Executive Development Programs are designed to update professional executives in relation to the main aspects of business administration. These programs have a focus on exchange of experience among participants concerning different aspects of the business administration discipline. Therefore, in such programs, participants are senior managers occupying strategic positions in their organizations so that the main objectives of the program can be reached. It follows that for these types of programs the different business disciplines are analyzed not from a formative standpoint but from an updating perspective.
Executive Development Programs may be conducted with the participation of professionals from different companies (“open or public programs”) or may be designed and tailored to specific organizations (“close or in-house programs”).
In an executive development program are analyzed aspects such as macroeconomics, strategy, finance, marketing, logistics, e-business and human resources management. Considering the profile of the participants, the instructors and professors of such programs must have a sound knowledge and experience in business administration. These programs may be conducted during a period of three to four months, with two or three specific modules of immersion lasting a week each. This way, professionals have an opportunity to update knowledge and experience, without being too much time out of the working place.
As in other types of executive development, the questions that always seem to be present are: How effective and productive will be the program to the executives and especially to the company? Will the program be worth the investment in terms of time and money? When, if it is the case, will the return on investment take place?
One of the techniques used in adult education that has helped answer such questions is called Entrepreneurial Project. An entrepreneurial project is a tool used in executive programs that has three main objectives: stimulate the work of multifunctional and multi-disciplinary teams, assure networking and integration of professionals within the company, and promote a short-term return on the investment made.
Entrepreneurial projects have been used as an adult education development tool, in different programs and applied to different companies, with a high level of success. The principle behind the concept of an entrepreneurial project is that professional executives of a corporation, with their knowledge and experience related to the specific business that they are in, may conceive and develop business solutions that are not only viable but also worth the investment made. What they need is stimulus and methodology to be applied in the conception, development and implementation of a project related to their reality and to the company's needs.
An entrepreneurial project is in nature, an applied research. This means that executives will work on a specific problem or opportunity related to the company's needs in order to define and implement a solution. The solution to be put into practice must be based on sound concepts related to the theme of the project and also on best practices observed in different companies. This way, the project team develops and presents a solution that has a solid conceptual and practical basis, consolidating the nature of applied research of entrepreneurial projects.
This paper presents the basic concepts and methodology used for conception and development of entrepreneurial projects in the context of executive development programs.
The Life Cycle of an Entrepreneurial Project
The basic life cycle of an entrepreneurial project is represented in Exhibit 1. This life cycle consists of four phases: Conceptual, Development, Implementation and Conclusion. During the executive program, participants conduct, at least, the conceptual and development phases. The degree of execution of the project during phases 3 and 4 will be a function of how the solutions presented by the project team are adequate and convergent with the company's needs.
During the conceptual phase of an entrepreneurial project (phase 1), the main following products are obtained: Project Identified, Project Scope Defined and Project Plan Developed, as illustrated in Exhibit 1. In the Development Phase, alternatives to solve the problem or explore the opportunity established in the project's scope are analyzed. Therefore, the main result of phase 2 consists in the definition by the project team, of the solution to be implemented in the next phase (phase 3).
Taking into consideration the concept of projects within phases, in essence, the project conducted during executive programs consists in the development phase of the project's life cycle.
At the end of the development phase, the project team presents its proposal to the company in terms of how the specific problem/opportunity analyzed can be put into practice. The implementation phase is then conducted as a project, after the executive program is over. The additional products of phase 3 (Implementation) and phase 4 (conclusion), of the project's life cycle are obtained, as the project is executed in the organization.
Identifying and Defining the Entrepreneurial Project
To assure that the project conducted during the executive program is convergent with the business needs of the corporation, the first step consists in identifying projects that are either related to the company's strategy or that are necessary to explore an opportunity or solve a specific problem. In the identification of an entrepreneurial project, it is also necessary to take into consideration premises such as: the project's scope should be compatible with the time available to develop it during the executive program, the level of adherence of the project's theme to the main business administration disciplines explored during the executive program and the fact that the project be related to business administration matters.
To make sure that the project will be continued through phases 3 and 4 of its life cycle, it is necessary that a project's sponsor be defined in the very beginning. The project's sponsor is someone in the organization that has the authority to approve and initialize an entrepreneurial project.
The business need that justifies the mobilization of the project is identified by the sponsor, who issues a project charter that is used as a starting point by the project team. Depending on the situation, the project sponsor may also play the role of an internal client to the project, that is, he or she is the primary project's stakeholder that will use the deliverables generated by the project. There are situations in which the client of the project is not necessarily the sponsor. In these cases, the project manager reports directly to the client of the entrepreneurial project during the development phase.
The project team is basically constituted by professionals of the company that are attending the executive development program. The core project team is, in general, composed of five to seven executives. In the definition of the project team, its is important to take into consideration, aspects such as: motivation of each individual member in the development of the specific theme related to the project, the importance that part of the project team have knowledge and professional experience with the subject matter related to the project and the multifunction and multidisciplinary composition of the team. Among the participants is defined a project manager who will lead the team during the development phase of the entrepreneurial project. The project also includes an outside consultant that acts as an advisor to the project team, especially in terms of project management methodology. According to the nature of the project and specific needs of the project team, additional professionals of the organization may be mobilized in different moments, during the development of the entrepreneurial project.
Project Start-Up: Understanding the Business Need and Scope Definition
The project start-up that is conducted during the conceptual phase (Exhibit 1) consists basically in the understanding by the project team, of the main deliverables that must be obtained through the development of the entrepreneurial project. Usually, it is conducted through a kick-off meeting, in which the project's sponsor presents his or her reflections about the business needs and how the project is related to the company's strategy. During this meeting, the project's sponsor makes clear the expectations in terms of the final project results (to be obtained after the project has being conducted through its entire life cycle), the context in which the project is perceived in the company and the project's objectives in terms of schedule and cost.
After an overall vision of the project is given by the sponsor, the project team goes through the process of scope planning and scope definition, using as a reference, the tool presented in Exhibit 2.
It is important to note that the project deliverables are defined considering the total project life cycle, that is, considering the final products to be obtained at the end of the whole project and also considering the development phase as a project in itself. This means that during the executive program, the focus is on the understanding, analysis and definition of solutions to be implemented during phases 3 and 4 of the project's life cycle, which are conducted after the executive program is finished. This way, the deliverables generated during the development phase are intermediate results of the total project and, at the same time, are final products of the development phase itself.
Project Planning: A Conceptual Model for the Development Phase
Once the project's scope is defined by the project team and approved by the project's sponsor, the project team goes on to establish a project plan for the development phase (phase 2 of the project's life cycle). To do so, the project team uses a conceptual model that has been developed to be applied in such projects, as illustrated in Exhibit 3.
The model used in the development of entrepreneurial projects is based on the concept that a project phase may be conducted as a project in itself and that, at the end of a phase, there will be final products related to that specific phase. These products are final from the phase's standpoint and intermediate products if the whole project's life cycle is taken into consideration.
The entrepreneurial project's development phase starts with a need of the project team in relation to knowledge and understanding of the business administration subject matter involved with the project. Therefore, the main theme of the entrepreneurial project may be related to strategy, marketing, finance, human resources, logistics, managerial accounting, and so on.
Based on the products that must be delivered at the end of the development phase, the project team's main objective is to come up with a proposal of what should be implemented in the company. To do so, the project team must execute basically four processes during the development phase, as represented in Exhibit 3.
- Understanding and Knowledge of the Subject
- Development of a Conceptual Model
- Understanding the Actual Model of the Company
- Defining an adequate solution to the company
The first process, Understanding and Knowledge of the Subject, means that the project team, as a team, must reach a level of understanding of the subject (be it strategy, marketing, finance or human resources) that permits professionals of different background to discuss and contribute with a specific business matter. This process implies that professionals of the same company, with different visions and experience, interact with each other to discuss about the same subject. This dynamics leads to an opportunity of not only learning aspects related to the subject itself, but also helps people network and understand how they may contribute with each other on a daily basis in the company.
To assure that the project team reaches a common understanding of the subject under consideration, there are in general two sources of information that are used in the conduction of the first process (Exhibit 3): conceptual basis and corporate realities. The conceptual basis involves the available literature, including similar projects developed either inside the company or by other organizations. The knowledge of corporate realities is obtained through technical visits performed by the project team, in order to observe best practices related to the subject of the entrepreneurial project in different companies. This process of benchmarking is quite interesting as professionals have an opportunity of not only getting information related to the subject of the entrepreneurial project but they also network with professionals of other companies, receiving and providing feedback related to their specific business reality.
As illustrated in Exhibit 3, once the process of “Understanding and Knowledge of the Subject” is completed, the project team starts working on two parallel processes: Development of a Conceptual Model (2) and Understanding the Actual Model of the Company (3).
The development of a conceptual model involves designing a model applied to the specific subject of the entrepreneurial project, based on literature and on the best practices identified. In thesis, this conceptual model could be used in any company, since it comes from theory and business practices. On the other hand, the project team starts evaluating its own company's reality, considering the subject of the entrepreneurial project, in order to make a diagnosis of where the company now stands, by comparing the actual business practices, expressed by the Actual Model of the Company, against the conceptual model established.
The process of evaluating the gap that may exist between the Conceptual Model (2) and the Actual Model of the Company (3) leads to the definition, by the project team, of a proposal/solution that may be implemented in the organization. The formulation of this proposal is one of the main contributions of the project team and corresponds to the process of Defining an Adequate Solution to the Company (4), as illustrated in Exhibit 3.
The Development Phase
As stated before, the development phase is conducted as a project, and its final products consist basically in a proposal of what to implement and the correspondent strategies necessary to assure that the project is really concluded after the executive program is over. As represented in Exhibit 3, at the end of the development phase there is a go/no-go decision to be considered. That is, the project team defines a proposal during the development phase and such proposal is presented to the board of the company in order to obtain an approval to continue into the implementation phase. There are situations in which the whole project is conducted during the executive program's time frame. However, these situations are more exceptions than the rule.
On average, the development phase of an entrepreneurial project has a duration of three to four months and represents 60 to 100 hours of work by each project team member. Considering that the development phase involves information gathering inside and outside of the company, and also, that there are many different people and areas of the company to be contacted, the development phase implies in a great effort of stakeholder management.
During the development phase, the project team's advisor has an important role in terms of providing the necessary support related to project management methodology and also to help the team to come up with consequent proposals/solutions that are viable and applicable to the company's environment. This support and follow-up, on a day-to-day basis, is provided through the Internet. In executive programs conducted in company, specific sites are usually developed to facilitate the interaction of team members and the advisor and also to function as a working area used by all participants to communicate and update the aspects related to the development of all entrepreneurial projects. As the project team evolves in the development of the project, specific meetings are scheduled with the advisor, in order to assure that the critical aspects are discussed and conducted in an adequate way.
The Proposed Solution: Main Contribution of Executives
Taking into consideration that entrepreneurial projects consist of applied research, the main contribution of the project team to the company is accomplished through the definition and implementation of a solution to the problem or opportunity, defined in the project scope. The solution is initially presented as a proposal to the client/sponsor and, once approved, is implemented during phases 3 and 4 of the project's life cycle.
The proposed solution is defined by the project team, taking into consideration the data and facts obtained as a result of the research conducted inside and outside the company. To be effective and present enough information necessary for a decision-making, the proposed solution involves the following aspects: formulation of what should be implemented (scope of the implementation phase), the main strategies to be used during the implementation phase, schedule and budget, risk analysis and a evaluation of the benefits to the company, compared with the investment necessary to conclude the project as a whole.
Since the proposed solution is the main contribution of the project team to the company, it consists in a critical deliverable of the project. The degree to which the proposed solution is consistent and adequate to the company's reality, will determine the level of success of the project in terms of really being applicable and also, to assure a real return to the organization after the executive program is finished. The project's advisor has an important role in helping and conducting the project team to come up with a solution that is, consistent, coherent, viable, and above all, defined by the participants.
Project Communication and Go/No-Go Decision
Once the project team has come up with a solution, the project must be communicated. The communication is done in two different moments. The first one consists in the presentation of the project to all participants of the executive program. In the second moment, the project is presented to the board of the company, when a go/no-go decision takes place.
In order to present the results of the development phase, the project team prepares two types of communication: a written and a verbal communication. The written communication is a structured and formal paper, containing all the information involving conceptual aspects, data obtained inside and outside the company's environment, analysis conducted by the project team, the proposed solution and the correspondent strategies necessary for project implementation. The verbal communication has a more informal approach and is prepared basically with two objectives. The first one is to share information related to the project with all participants of the executive program. This usually leads to a very productive learning situation in which the project team interacts with different professionals, who contribute with opinions and feedback that frequently conducts to adjustments and improvements of the initial proposed solution. In a later moment, the project team presents its proposal to the board of the company, when a decision is taken as to the degree that the proposal presented for the entrepreneurial project shall be applied in the organization.
Entrepreneurial projects may be used in adult education, especially in executive development programs. In the context of such programs, entrepreneurial projects have three main objectives: stimulate and facilitate the work of multifunctional and multidisciplinary teams, promote integration and networking of professionals and assure a more immediate return on investment made in executive development programs.
This paper presented a methodology applied to the conception and development of entrepreneurial projects that has been used in executive development programs. The application of concepts, methods and techniques of professional project management in the development and use of this methodology has proved to be a critical factor of its success.
In the author's experience, working as an advisor to more than 500 entrepreneurial projects in the last 15 years, these projects have achieved their objectives in over 90% of the cases, considering the perspectives and feedback of executives and their companies.