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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Using Coercion for Program Success

In my last post, we looked at how a director’s refusal to engage the project sponsor on a multi-million dollar reorganization resulted in project failure and his own loss of position. We also looked at the actions project managers can take to identify and engage the right stakeholders in the right roles to improve the performance of their projects.

In this post, we’ll look at how one program manager delivered a major change successfully in spite of the fact the sponsor was not interested and not involved in helping the organization manage a significant corporate initiative. His secret weapon: coercion!

Thanks to reader B.F. for contributing the details on this case.

The Situation

This global financial services organization identified a new product opportunity that would generate substantial new revenues and provide a significant competitive advantage over competing firms in all its markets. However, because the product could be duplicated by its competitors once they recognized the opportunity, there was considerable pressure to deliver quickly and quietly.

The Goal

The organization proceeded to launch a program to deliver the new product to all its global markets. The target budget for the total effort was $10 million and three years for full operation. The first implementation of the multi-phased effort was forecast at $7 million with a delivery target of 30 months. 

The Project

The program was a top corporate priority and was recognized as such throughout the company. Because of its global impact, funding was provided by each operating unit in accordance with anticipated revenue generation. North America was expected to be the biggest beneficiary and so was the largest contributor, followed by the UK, Europe, Asia, South America and Australia/New Zealand.

The CEO of the North American unit was designated as sponsor and the South American organization was targeted as the first market to receive the new product. A contract program director was selected, reporting to the North American CIO. His team was based in New York and was accountable for planning and guiding business process design, software development and testing using a purchased application and significant vendor resources, acquisition and installation of new technology and the implementation of the whole package, adapted to meet the unique needs of each market.

The program director managed 20 different teams around the world with over 120 direct participants and many more staff involved behind the scenes. He attempted to schedule regular meetings with the sponsor, the North American CEO, to ensure his thoughts and expectations were understood and satisfied but he was rebuffed. The program director was told that the CEO would only be involved on an exception basis. He was to report through the North American CIO and ensure that the fourteen other unit executives around the globe were kept informed.

The program director was a seasoned manager with lots of relevant experiences and insights. He knew the sponsorship arrangement was a significant risk. He also saw the global nature of the effort as major risk. So he implemented the following practices to counter these risks:

  • He established a sizeable travel budget to cover frequent visits by him and key team members to each affected business unit and for the key business unit staff to visit the facilities in New York. He hoped that the face time with the team members and key stakeholders would facilitate communication, accelerate decision making and ensure the needs of each region were well understood and reflected in the final product.
  • He built his plans iteratively, putting a high level framework in place that focused on milestones, letting each region build the details within the overall framework and dealing with each unit as issues and conflicts arose. Think globally, act locally.
  • Once the plans were finalized, he adopted a mantra of “no slippage”, recognizing that failure of any one element to deliver on plan and budget would have massive ripple effects across the entire program. He repeated this message with all teams, with all stakeholders, in all offsite meetings, in all program meetings.
  • He established weekly conference calls to review the progress of each of the 20 teams against plan. Attendance was mandatory but teams could drop off after their report was presented and vetted.
  • Finally, the program director used coercion in place of an engaged sponsor. The program was seen as a career opportunity by a number of local VP’s and directors. They attempted to make their marks by challenging decisions, by criticizing program direction and progress and demanding additional capability. However, the program director felt he had enough senior management representation and backing around the world to ensure the project was addressing enterprise needs. So when he was challenged by a rogue director, he stressed that the sponsor was fully on side with the direction and progress and used the threat of the sponsor’s wrath and potential reprisal to thwart the attack. Fortunately, no one had the courage to push their points further. Coercion was a most effective .strategy!

The Results 

The program was delivered on time with a 20% budget overrun, which was due largely to incremental support for localization needs. The first implementation in the South American market disclosed a number of product design, process and software issues which were quickly remedied. The phase-in strategy helped subsequent releases to proceed flawlessly.

All those involved in and affected by the program where unanimously enthusiastic. Ironically, the uninterested and uninvolved sponsor received, and accepted, accolades for his “insightful vision and superb leadership”. Remember my first post at Project Times in May, 2010? A Great Project Manager – the Sponsor’s Best Friend! How true.

How a Great Program Manager Helped

We know that the ability of programs and projects to deliver the expected functionality with appropriate levels of quality, on budget and on schedule and achieve the anticipated benefits declines as the size of the initiatives increase. 

In this case the program director did a number of things right to address the size and virtual team challenges and achieve a successful result:

  • He focused in on the key stakeholders and their roles shortly after getting the job. That helped him understand the dynamics of the program and the personalities of the players.
  • He identified the key risks and developed mitigation plans to circumvent the challenges.
  • For the absentee sponsor risk, he built a coalition of support among the other stakeholders and actively managed those relationships and that support throughout the project.
  • He also used coercion and the threat of sponsor displeasure to ward off wayward executives.
  • For the risk posed by the involvement of 20 teams around the globe and including technology and software vendors, he traveled, his team traveled, the business leaders traveled, all to facilitate face to face dialogue. That helped build understanding, collegiality and a shared understanding and commitment to the goals to be realized and the solution that would deliver to each unit’s unique needs.
  • His approach to building and managing the program plan was a masterpiece of conceptualization and salesmanship. He got the teams to buy into the overall approach and milestone plan by fully engaging them in its development. Once committed, the teams built their detail plans in support of the master plan.
  • His tracking and control approach of mandatory weekly conference calls and the “no slippage” mandate helped reinforce the collaborate culture that was nurtured by the frequent face-to-face engagement. It placed accountability to deliver to plan firmly on each team, helped raise cross team issues yet put resolution at the local level.

What else could the project director have done to improve the result? One of the building blocks in Project Pre-Check is the Decision Framework, a model with 125 best practice based decision areas that enables early discovery of program scope and impact. It facilitates stakeholder deliberations about the breadth and depth of the planned change leading to full agreement on project and program content, direction and conduct. Use of a Decision Framework may have helped identify those localization needs and address some of the product design, process and software issues earlier in the program’s life cycle, leading to improved quality, faster delivery and lower costs. He promises to use it on his next project.

The program director admitted that he was exhausted at the end of the three year project, largely from the amount of travel required. He took a well-deserved sabbatical after the program was wrapped up, financed by the air miles he accumulated during the project. A well deserved reward.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, remember to consider Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks right up front and put these points on your checklist of things to do so you too can be a Great Program Manager.

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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