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Managing Up and Down the Organization

Necessary Imperatives for Executives and Project Leaders to Improve Organizational Performance.

A widespread desire to improve organizational performance may be sated by focusing on a key set of imperatives—necessary and high priority actions. Personal experiences reveal that an essential focus on creating excellence in people, processes, and the working environment reaps tremendous benefits and enables project leaders to achieve greater results and executives to accomplish desired objectives.

From a long career as a program manager in high tech new product development and from working with a wide variety of organizations world-wide, I observed a wealth of practices, some effective for improving organizational performance and many not. A distillation of imperatives provides fodder for achieving more optimized results.

When executives in an organization come to recognize the importance and phenomenal contribution of project management, they benefit from bountiful harvests. It is not sufficient to train project leaders on project management; it is also necessary to train upper managers.

Traditional efforts are not sufficient in an environment where internal and external forces are both driving and restraining performance in an accelerating manner. Organizational maturity requires that you reduce organizational “toxins” and create “green” organizations, using a systemic approach.

Assess the Environment

An imperative facing all organizations is not only to embark on a quest to manage project management processes, but also to create a “green” environment that encourages project-based work and to eliminate pollutants and “toxic” actions that demotivate project managers and their teams. This means you search with unrelenting curiosity for leading practices. It also means, when these practices are revealed to you, that you are prepared to take action.

Progressively improving practices, also called organizational maturity, requires that project leaders and management reduce organizational “toxins” and create “green” organizations. “Green” in this context extends the physical, tangible thinking about project work into the non-physical, intangible personal working relationships that affect our working environments. In this sense, “green” is good.

Without the “green” foundation, organizations experience failures, overruns, and dissatisfied stakeholders. These “toxic” project environments are usually permeated by political practices that create uneasiness and frustration among all except those who wield these negative practices with power.

A “green” view creates an environment for consistent, predictable, and sustainable success and views every project as a means to improve. The focus is on overall organizational success, not just on individual project performance. People then feel like they are constantly contributing to organizational and personal knowledge.

Action Steps

People who apply sound project management practices and achieve consistent successes are extremely valuable, if not in scarce supply. The executive imperative is to tap the collective wisdom, recognize talented individuals within the organization, support efforts to become more complete project managers, and get out of their way.

Common in many situations, projects operate with little formal control or have been given solutions to produce that were unclear or perhaps even wrong. This amounts to working on a solution in search of a problem. Such situations invariably create resistance from stakeholders. Taking time to interview key stakeholders and as many senior managers as possible surfaces real problems that need solving and identifies true definitions of success that meet stakeholder requirements. An imperative is to recognize contributions made by business analysts to clarify business cases and compile thorough requirements.

Recognize that when people accept a project assignment without a clear problem statement that everyone agrees upon, they are being set up for failure. It will take courage, time, and effort by project leaders to push back. Effective negotiating skills are necessary.

The executive imperative is to engage in negotiations, clearly define problems, prioritize the importance of solutions to those problems, and set expectations. Support training to develop essential negotiating skills.

Successful executives are open to coaching from below—they not only welcome these inputs but actively seek them. In order to get an agenda implemented, they know excellence in project sponsorship represents an opportunity to turn a vision into reality through a set of assigned resources

The executive imperative is to support organizational learning, even at the risk of tolerating some failures. Sponsors at all levels set the tone for how failure and learning are perceived. Take the time to share thinking, standards, and expectations. Provide appropriate rewards, not only for successes but also for failures that led to heightened understanding about risks, things to avoid, and innovative approaches. The goal is to establish higher priority for continuous learning that gets recycled into new best practices.

We need to rethink organizational views about failure. Truly, the only failure is if we fail to learn from each and every project, regardless of the outcome. Assess how your organization views “failures.”

A more enlightened view that creates an environment for more consistent, predictable, and sustainable success is to be a learning organization that views every project as a means to improve. The focus is on overall organizational success, not just on individual project performance. People then feel like they are constantly contributing to organizational and personal knowledge. The point is to “get it right the last time”—meaning that experimentation, trial and error, bad ideas, foolishness, fun times, craziness, scrappiness, collaboration, and creativity—all have their space to operate, finally leading to successful outcomes.

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Vital Ingredients

Management cannot ask others to change without first changing themselves. Implementing a more project-friendly environment and perhaps creating a project office depend upon resolve to approach needed changes with authenticity and integrity—say what you believe and do what you said.

The imperative is to avoid “integrity crimes” that cause disconnections between beliefs and actions. An integrity crime will most likely not send you to jail but will erode all confidence that followers have in their leader.

Increased learning appears when people receive more feedback. The imperative and case for feedback hinges on establishing shared values and putting them into practice. The results will be extraordinary. Craft, with participation from all key stakeholders, a clear, concise, convincing, and compelling vision statement about portfolio success. Help all project and program stakeholders visualize how their roles contribute to that success. Early in each project, take the time to emphasize the importance of each person’s contribution. Make, and ask for, explicit commitments to be accountable for overall success and to extract the optimum contribution from each other. Demonstrate these values profusely every day, both by soliciting feedback from and providing it to others. Regularly recognize results that project and program teams contribute to organizational success. The imperative is to create an environment of support.

Much more explicit executive support is needed in modern organizations if they truly wish not only to survive but to prosper. It may be necessary give up a sense of control in order to get results. Control, after all, is an illusion. Nature is firmly rooted in chaos. People try to convince themselves, and their bosses, that they are in control of their projects. They may come close to this illusion, and project managers usually are far more knowledgeable about the project or program than anyone else. Try as they may, however, the fact remains that far more forces are at work in our universe than people can ever understand or control. This does not relieve executives or people in their organizations of the obligation to achieve results. What should you do?

Take Action

Focus on results and constant course corrections to stay on track. Capture the minimal data required to keep informed. Seek information that supports action-oriented decision-making. Just because you can capture every conceivable piece of information does not mean you should, nor can most organizations afford to do so. It is ill conceived luxuries that support “feeling comfortable” through excessive reports and metrics. Continuous dialogue with stakeholders and reinforcing intended results helps relieve anxieties.

Creating excellence in project management includes upper managers creating a supportive environment and/or project managers taking the initiative to manage the sponsor role.

Focus on creating excellence THROUGH projects, programs, and portfolios. That means achieving greater results from project-based work…which helps an organization realize competitive advantage by executing strategy through projects in a portfolio…and significant advancements in maturity of people, processes, and the environment of a project-based organization. Consciously apply project leader and executive imperatives as necessary ingredients that make the difference for improved organizational performance. Be flexible and enjoy the ride!

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