Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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Senior Managers are (still) the biggest problem with projects

I did a speech in Brussels, Belgium, recently and as part of my preparation I researched the local market in order to talk confidently about what they’re seeing with regards to projects in Europe. I happened upon a paper from PwC in Belgium called the Project Success Survey, which you can read here.

It was the usual dispiriting exercise – less than half of the respondents feel comfortable about successful project delivery in their organisation and the suggestions to make projects a success are (drum roll please): tools and methods. Sigh.

But when reviewing the ‘Why Projects Fail to Deliver’, section (about halfway through), it struck me – once again – just how these kinds of reports avoid stating what everyone involved in projects knows to be true. That the reasons projects fail isn’t because of unclear scope, poor communication, lack of change management, poorly defined goals or change in strategy. It’s because senior managers don’t take their role seriously and make sure none of these things become problems in the first place.

I'm really not sure what it's going to take for this message to sink in because, when it comes to project sponsorship, most senior managers don't know how to do it well.

It's not always entirely the manager’s fault, of course.

When someone is promoted to a position where project sponsorship becomes part of their job they need to be coached on what it means to be a role model for change, how to ensure a good culture exists, how to make swift decisions, keep the project manager honest and to ensure that outcomes are achieved. And all of these things will inevitably require behaviour change and a new set of skills.

All too often a senior manager is sent a list of responsibilities and a copy (sometimes laminated!) of the project delivery framework. And then they throw accountability – as well as responsibility – to the project manager in the hope they’ll make it right.

Being a project sponsor is seen as an ‘add-on’ to a senior manager’s job; another meeting to attend; another person to manage; more jargon to learn.

When they don’t have time to do it properly, most senior managers simply avoid doing it at all. Personally, I don’t understand that approach.  After all, if you’re suddenly charged with bringing a $0.5m investment home that has a $2m payback (which could be the make or break for next year’s budget), then you’re going to want to know how to do this properly, aren’t you?

Instead, when projects fail, sponsors look to excuses such as scope creep and poor communication rather than acknowledging that they got their approach wrong. They didn’t seek out training and coaching programs that spoke frankly and honestly about the challenges of successful project sponsorship. They didn’t focus on the skills and behaviours that could have made a difference. Instead, they relied on methods, tools and traffic light reports to get the job done.

Every reason for project failure can be linked back to the competency and behaviours of senior managers. And until they take their role as sponsor and figurehead of a project seriously, projects will continue to fail and they'll look everywhere other than in the mirror for the reasons why.