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From the Sponsor’s Desk – The Need to Confront Executive Edicts

davison Feb19In my last post, Lessons from Being Acquired, we looked at the actions a managing partner took when her colleagues decided to pursue an offer to become part of a much larger professional services firm. Her up-front actions to engage her partners in a thorough assessment of the offer laid the foundation for a mostly successful transition and equipped the staff to deal with the challenges encountered.

Sometimes, a senior executive will proclaim an aggressive target hoping it will act as an incentive for the project team. In this post, we’ll look at the damage a well-intentioned edict from a CEO inflicted on a project and its participants, how the project fared and what could have been done to turn the outcome into a win-win situation.

Thanks to H.J. for the details on this case.

The Situation

This mid-size financial services organization had a well-rounded product and service portfolio of savings and investment products including an existing mutual fund line up and full services brokerage. The one service it didn’t have was a discount brokerage. The company had made several attempts to launch such a service but the initiative was always postponed or cancelled by other corporate priorities and developments in the marketplace.

Finally, the CEO decided that the time was right for the discount brokerage. He called in the CIO to discuss his plans and develop a ballpark target for the launch. Both executives had extensive experience with the industry and company. They reasoned that the company already offered mutual funds and a full service brokerage. How hard could it be to implement the new service? So they agreed on a three month target for the product launch which would also position its introduction at the start of the most active trading and investment period. 

The CEO then discussed his plans with the Marketing VP who was responsible for product development. The Marketing VP indicated he saw no reason why the three month target couldn’t be met. It was a go.

The Goal

To launch the discount brokerage in three months.

The Project

The Marketing VP broke the news to his Product Development Director. The Director’s initial reaction was “You’re joking, right?” The company had a well-defined and often used new product development process that had met the test of time. Typical elapsed time for new product and service launches ranged from seven to thirteen months. The Product Director pointed out that every part of the organization with the exception of their Real Estate division would have to make changes to their processes, systems and practices to support the new product. Three months was not doable! The Market VP’s response: “Give it your best shot”.

The Product Director met with the CIO to outline his concerns, seek support for extending the target date and, while he was at it, get the very best project manager he could get. Of course, the CIO was complicit with the CEO in setting the three month target so he presented the rationale he and the CEO had used to arrive at the target in the first place. The Product Director countered with his arguments, to no avail. The CIO’s stance: “Give it your best shot”. At least the Product Director was able to secure the services of one of the company’s best project managers.

The Product Director next met with the project manager and the head of the company’s PMO. Collectively they drafted an approach that they hoped could get them close to the three month target. Some of the practices they agreed to:

  • Apply the existing product development process rigorously. With the pressure from the tight target, this was no time to sacrifice rigor and jeopardize quality.
  • Apply the gating practices incorporated in the process. The gates would provide an excellent checkpoint for executive review and an opportunity to revise estimated costs and schedules.
  • Engage the heads of all affected areas up front. That included Marketing, Sales, Legal, Finance, IT and Client Services.
  • Leverage the CEO to explain to the organization the goal, the rationale and the expectations and to build the organizational commitment that would be needed to secure timely decisions and the right resources when needed.
  • Parallel as much of the work as possible. That could result in rework and the added cost and time that would entail but they didn’t see too many other options.
  • Use broad collaboration to develop and approve every project deliverable. That would mean huge scheduling challenges to get everyone involved in a timely fashion. They’d use the CEO to reinforce the priority of the undertaking on a regular basis.

Off they went. The project manager developed a plan with the participation of all the areas affected. The most optimistic completion date was in six months. The most pessimistic estimate? Thirteen months! The Product Director and PM knew that starting a project already a minimum of three months behind was a disaster waiting to happen. So they reviewed their plan with the Marketing VP and CIO and asked for an audience with the CEO to present their plan. The executives countered that they would keep the CEO in the loop and to “just give it your best shot”.

So they did. The product design proceeded in parallel with the contract work. The contract work encountered difficulties that required outside legal expertise. That delayed completion of the contract design and required changes. Also in parallel, the affected business areas analyzed and developed the business processes and practices that would be required to support the new product. That drove system design activity, job design work, development of marketing and sales materials, training programs, and finally coding and system testing.

Many of the design sessions had upwards of twenty staff representing the affected areas. The attitude was positive in the beginning but the frustrations started to build as contract and product design changes necessitated redo of already agreed to deliverables. Tracing changes though all deliverables was difficult and time-consuming. Many of the key staff were working twelve hour days and six day weeks. The Product Director and PM gave succinct, to the point weekly updates on progress to the Marketing VP, CIO and other involved executives.

Unfortunately, the Marketing VP and CIO were not completely honest with the CEO about the project’s progress. About two months in, the Customer Services VP had shared one of the PM’s status reports with the CEO and the shit hit the proverbial fan. The estimated completion date was five months beyond the initial three month target. The CEO was irate. He tore a strip off all the VP’s involved in the project but saved the real venom for the Marketing VP and CIO. The CEO’s dissatisfaction became common knowledge throughout the organization. The environment became sufficiently toxic that a number of people involved in the project resigned from the company including the Product Director, the project manager and a number of senior IT staff.

The Results

The project was delivered successfully in eight months. It was a quality implementation, the staffs affected were well trained, the new processes and systems worked as planned and the product was successful in the marketplace. But the project team felt that they had failed. The company perspective was also that the project had failed. There were no accolades, celebrations, promotions, pats on the back. There was, in fact, a palpable bitterness among project team members. They had worked their butts off, put in long days and many weekends, tried creative approaches to deliver early and had delivered everything that was asked for except hitting that stupid three month target. Respect for the CEO and the senior executives was at an all-time low. All of this because of an executive edict that should have been dealt with at the very start.

How a Great Leader Could Have Changed the Outcome

The unfortunate aspect of this case is that the Product Director and PM did a number of things right.

  • They lined up and leveraged most of the key stakeholders.
  • They developed and managed a risk plan that helped them prioritize effort and deal with the major risks first.
  • They used a tried and true product development process.
  • They ran activities in parallel in an attempt to accelerate delivery.
  • They built quality into every deliverable.

Unfortunately, they used the CEO as a mouthpiece to get priority resource commitments but they didn’t engage him as the project sponsor. In a previous post, Speaking Truth to Power, I reviewed a case where a contract PM confronted fundamental issues head on at the very start of his involvement, endured verbal abuse and threats of termination for the first two months before turning around the project and his tormentors.

In this situation, the Product Director should have met with his boss and the CEO to set the record straight right up front – there never was any hope of making the three month target. I know his boss said he’d keep the CEO apprised of progress. Not good enough! The CEO was the project’s sponsor. It was his baby. Without that face to face discussion and an acceptance by the CEO that he needed to listen to other alternatives, the project was doomed.

Had that discussion taken place, there were a number of options the Product Director could have presented and the CEO could have considered:

  • Launch the service with a minimal automated front end and add the back end systems solutions as they became available. The service volumes for the first six months could have been handled easily with this approach.
  • Phase the introduction to incorporate essential features and functions initially and add incremental features and functions over time.
  • Roll out the service by geographical area to constrain initial volumes and add additional regions as the delivered capability came on stream.
  • Any combination of the above.

Sure, pushing for a meeting with the CEO to discuss and agree on a more rational plan was a potential career limiting move for the Product Director. But he had some options other than saying the three month edict couldn’t be met. Reviewing those options with the CEO and getting agreement on a viable course of action was imperative. As it turned out, not engaging the CEO was a career ending act with the company.

If you’ve been through executive edicts, you know how damaging they can be. Bite the bullet right up front. Make sure everyone – sponsors, targets, change agents and champions – is working from the same playbook. And, if you find yourself in a similar situation, put these points on your checklist of things to do so you can be a Great Leader. And remember to use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks right up front so you don’t overlook those key success factors.

In the interim, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, past or present, that you’d like to have examined through the Project Pre-Check lens and published in this blog, send me the details and we’ll present it for others to learn from and comment on. Thanks

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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