 key areas you should examine regularly (suggest monthly) to track progress, identify issues early, and develop corrective actions as needed. For each area, assign a “health indicator”:  No Concerns, Potential Issues, or Significant Issues. Then, describe the highlights of each area, especially Potential and Significant Issues including assessment of root causes and actions needed.

  1. Stakeholders: Are the key sponsors and customers (internal and external) of the project actively supporting the project?
  2. Business benefits: Are the benefits from the project business case being achieved or are likely to be achieved?
  3. Work and schedule: Is the project and key deliverables on track to be delivered on time? Is the work schedule meeting the project plan timing?
  4. Risks are mitigated: Have risks, especially the big risks with significant impact been identified with mitigation plans in place?
  5. Scope is realistic: Can the major project outcomes be delivered on time and within budget?
  6. Team and Resources: Are the needed skills in place on the project team? Are all key roles staffed, and are recruiting plans underway for replacements?
  7. Financials: Are project costs and revenue / profit commitments on track to be attained?

One thought on “Bob Ferguson: Getting Management Support

  1. Ken Stevens

    Great insight! Looking forward to trying out some of these ideas on my next corporate project. Also, could be applied to corporate venturing activities. KS

Leave a Reply