Project Management Institute

Executive identity

VIEWPOINTS EXECUTIVE SPEAK

Project managers should learn to think like executives. BY MICHEL THIRY, PMP, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

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I had many interesting conversations about the difference in the mindsets of executives and project managers at the PMI Global Congress 2006—EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) in Madrid, Spain.

During a conference break, I came upon Manon Deguire, PMP, my partner from Valense Ltd. She was talking with two young Spanish men, best friends who both work in Germany. One, Juan Vázquez Regueiro, PMP, from Pentasys GmbH in Munich, is a project manager; the other, Carlos Martinez, is general manager at Kupperlands Consulting.

Ms. Deguire is researching decision-making in projects and programs. In a recent presentation to the PMI Sydney Chapter, she argued project managers base their decisions on rational, risk-based tools using precise data. Executives, however, have a totally different approach, relying on intuitive patterns from a range of fuzzy data, she said.

The conversation with Mr. Vázquez Regueiro and Mr. Martinez confirmed this idea. Mr. Martinez said he regularly checks in with Mr. Vázquez Regueiro to “understand the way project managers think,” and Mr. Vázquez Regueiro talks with Mr. Martinez when he has to meet with executives. Professionally, each has a different frame of mind but because they trust each other, they can consult with one another when they need to enter each other's domain.

The Power of Intuition

Executives don't really care about the details of a single project, Ms. Deguire said. Their decisions often are based on high-level views affecting tens or even hundreds of projects; they see complex relationships and use intuition and their gut feel, not rational tools and techniques. They want clear, concise information that lets them see the business benefits.

To be able to understand how executives think, project managers need to “view themselves as managers, not doers,” she said. They should use project data to write clear, focused executive summaries—not endless, and often useless, lists that can cause information overload.

I had a similar discussion a few years back when I was promoting intuitive decision-making on projects at a conference in London, U.K. A senior manager asked me, “But what if your client asks you to use rational tools to make the decision?” After thinking about it for a few seconds, I replied, “I would like to know what you do. Do you actually make the decision using rational tools or do you make the decision first, using your own intuition, and then use the rational tools to justify it?” When he, as well as half the room started laughing, I realized I had hit the nail on the head.

A Time for New Skills

The EMEA congress also gave me an opportunity to speak with Janice Thomas, Ph.D., who agreed that project managers and executives see the same world in vastly different ways. Dr. Thomas is at Athabasca University, Athabasca, Alberta, Canada, and serves on the PMI Research Member Advisory Group.

“In general, senior executives hold a fairly consistent, albeit basic, understanding of project management,” she said. “When project managers are asked to comment on the value of project management, their response focuses on project results and the features and attributes of project management.” However, executives are “far more interested in tools or techniques that impact strategic outcomes than those aimed at improving or sustaining innovative business operations.”

Project managers must be able to communicate in a way that triggers executive interest. “Project managers need to learn a broader set of skills,” Dr. Thomas said.

Probably the best advice came from Jim De Piante, PMP, executive project manager at IBM. During his presentation entitled “Everything Worth Knowing About Project Management, I Learned Coaching Youth Soccer,” he cited the example of his first-ever practice session as a head coach: “Look like a coach, and they will treat you like a coach.” PM

Michel Thiry, PMP, is the author of Value Management Practice and regularly writes and reviews for the International Journal of Project Management.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK | AUGUST 2006 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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