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Author: Abid Mustafa

An Executive Perspective on Project Sponsorship

Over the past decade or so, I have been involved in project work performing a variety of roles. I have led the enterprise PMO and played the role of an executive sponsor, yet there still exists a wide spread perception that executives do not do enough to support the delivery of projects.

The gap between perception and reality regarding strong executive sponsorship for project work is closing but not fast enough. I’ll be the first to admit that executives can do much more to play an instrumental role in seeing projects through to the very end. But project teams must appreciate and understand that executives have a tough job at hand.

In addition to project work, C-level executives in general have to manage corporate strategy and departmental plans, commercials and contracts, financials and budgets, people and technical resources, administration and logistics, and last but not least office politics. Striking the right balance between project sponsorship and these activities is extremely demanding, and all too often the work load takes its toll.

Nonetheless, this should not serve as a pretext for executives to become inactive spectators when sponsoring projects. On the contrary, it can be argued that by managing the company’s work in terms of projects and programmes, executives can optimize how to manage their work load better.

In this article, I would like to address some important points based on my experience that can help executives become good sponsors by providing the right environment for project teams to deliver successful projects and programmes 

  1. Sponsorship must be limited to a few key projects
    The practical reality of active sponsorship requires executives to be engaged in less not more project work. Challenging projects and programmes are often taxing on executive time as they involve several meetings to resolve key issues, make intelligent decisions and provide guidance to project teams. This means that executives at best can get directly involved in two or perhaps three— at best—large projects or programmes at any given time. To expect executives to take on more than this runs the risk of executive fatigue, disengagement and in the worst case lip service. To mitigate such situations the company has to strike a fine balance between its aspirations and its capability to deliver. By introducing a proper project portfolio management methodology and recalibrating the mindset of the company to do less, executive sponsorship will invariably improve.

  2. Learn to use the right language to communicate project work to executives
    One of the persistent challenges that project managers and their teams fail to overcome is ineffective communication with the executive audience. A parlance that is heavily laced with project management terms can be quite off putting and only serves to entrench misunderstandings regarding projects. Likewise content that is heavily immersed in details produces the same negative connotations. Project managers and project teams must communicate in a language that the executives can understand. This should not be misconstrued as using only financial terms to communicate project status updates. Instead, project managers should present project updates by employing terms that the collective executive audience is comfortable with. For example the chief technical officer (CTO) is in a better position to understand project information if the content employs technical terms that the CTO is familiar with. Similarly, the chief financial officer (CFO) will be more receptive if financial terms are used to convey the project information. Hence it is vitally important for project managers and their teams to get to know their executives and how they think and communicate. This will help in the reduction of the communication gap, and through experience, project managers should be able to communicate effectively with the executives.

  3. Thoroughly prepare for executive meetings
    There is nothing more annoying to executives than to attend project steering meetings and discover that the content is not thoroughly prepared or well researched. Poor content means that executives will be turned off, vital decisions will get delayed and projects will not move forward. Additionally, when issues are discussed it is always helpful to show the root causes accompanied by several solutions. All of this helps executives arrive at decisions swiftly thereby minimising the need to have lengthy meetings to clarify the content and explore solutions from first principles.

  4. Always assume executives need to be educated on project management
    Project managers and their teams make the mistake of assuming that executives are fully conversant with the discipline of project management and are aware of the latest trends such as adaptive project management. Nothing could be further from the truth. Executives need to be constantly educated about sound project management concepts, tools and techniques. For instance complex projects require a slightly different approach to conventional projects. Executives will to understand the importance techniques like tracking known unknowns or the rolling wave plan.

    Where appropriate, executives should undergo professional training to enable them to speak and understand the same language as their project teams. Training could be in the form of industry professional project management courses such as PMP or PRINCE2, or customised in house courses specifically design to instil project management concepts within the operating environment of the company. Project managers should exploit every opportunity to encourage executives to learn more about project management. Strong persistence in this matter will eventually pay off.

These are just some of the points that I believe will help both executives and project teams improve executive sponsorship. In the end, executive sponsorship is a two way process that requires strong participations from both executives as well as project teams. This is a long journey and there are no easy short cuts.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

When Failure to Plan a Project Portfolio is a Good Thing

Winston Churchill once remarked: “He who fails to plan is planning to fail.” There are number of other variations of this famous saying, and all of them imply that without proper planning success cannot be achieved. However, there are situations in the real world, especially in project portfolio management (PPM) where the exact opposite holds true.

Now you may be wondering why professional PPM practitioners would allow this to happen. After all, many of us recognise PPM as an indispensable practice that is essential to aligning the company’s strategy to its performance. Or in other words, PPM practitioners help companies to answer and manage the question: Are we doing the right things? And this goes against the very moral fibre of portfolio managers to intentional plan for the failure of project portfolios.

There are compelling circumstances when PPM practitioners have to face the reality and actually plan for failure, before things can improve. This usually occurs in business environments that are predominantly shaped by a ubiquitous blend of inhibiting factors that include: shareholders and executives interested only in the top line, companies are cash rich and face very little competition, and markets are subsidized by governments. Emerging markets neatly fit the forgoing description and portfolio managers often interact with executives who sense the need for PPM but have very little faith in the project portfolio methodology.

One may argue that enough has been done to convince the executive team about the benefits and importance of PPM. Others may contend that the language employed to communicate PPM is flawed and requires an executive parlance.

We would like to counter such assertions by stating that a strong PPM benefits argument underpinned by excellent statistics such as ‘Implementing a PPM tool produces an expected overall return of 255%’ (Forrester Research) or ‘Projects hitting expected ROI are 52% more likely with a PPM tool’ (Aberdeen Group) are likely to fall on deaf ears. The outcome is the same, even if top consultancies are employed to sell the case on the behalf PPM’s proponents. The same set of arguments applies to using lexicons peppered with words and terms that executives can understand and digest. As long as the company is not feeling the financial pinch the executive appetite for PPM remains dormant.

So unless market conditions change there is very little that PPM practitioners can do to remedy the situation you may think. Wrong. PPM practitioners need to adapt and adopt a different role in accelerating the evolution of PPM in companies operating in such market conditions. This in no way suggests that PPM practitioners take a back seat and reduce their roles and responsibilities to a mere observer status. On the contrary, portfolio managers must be at the heart of building the PPM organically.

The first place to start is to understand the pain associated with managing project portfolios and then to magnify the pain and its impact on the business. This means that knowledge about strategic themes and the subsequent encapsulation of project work into project portfolios together with the alignment of projects between different departments becomes crucial to this exercise. Figure 1.0 represents a portfolio of projects driven by strategic themes as a synthesis of a workable PPM process. The projects are properly selected, aligned with strategy and managed.Mustafa IMG01 Feb20

However, in our case figure 1.1 illustrates an attempt at organising project portfolio in the absence of structured approach. Strategic themes are either unknown or poorly defined, and projects keep on interchanging between themes, as different departments compete with each other to prioritise projects based on decibel management. The resultant picture is one of incoherent projects poorly aligned with the company’s strategy.Mustafa IMG02 Feb20

During the stage of incoherency no PPM remedy is proposed only the basic artefacts of the PPM process are allowed to exist and are accompanied by sound bites related to PPM terminology. No conceptual explanation is provided and the focus is exclusively on understanding and accentuating the pain. That’s right! The pain has to increase until it no longer becomes bearable for the executive team. This requires meticulously self restraint on behalf of the portfolio manager to curb his/her urge to plan the project portfolio. In summary the failure to plan the portfolio is the norm. The role of the PPM practitioner is to ensure that those involved in project portfolio work are allowed to stew in the quagmire of confusion until a sufficient amount of interest is generated amongst executives and they begin to realise that unlimited cash does not deliver more projects. But rather it is a portfolio of projects aligned with the company’s strategy that delivers more not less.

At this juncture the portfolio manager intervenes to provide the portfolio management solution in small doses and is careful not to give too much away, so that the executive interest is maintained. Connection is lucidly made between the sound bites and the elements of the proposed solutions. This is done to ensure that executives are able to relive their painful experiences during the period of confusion and are able to recall their associations with the PPM terms. By doing so, the PPM terms do not appear alien to the executive audience and minimum time is spent in explaining and administering the solution incrementally. The whole cycle is repeated until the complete approach to PPM is unveiled and adopted by the executive team. See figure 1.2.Mustafa IMG03 Feb20

This is an arduous process that can take a very long time to implement. Additionally, it requires the PPM practitioners to adopt a completely different mindset and approach towards building portfolio solutions in companies that operate in such uncompetitive environments.

We hope that the above discussion stimulates PPM practitioners working in emerging markets to rethink their approach to convincing executives about adopting PPM. By intentionally planning failure, the PPM practitioner could go along way towards building an environment that organically incubates PPM solutions which are easily accepted by the executive audience and reduces organsiational resistance.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

About The Authors

Dr. Dirk Jungnickel is an accomplished telecoms specialist whose areas of expertise include: IT, Operations and Project Management. He is currently SVP for Corporate Programme Management and Risk, and Operational Business Intelligence for a leading operator in the MENA region.

Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 20 years’ experience in the IT and Telecommunications industry, specialising in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programmes and projects. Currently, he is working as a director of corporate programmes for a leading telecoms operator in the MENA region.

Belbin and Successful Project Teams

Creating successful project teams is a daunting task for any project leader, especially when they are pressed to deliver results within aggressive time scales and tight budgetary constraints. Overcoming challenges such as getting the right blend of youth and experience, skills and competencies, academic qualification and professional certifications does not necessarily lead to the establishment of successful project teams.

Building successful project teams is about slotting the right individuals into designated team roles and fostering team spirit. This may sound easy at first, but in time it can become a cumbersome task, especially when project leaders have to choose from a number of highly competent people that can do multiple roles. Selecting individuals on conventional criteria based on experience, skills, qualifications and psychometric tests simply does not work. Alternative mechanisms have to be explored to get the right person for the right role within the team. 

One such method of determining the suitability of individuals for team roles is the Belbin Team Inventory Method (BTIM). BTIM is a personality test and evaluates whether the personality of an individual is suitable for a particular role within the team. Based on this, individuals are assigned appropriate Belbin roles to perform. There are eight Belbin roles in a team. These are Plant, Resource Investigator, Coordinator, Shaper, Monitor Evaluator, Team Worker, Implementer, Complete Finisher, and Specialist. See Table 1.0 for a brief description. 

Mustafa Jan16 Img1Table 1.0 Description of Belbin roles

Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the profiles of the Belbin roles in detail, it is suffice to mention that leadership roles are Shaper and Coordinator, delivery focused roles are Resource Investigator, Implementer and Complete Finisher, and the cerebral roles are Monitor Evaluator, Plant and Specialist.

How does BTIM work? Individuals within a specified group fill in a Belbin Team Inventory questionnaire. The results are then used to establish Belbin profiles for each individual in the team. The two dominant scores correspond to the two Belbin roles that individuals can perform within the current group. A profile is also developed for the group as a whole, which can be used to compare the profile of other groups within the same department or similar projects. See Figure 1.0.

Mustafa Jan16 Img2Figure 1.0 Belbin profile for a project team

A major advantage of BTIM is that it does not pigeon-hole individuals into particular personality types. Individuals may exhibit different behaviours in different groups and roles are assigned on the basis of behaviour. This means that the individual can be assigned multiple Belbin roles in various project teams. Additionally, the individual could be assigned a secondary Belbin role within the same team based on the second highest score. For instance, an individual whose daily job is to analyze business requirements takes the Belbin test, and the top two scores from the test correspond to Monitor Evaluator and Shaper respectively. This means that given the right opportunity the individual could also lead a team of business analysts.

BTIM can also highlight unhealthy imbalances in project teams. For instance, in a PMO function that exclusively reports on the progress of projects and possesses a significant proportion of Shapers points to a couple of disparities. First, some team members are more suited to leading projects instead of reporting. Second, the PMO team would be better equipped to undertake its role if it was staffed with more Coordinators, Team Workers and Implementers.

Such information can prove invaluable to project leaders, as it can help them plug resource gaps on mission critical projects during period of peak work load. Project leaders can use competent resources that score well via BTIM to perform multiple roles within projects—at very little cost to the project.

At team level BTIM can encourage team members to take on more challenging roles or try something different. For example, someone who has been leading project teams may like to take a step back and try to get a deeper look at problem solving. If the individual’s secondary scores on BTIM for Plant or Monitor Evaluator were high then it would be relatively easy for the person to convince his superiors about this move. The same dynamics can be used to assess the performance of project teams working on similar projects.

In summary, BTIM is a useful tool as it assists individual team members to enhance self awareness and allows them to manage their strengths and weaknesses. For project leaders, BTIM enables them to manage their project teams effectively through placement of the right individuals in the roles they perform best thereby improving the overall effectiveness of the team and driving higher performance.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

About the Authors
Dr. Dirk Jungnickel is an accomplished telecoms specialist whose areas of expertise include: IT, Operations and project management. He is currently SVP for Corporate programme management and Risk, and Operational Business intelligence for a leading operator in the MENA region.

Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 18 years’ experience in the IT and Telecommunications industry, specializing in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programs and projects. Currently, he is working as a director of corporate programs for a leading telecoms operator in the MENA region.

e2e Project Managers are the Key to Ensuring the Delivery of Strategic Projects

Companies spend a lot of time and effort establishing PMOs and devising project methodologies that enable them to deliver their strategic initiatives. Often, such initiatives span the length and breadth of the organization, are complex in nature, and are extremely cross-functional in their implementation. It is common for such projects to run across three domains: commercial, technology and support. This poses a great challenge for executives in appointing the right type of project manager to take the helm of responsibility and delivery, which naturally leads to a typical discussion about how such projects should be organized. Figure 1.0 illustrates a common project organizational chart that is used to deliver end-to-end (e2e) initiatives.

Abid_Fig_1Figure 1.0 A line project manager leading an e2e project

Executives quickly realize (some after repeated failure) that existing project managers that reside in line functions are limited in their ability and knowledge to deliver initiatives that run e2e. The various models that are available include the following.

Line project managers to run e2e initiatives

The problem associated with line project managers delivering e2e initiatives is that they possess deep knowledge about their function but run into difficulties when they work in other domains. Additionally, such project managers always suffer from a personality/credibility image and employees in other functions do not take them seriously. For instance, commercial project managers may be apt at ensuring that functions such as products, marketing, sales, legal, etc. are provided with not only the requisite support but also fall in line when required. However, such project managers struggle when dealing with IT, as they do not understand the technical parlance, possess the skills to challenge IT staff, or are even familiar with the working of the internal IT departments with its myriad of vendors. Conversely, similar issues are found with IT project managers. Hence, project delivery becomes fragmented and the overall project experience for the executive team suffers.

Depending on the nature of the project, a common remedy is to appoint two project managers, with one taking the lead and the other providing support. In some companies, the supporting project manager is also referred to as the subject matter expert or SME. This is shown in Figure 1.1.

Abid_Fig_1.1Figure 1.1 Line project manager supported by a functional project manager in delivering an e2e project

However, this type of arrangement is fraught with leadership issues and project teams can easily become fractured by taking sides with one of the two project managers, thereby jeopardizing the delivery times of the project and potentially leading to further stoppages.

Other companies may seek to bolster the abilities of their line project managers by providing them with extra project management training as well as domain-specific skills. This process can be painstakingly slow and depends upon the maturity of the organization, its budgets and time.

Centralized pool of project managers to deliver e2e initiatives

Another way of delivering e2e initiatives is to establish and nurture a small pool of dedicated e2e project managers who are well versed with all the domains of the corporate business and have excellent project management skills. The centralized e2e pool of project managers should reside within the executive program management office (EPMO) and have the support of the executive team. Figure 1.2 depicts the organizational structure of the project hierarchy.


Figure 1.2 E2e project manager leading the project team

The main advantage of this approach is the perceived neutrality of the e2e project manager, as he or she is viewed as unaligned with a particular department. This, together with the support of the executive team, becomes indispensable in building crosss-functional project teams. Nevertheless, it can be argued that such an approach can take accountability away from the line functions and any failure will be quickly apportioned to the e2e project manager. Concerns of such nature can be overcome by ensuring that accountabilities and responsibilities are clearly laid out at the inception of the project. Executives should be held accountable for the realization of the benefits, whereas the e2e project manager is accountable for the delivery of outcomes and capabilities. The project steering committee should oversee that accountability is correctly assigned and should intervene if any deviation is noticed.

In summary, the appointment of an e2e project manager is essential to ensure that an e2e project is delivered successfully. It is up to executives to decide which approach they should employ when faced with the challenges of e2e projects.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 18 years of experience in the IT and telecommunications industry, specializing in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programs and projects. Currently, he is working as a director of corporate programs for a leading telecoms operator in the MENA region.

Management Consultants and PMO failures

Having worked in the (Middle East- North Africa) MENA region for a number of years, it is quite disheartening to encounter PMOs that suffer from acute identity crisis and are locked in endless battles with other departments to prove their worth.

What is interesting to discover is that the usual culprit behind PMO failures i.e. the lack of executive support, is not the primary cause. The common denominator behind the failings of such PMOs can be attributed to the role played by management consultants in setting up PMOs. There are three distinct areas where management consultants have played an instrumental role in creating PMOs, with major structural defects and no matter how hard one tries to fix it, the defects remain as an indelible stain.


1.     Sowing the seeds of executive confusion

There is a perpetual confusion in the minds of the executive team about the roles, responsibilities and competencies of the PMO. This is borne by the fact that in most cases, the management consultants hired to launch a company or a new business line, focussed exclusively on establishing a PMO that exhibited the characteristics of a reporting function and nothing more.  In this arrangement, the status from different projects and programmes are aggregated, rationalized and then presented to the executive team for decision making. Usually, the chief executive officer presides over the launch meeting, acts as the overall arbitrator and takes decisions on how to move the launch forward. Hence, the executive team performs well as long as the company is in launch mode, but any departure from this model and the frailty of the PMO is swiftly exposed.

Many executives find themselves unable to step into the shoes of the project sponsor (previously performed by the CEO as the sponsor of launching the business) and take important decisions about projects under their stewardship. Furthermore, very few executives possess sound ideas about how a centralized PMO should function in a post launch environment. Therefore, it is only logical to find executive support lacking as the PMO transitions into its post launch life.

2.     It was never about the project methodology

During the launch phase, the consulting company pays very little attention to devising a project/programme methodology, standardizing project documents and templates, and mentoring PMO staff about performing roles other than reporting. Even the reporting suffers from the absence of a structured approach and sometimes there is too much dependency on ‘power point presentations’. Hence, post launch, the PMO armed only with colourful slides is ill-equipped to support or deliver projects and programmes. Rampant project failure usually follows and all attempts to rectify the dire situation are hopelessly unsuccessful. This is because the solutions employed to address the structural weaknesses are derived from the PMO’s launch experience. For instance, many executives assume that just because the PMO delivered during the launch phase, a similar approach (without tinkering too much) will yield positive results.

3.     Over reliance on launch centric roles and responsibilities

Another surprising discovery is that the roles and responsibilities, processes and governance structures executed by the PMO are based on its launch life. It is not uncommon to find ‘Launch PMO’, ‘Launch Manager’, ‘Launch Director’, ‘Launch Gate’, ‘Launch Project Life Cycle’, ‘Launch Check Lists’, etc. as part of  PMO’s lexicon. In some cases, only the prefix ‘Launch’ is removed from job descriptions and processes, but the essence remains unchanged. Subsequently, the PMO and its staff are unable to adapt to the pace of corporate life and find themselves on the periphery of project delivery. To remedy the situation, two typical solutions are applied. Firstly, ‘certified project managers’ are recruited and expected to deliver projects on time. However, in the absence of a sound project management methodology many are found floundering.

Secondly, expensive consultants with extensive experience in working with PMOs in launch mode are brought on board to rescue the struggling PMO. In some cases, consultants are hired from the same management consultancy that established the launch PMO and fail miserably when given the responsibility to turn around the fortunes of the ailing PMO. All of this, exacerbates the problem, and marginalises the PMO’s role in corporate life.

To be fair to management consultants, they are typically hired for their domain expertise and not for their PMO competencies. The PMO is a value-add that is thrown in as part of the consulting service and at no extra cost. This practice is wide spread across the MENA region, so much so that executives are often left wondering as to why there is an abundance of project failure  despite the successful launch (the launch of the company or business line is viewed as a ‘successful project’) of the company or the new business line. To avoid a repeat of such stories, executives would do well to scrutinise the PMO capabilities of their management consultancy, in addition to their domain expertise. Alternatively, they may hire a PMO specialist company that works alongside consultants in the launch phase and in the post launch phase ensures that a proper PMO, equipped with the right methodology and resources is established.

Executives would be wise to opt for a PMO company that specialises on a BOT (Build, Operate Transfer) model as opposed to a DBT (Design, Build, Transfer) model. As the BOT model is geared more towards ensuring that the concept solution works in practice and the project culture is imbued and transferred within the organisation.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 18 years’ experience in the IT and Telecommunications industry, specializing in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programmes and projects. Currently he is working as a director of corporate programmes for a leading telecoms operator in the MENA region.