Shadow of the Leader

Many factors contribute to the culture of an organisation – its history, geography and industry norms amongst others.  And there is one driver that can change overnight: its leadership.

I have worked in organisations that are strongly aligned to project management principles – where everything is treated as a project – and I have been places that aren’t in the least bit interested.  Occasionally I have witnessed an organisation swinging from one extreme to the other, and that normally corresponds with a change at CxO level.

Project management is not unique in this respect.  Earlier in my career I worked for a “marketing-led” organisation – fashionable in the late 80s – and senior executives tended to be marketing folk who saw everything in terms of 4 Ps.  That company no longer exists, and the senior managers moved on.  Other companies take on the leadership characteristics of technology, or finance, or even of HR.

Fortunately project management seems to be fashionable at the moment, and long may it remain so.  Companies invest in developing project managers, and there is such a thing as a project management career path.  As practitioners we understand how to run a project, but do our leaders understand what is expected of them in a project-centric organisation?

I frequently hear the complaint from PMs that their senior stakeholders don’t understand how to behave.  Indeed, senior executives can, through inadvertant poor behaviour, seriously damage a project’s delivery.  I was recently speaking to Yohan Abrahams (PMI UK’s Director of Volunteer Co-ordination), and he raised exactly the same topic, so I know the problem is wider than just my personal experience.

In order to improve the skills of PMs, we can provide accreditation schemes, training, conferences, coaching and so on.  These methods are unlikely to work for senior execs: they have neither the time nor the motivation to be trained in project management.

Here’s a suggestion.  How about a “project management code of practice” that senior executives can be invited to sign up to?  It would set down, in simple terms, the behaviours that project managers need from their senior stakeholders in order to succeed.  So, for example:

I will make myself available and respond to escalations from my 
project manager

I will act to resolve ambiguities

I will back management decisions with the appropriate resources

I will recognise and celebrate the successes of project teams

I will not delegate or avoid decisions that are better taken at my
level

I will ensure that decisions are aligned with my peers

If I am unable to attend important project meetings, then I will 
delegate authority to someone that can attend - and will back 
their decisions

I will avoid micro-managing, by giving the project manager freedom
and authority to act within the parameters of their project

etc.

Now, this isn’t a complete or fully thought-through list, but I’m sure you get the idea. Such an initiative would need one committed PM-aware senior executive to sell the idea to their peers, it would need plenty of ceremony and visibility around the act of signing the code, and – particularly challenging – it would also ultimately need some form of “whistle blowing” sanction if a PM felt that the code had been violated.

Would this work in your organisation; and if not, why not?

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About Russell Whitworth (Q2 Associates Ltd)

In pursuit of PM Excellence
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