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Telling Truth to Power

The success of projects and their accompanying business results remains a critical challenge within many organizations today. Over the years, while we have improved in project awareness and the need for effective project management, projects have increased in complexity, diversity and even the sheer numbers of initiatives in any company’s portfolio.

At SPM we believe that project management doesn’t always get the attention it deserves at the executive level. As a result we have become pioneers in an emerging field called Strategic Initiative Management, which is a blend of traditional project management with advances in strategy execution. This is based on the foundation that executives will pay attention and listen to the truth about projects if spoken in their language and a focus on results tied to strategy.

A critical success factor for initiatives has been linked to top management support. This support is of two types – support of initiative management in general and support of individual programs and projects in particular. It is well known that it is usually difficult to tell truth to power and the culture of the organization may not want to hear issues such as ‘red’ flags. The messenger of truth often suffers tremendously.

Delivery of new products, processes and systems through the use of initiative management is a key performance factor for organizations if they are to grow and compete in today’s global economy. Portfolio, program and project managers are entrusted to see that desired changes by top management occur through the delivery of initiatives. Many organizations still use ‘accidental’ project managers who are assigned merely because they are available, have some subject expertise, or are functionally responsible for a particular business area. Management, however, gives these people the task of delivery while often putting up barriers which undermine their ability to succeed. This undermining may not be intentional but, rather, through assumptions and methods typical in a departmental environment, but that do not fit in an initiative environment. This creates significant impact on the initiative and management’s ability to support the endeavour appropriately.

Common Barriers and Solutions
Typically we see a number of common problems that put barriers in the way of supporting these programs and the project manager’s ability to deliver. These are:

  • Not linking the initiative to an overall corporate strategy
  • Setting deadlines based on management objectives
  • Not allowing time for planning and approval prior to beginning project execution
  • Pulling people off the core team (for other initiatives or operational work) without understanding the impact to the particular initiative
  • Changing product specifications due to concern over the ability to deliver or understand overall deliverable(s)
  • Meddling in the initiative, often by adding people, because of concern about the time it is taking to execute
  • Not including customer or end user input
  • Lack of useful information that puts the program, or project manager, in a reactive mode

There are a number of solutions that management can initiate to address these common problems. These include:

  • Upper management must work as a team to support program or project managers; in action as well as words
  • There must be a project selection and review process – typically through effective and proactive project portfolio management
  • Develop process for program or project manager selection – availability is not a skill
  • Commit a core team from the beginning to the end of the initiative
  • Change the reward system and eliminate hero stories
  • Develop an initiative sponsor system
  • Ensure input from customers/users
  • Define project portfolio management information systems to provide up-to-date data
  • Require initiatives retrospectives – lessons learned on the specific initiative and for initiative management as a whole

Telling Truth
Identifying problems and solutions is one thing. Getting management to change their behaviour to support program or project managers is another. To date, training management on challenges, understanding strategic initiative management and their role has often met with mixed or disappointing results.

What happens when program or project managers try to deliver the information to management is that management:
a) attacks the concept – these are not problems we caused, they are caused by factors outside our control;
b) attacks the data – we didn’t do these things;
c) attacks the messenger – who are you to tell us?

This creates a significant reluctance by program or project managers to transmit unwelcome, yet valuable and constructive, information concerning initiatives and their status. Therefore, while evidence of a failing initiative may exist in lower ranks, it may not move up the organizational hierarchy. Decision makers with the authority to change the direction of the initiative are often unaware of its true status.

There is a need to educate management to help get better support, and for program or project managers to be able to speak with them at an appropriate level. Providing management with an opportunity to ‘walk a mile in a project manager’s shoes’ through simulations allows them to experience the frustrations and problems of project managers. These simulations have been delivered with success in a number of organizations.

Program and project managers also need to establish appropriate strategies for communicating with management. What are their preferences, what do they need in terms of critical and must know information? Trust and honesty between management and a program or project manager are critical. Honesty can sometimes be delivered with humour that minimizes the reaction factor. Think of court jesters who had the responsibility of delivering bad news to kings!

What Upper Management needs to do What Program and Project Managers need to do
Be careful not to shoot the messenger (the project manager) Know management’s level of need for information
Understand the challenges of managing projects in a diverse environment Offer solutions and what you want them to do
Support project managers in ALL ways Use honesty and humour from a sensible political approach
Change their behaviour and create a healthy environment for delivering ‘real’ project status Develop appropriate levels of power and influence even though they may not have the authority

Successful initiatives require open and honest communications with upper management. Program and project managers need to be able to deliver status – good and bad – to management without fear. Management will allow them to speak the truth when they provide visible and behind the scenes support, and are careful not to shoot the messenger.


Catherine Daw, MBA, PMP is CEO & President and co-founder of SPM Group Ltd. She provides the vision and leadership needed to evolve the firm, including the current corporate direction, to enabling the effective enterprise through strategic initiative management. Her focus is on results that matter to SPM’s clients and to ensure solutions exceed client expectations, save time and money, and help clients achieve superior business benefits. Catherine is a pioneer who possesses over twenty-five years of experience, working in a variety of public and private sector companies, holding progressively higher positions both in Information Technology and Business areas. Her personal idiom has always been to deliver results within a foundation of integrity, open communication and with a strong understanding of value creation and strategic advantage for businesses.

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