Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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When will senior managers take project management seriously?

Every year lots of project management surveys tell us the same things we’ve been reading for the last 20 years – namely that more projects fail than succeed. And every year senior managers and executives do little to invest in actively changing the culture of project delivery. Project managers consistently beat their heads against walls, doors and any other solid surface that they can find, at this intransigence.

It was a challenge I faced in almost every senior delivery role I held. In one organisation my project management team had to deliver a capital budget of $125m. My role was to re-energise the team and ensure it had the leadership and team-building skills to be successful. I had a development budget of $20,000. For 35 people. Ridiculous.

There was one role that was different. I was given as much development money as I needed to ‘improve the project management experience’ for our stakeholders. If I didn’t achieve this I would receive no pay increase or bonus. We lifted satisfaction scores by almost 40% in one year.

Getting senior managers to understand the importance of good project management will continue to be a challenge when there’s so little of it around. However, if we don’t invest in the right development and project managers continue to focus on the wrong things, we are facing a never-ending cycle of decline.

The Project Management Institute found, in its Pulse of the Profession report last year, that ‘less than two in five organisations place a high priority on creating a culture that recognises [senior management involvement] as a driver of better project performance. Organisations that place a high priority on creating this culture report 71% of projects meeting original goals and business intent.'

Worryingly, many organisations continually convince themselves that everything is rosy in the project garden, when in fact they have neglected it for years and even those hardy plants that are desperate to grow and thrive, are looking for bees to pollinate them elsewhere. 

In the KPMG New Zealand project management survey released two weeks ago, 61% of organisations surveyed felt that project success rates were improving, despite consistently high failure rates.

That’s like me vehemently believing that politicians are becoming more trustworthy...

If organisations want to improve the rate at which they deliver projects and the performance of them, providing senior managers with the time and training to sponsor projects in the right way is the place to start.

Put some true accountability measures in place (e.g. link project results to KPIs or get regular feedback on performance), ensure they are leadership role models and that they make swift decisions in order to keep projects moving.

For too long, apathy around projects and project management at a senior management level has led to an under-investment into the actual capabilities required – at all levels – to be successful.

As I frequently say in my speeches, you get the project results that the leadership deserves. If your organisation continues to fail, it’s time to buy some more mirrors for the boardroom.

Project sponsors and senior managers have a unique opportunity to positively affect the lives of others and leave a lasting legacy of project success for others to copy. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.

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