Project Management Institute

How to accelerate executive support for projects


Even world-class project managers will not succeed unless they get their executives to act for project success. The trap of applying best practice project management only to have the project fail because of executive inaction or counteraction can be avoided. Increasing numbers of project managers are looking for ways to deal with this reality.

This is a how-to paper; it describes how project managers can get their executives to act and identifies the top ten executive actions most likely to contribute to project success. This paper draws upon research from related fields about management and leadership, offers a model to gauge levels of executive support for projects, and identifies actions the project manager and executive can take to accelerate executive support to the next level. A central theme here is that project managers are empowered to extend their spheres of influence beyond the immediate project boundaries, up to higher levels of the organization, to get their executives to act and help implement the actions as well.

Executive Actions

The Problem

Project managers are falling into the trap of applying best-practice project management only to have the project fail because of executive inaction or counteraction. Project managers who continue doing what used to work by focusing within the bounds of the project are now finding success more difficult to achieve. The problem is that project success is dependent, to an increasing degree, not only on the efforts of the project manager but also on the efforts of the executive. This explains why three quarters of the employees surveyed (Towers, 2008) in a large global study “said that their organizations or senior management don’t do enough to help them fully engage and contribute to their companies’ success.” It also explains why, when U.S. federal government program managers were asked about executive support, 80% responded that they were not getting what they needed (COE, 2008). We can see these compelling statistics evidenced through the collective experiences of the thousands of project managers whose reactions to useful information from a class or conference include some form of comment like, “I wish my boss could have learned this.” The problem is understanding how to get executives to act for project success (Exhibit 1).

The Problem

Exhibit 1 – The Problem

The Context

Traditional Project Manager vs. Great Project Manager

Exhibit 2 – Traditional Project Manager vs. Great Project Manager

The topic of accelerating executive support for projects falls within the broader context of project success. If we visualize this context as a process, we can focus on examining the actual criteria for project success in the process, and then we can examine the actions we can take as project managers to ensure the project is successful. This part of the process represents the traditional bounds of project management and is fairly well represented by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and other readily available authoritative sources. History has shown this to be a relatively effective approach to project management for projects with relatively low complexity, limited dependencies, and well-defined scopes (Exhibit 2).

However, an increasing number of projects and programs do not fit this narrow definition (O'Brochta, 2002). The expanded definition of success now includes factors well beyond the control or influence of the project manager; executive actions for project success must also be taken to support the efforts of the project manager (O'Brochta, 2008). This consideration now takes the topic of project success to a whole new level. This new level, which goes well beyond traditional project management, involves great project management and involves focusing outside the traditional bounds of the project, focusing on the executive, and focusing on getting the executive to act for project success.

Executive Definition

For the purpose of conveying the concepts in this paper, a broad definition has been adopted for the executive. An executive is defined as a person responsible for the administration of a business or department. This executive may be an individual or it may be a function performed by more than one individual. On an organizational chart, the executive appears above other individuals and functions, including the project manager. An executive who is focused on the business operations and processes associated with the department in which the project resides would be a likely candidate to act for project success. Ideally, this executive is positioned close enough to the project to have a genuine impact on it.

Executive Actions

The good news associated with the topic of accelerating executive actions for project success is that experienced project managers have been articulating the actions they would like their executives to take. Various publications address creating the project environment (Graham, 1997), excellence in project management (Kerzner, 1998), implementing project management in any organization (Heerkens, 2000), creating a project management center of excellence (Schneidmuller, 2000), moving beyond the walls of resistance (Maurer, 1996), and the best practices of project management groups in large functional organizations (PMI, 1997). Some publications also address achieving management commitment through sponsorship (Englund, 2006), and research is now emerging about the sponsor’s role in the various project phases (Kloppenborg, 2006). By all means, read these publications and other references, and make a list of the actions that you would like your executive to take and that will help your project succeed.

Executive Actions List

Consider my list; it is what top-performing project managers want and need from their executives. It has been assembled and distilled over the past few years, as I have increased the amount of consulting I have been doing with executives and project managers (Exhibit 3). I have asked for and received many similar lists from project managers whom I have coached during workshops on this subject. Those interactions, combined with my experiences managing and helping project managers, have led me to revise and refine this list. I have trimmed the list down to a minimum number of actions to the best of my ability. I have focused on actions that are practical and achievable in most organizational cultures and have eliminated actions better suited to project managers and others. When modifying this list, recognize that deciding what to include on this list and acting on it require considerable sensitivity to the situation and those involved.

Executive Actions

Exhibit 3 – Executive Actions

At the top of the list of executive actions are organizing the work into projects and then picking the right projects. Project managers can feel like fish out of water when they work in an environment that does not organize and manage work as projects. Much effort can be spent trying to convince and educate the myriad stakeholders about the merits of project basics, such as requirement definitions, baselines, schedules, and configuration control. This often frustrating time could be better spent if the department or section of the organization organized itself to be project based and if it was separated from the ongoing and repetitive operations. Project managers can easily become overwhelmed when they have too many projects to work on. Picking the right projects can be as sophisticated as strategic portfolio management or as simple as doing only those projects for which the project managers and project teams have the capacity. I favor the simple approach: Do only as many projects as can be done well and do not agonize over the decisions about which projects to undertake. Actual research into the optimum number of projects for a project manager to manage successfully is sparse; however, the few works that I have come across do coincide with empirical evidence. Fewer projects are better, which translates into more time spent per project. Fewer projects mean that, ultimately, more projects will conclude successfully. The optimum number of projects per project manager seems to range between three and eight; more projects result in a quantum decline in the project success rate.

Executives have a unique responsibility to develop and maintain close stakeholder and customer relationships that complement and enhance the relationships formed by the project manager. According to The Standard for Program Management, benefits management is a primary responsibility for those operating at levels above the project manager (PMI, 2008). The time will invariably come when an issue, concern, or decision needs to be addressed by someone other than the project manager. Project funding, priority, and requirements are often topics that benefit from this type of supportive intervention. Note that these executive relationships should be conducted so that the project manager’s authority and responsibility are maintained and so that he or she is kept in the loop and well informed. Ideally, it will be the project manager who provides the topics for the executive to act on.

Project management is a discipline that benefits from adhering to a suitable project management process. Project managers who are at the top of their game have come to rely on executives to establish a standardized process for their organization to use. They seek to be held accountable for applying tailored versions of this process to each of their projects and they rely on others to do the same. They can, in the absence of executive action, develop and follow their own processes but they also recognize the limits in efficiency and effectiveness of doing so.

Project managers expect executives to ensure that they follow a documented project plan and ensure that projects are based on documented requirements. They expect to be given adequate time up front during the initial project phase to build these baseline documents and to be isolated from pressure to proceed hastily without them; they also expect to be held accountable for continuous controlled revisions to these documents through the project’s life cycle. To help with the understanding of these baseline documents, executives should require cost estimates to have a written definitive basis. In return for managing their projects according to plan, project managers look to their executives to ensure that project resources (time, people, and money) are commensurate with the actual needs. If shortages and/or changes occur, the executive should expect to receive an impact assessment from the project manager that has been developed in an environment without excessive pressure to absorb the change or simply do more with less. This impact assessment, which could serve as the basis for plan revisions, will be formulated with respect to the plans, requirements, and other documents that have been baselined.

Actions by the executive need to be taken to engage middle management help and to establish and use job definitions and performance standards. By holding middle managers responsible for supporting project managers and by ensuring that career progression and growth are aligned with best practice project management, the executive will create a long-lasting and sustainable project-based culture. Middle managers can demonstrate their commitment to this culture by behaving like executives and asking the right questions of their project managers. Each executive can acknowledge that his or her role is enhanced when he or she behaves like a servant leader in a role supportive of the project manager. In this culture, the executive will attract, retain, and grow project management excellence.

Executive Questions

Here is a list that is an absolute favorite of the executives with whom I consult (Exhibit 4). One executive, whom I have known for years, has actually had this list laminated; he wears it around his neck, attached to the back of his employee badge, and he glances at it casually when he finds himself in a meeting with a project manager. This list helps him to behave like an executive and ask the true questions. The list helps minimize traditional distractions to get into the project details, solve the project issues, or do the project manager’s job. The list has evolved over time; at this point, it has become stable, although, occasionally, I do add or subtract from it. It is also a tool that should be used with caution and is offered as a starting point for executives who are looking to begin behaving quickly and effectively in a way that demonstrates their support for project managers. At the top of the list is perhaps the most effective question for the executive to ask, “What can I do to help?” The effectiveness of this question has repeatedly been demonstrated during the thirty years since it was first associated with the groundbreaking servant leadership approach into the nature of power and greatness (Greenleaf, 2002).

Executive Questions

Exhibit 4 – Executive Questions

Executive Barriers

Even the most progressive executives, who are interested in supporting project managers by acting for project success, often find achieving that goal easier said than done (O'Brochta, 2005). The demands of their executive responsibilities, the constraints they encounter (both real and imagined), and their limited understanding of the discipline of project management hinder even the most enthusiastic among them. It is essential for project managers who want to get their executives to act for project success to understand the barriers that their executives face (Exhibit 5). Only after gaining this insight can a project manager understand how to effectively get his or her executive to take the necessary actions for project success.

Executive Barriers

Exhibit 5 – Executive Barriers

The executive’s work life differs from that of the project manager (Archibald, 2003). Whereas project managers tend to view project management quite personally, often with little or no distinction between their performance and the performance of the project, executives tend to view project management as a means to an end, as a good way of motivating people toward the achievement of specific objectives, a source of future executives, and a means to achieving strategic objectives. Organizations impose limitations on what can be done by the executive. We can turn to the body of work that addresses project management maturity for an understanding of the limits of actions an organization can succeed at taking (Ibbs, 1997; Kerzner, 2001; Crawford, 2002). This work teaches us that the lower maturity organizations are characterized by ad-hoc activity, with little or no formal project procedures; individual heroics that occasionally result in success are rewarded. The executive actions must conform to the maturity of the organization. In addition, organizations can only change when the timing is right, and even then, the pace of change is limited. Organizations and individuals operate at varying levels of change readiness. It does little good to push for a change if the individuals and/or the organization are not ready; in fact, it is counterproductive and “sours the well water” for future attempts at similar changes. The executive actions must conform to the change readiness level of the organization.

People, after all, are at the center of the executive’s work life. And in organizations, where there are people, there is politics (Pinto, 1996), and politics was at the top of the list for the executives surveyed and interviewed at the CIA (O'Brochta, 2006). Politics was identified as a leading source for conflicting demands on the executive, the source for project scope creep, a source of shifting of focus for project goals, and a cause for fluctuations in staffing and financial resources. Short-term, bottom-line, mission-related demands were frequently cited as taking priority over longer-term strategic goals, such as acting for project success. The “just get it done” mentality that can pervade other aspects of an organization can also dominate the executive’s life. When executives were asked why they did not take more actions for project success, they invariably wove the topic of politics into their answer, and also added that they have limitations in authority that prevent, or at least make difficult, acting for project success.

Measurement Models

Measurement Concept

The scales used to measure the various aspects of management, and the organizational and individual behaviors have repeatedly proven their worth (Brown, 2003). Typically, these scales present a simplified model of the situation that is represented by two or three dimensions, the model’s characteristics are explained, and guidance is given for how the model can be used to guide action. Over time, evaluations of the model’s performance validate its accuracy. A search of the available literature has revealed hundreds of management-related models. A summary of some classic models that can be useful when contemplating gauging levels of executive support for project success follows.

Passive versus Active

Given that the executive actions for project success are known or knowable and that the barriers to executive actions are also known or knowable, the challenge is to get the executive to overcome the barriers and actually take the actions. At this point, the project manager can adopt a range of attitudes regarding his or her involvement. This attitude range can be characterized as a continuum between passive and active. At the passive end of the continuum, the project manager remains focused internally on the project, using traditional project management techniques and pays relatively little attention to changing the workplace environment to enable better project success. Here, we have the project manager accepting the status quo and largely detaching himself or herself from efforts to help the executive overcome the barriers and act for project success. At the active end of the continuum, the project manager accepts broad responsibility for the success of the project and engages in efforts to reshape the workplace environment to support the needs of the project. Here, we have the project manager actively engaged in a codependent relationship with the executive, a relationship in which both parties understand that their success is dependent on each other. Here, we have the project manager expanding his or her focus beyond the traditional project bounds to include helping the executive overcome the barriers and act for project success.

Managerial Grid

Exhibit 6 – Managerial Grid

Managerial Grid

The managerial grid model (Blake, 1964) forms the basis for much of the accepted management theory today. This model (Exhibit 6) is represented as a grid, with concern for production as the X-axis and concern for people as the Y-axis; each axis ranges from 1 (Low) to 9 (High). The resulting leadership styles are as follows:

  • The impoverished style (1,1): evade and elude. In this style, managers have low concern for both people and production. Managers use this style to preserve their job and job seniority, protecting themselves by avoiding getting into trouble. The main concern for the manager is not to be held responsible for any mistakes, which results in fewer innovative decisions.

  • The country club style (1,9): yield and comply. This style has a high concern for people and a low concern for production. Managers using this style pay much attention to the security and comfort of the employees in hopes that this will increase performance. The resulting atmosphere is usually friendly, but not necessarily very productive.

  • The produce or perish style (9,1): control and dominate. With a high concern for production and a low concern for people, managers using this style find employee needs unimportant; they provide their employees with money and expect performance in return. Managers using this style also pressure their employees through rules and punishments to achieving the company’s goals. This dictatorial style is based on Theory X by Douglas McGregor and is commonly applied by companies on the edge of real or perceived failure. This style is often used in case of crisis management.

  • The middle-of-the-road style (5,5): balance and compromise. Managers using this style try to find a balance between company goals and workers’ needs. By giving some concern to both people and production, managers who use this style hope to achieve suitable performance, but doing so gives away a bit of each concern so that neither production nor people needs are met.

  • The team style (9,9): contribute and commit. In this style, high concern is paid both to people and production. As suggested by the propositions of Theory Y, managers choosing to use this style encourage teamwork and commitment among employees. This method relies heavily on making employees feel like constructive parts of the company.

Transactional versus Transformational

The transactional leader works within the organizational culture as it exists; the transformational leader changes the organizational culture (Burns, 1978). Transformational leadership is a process in which leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation (Exhibit 7). Transformational leadership is quite active, involving a focus on changing the surrounding organizational environment to support the needs of the work. The four dimensions of transformational leadership are (Bass, 1985):

Transactional vs. Transformational

Exhibit 7 – Transactional vs. Transformational

  • Individualized consideration: The degree to which the leader attends to each follower’s needs, acts as a mentor or coach to the follower, and listens to the follower’s concerns and needs. The leader gives empathy and support, keeps the lines of communication open, and places challenges before the followers.

  • Intellectual stimulation: The degree to which the leader challenges assumptions, takes risks, and solicits followers’ ideas. Leaders with this style stimulate and encourage creativity in their followers. They nurture and develop people who think independently.

  • Inspirational motivation: The degree to which the leader articulates a vision that is appealing and inspiring to followers. Leaders with inspirational motivation challenge followers with high standards, communicate optimism about future goals, and provide meaning for the task at hand.

  • Idealized influence: Provides a role model for high ethical behavior, instills pride, and gains respect and trust.

Strength Deployment Inventory

By using the strength deployment inventory, an individual is provided with a description of motivation and related behavior set in the context of relationships under two conditions: when things are going well and when faced with conflict (Porter 1971). This model (Exhibit 8) describes seven general themes for relationship awareness:

Strength Deployment Inventory

Exhibit 8 – Strength Deployment Inventory

  • Altruistic–Nurturing (blue): Concern for the protection, growth, and welfare of others.

  • Assertive–Directing (red): Concern for task accomplishment and concerns for organization of people, time, money, and any other resources to achieve desired results.

  • Analytic–Autonomizing (green): Concern for assurance that things have been properly thought out and concern for meaningful order being established and maintained.

  • Flexible–Cohering (hub): Concern for flexibility … concern for the welfare of the group … concern for the members of the group and for belonging in the group.

  • Assertive–Nurturing (red-blue blend): Concern for the protection, growth, and welfare of others through task accomplishment and leadership.

  • Judicious–Competing (red-green blend): Concern for intelligent assertiveness, justice, leadership, order, and fairness in competition.

  • Cautious–Supporting (blue-green blend): Concern for affirming and developing self-sufficiency in oneself and others…concern for thoughtful helpfulness with regard for justice.

Gauging Levels of Executive Support for Projects

Model Concept

As useful as the classic management models may be, none of them actually offers a scale to measuring the levels of executive support for projects. The Managerial Grid can readily guide the project manager’s approach to interacting with an executive who may be more or less production or people oriented. Similarly, the Transactional vs. Transformational scale and the Strength Deployment Inventory can spotlight the style that is likely to resonate when dealing with a particular executive. However, as useful as these models and scales may be for addressing management style or attitude, they do relatively little to address executive ability or aptitude. Even executives who are highly motivated to act for project success may not know how or may not be able to act; they need to also have the ability to act for project success. Accelerating executive support for projects involves a dependent relationship with executives who have both the attitude and ability to act for project success.

Executive Support for Projects Model

A new two-dimensional model has been developed by the author and is being offered to gauge the level of executive support for projects. This model (Exhibit 9) includes scales for accessing the attitude of the executive as well as the ability of the executive. The model’s scales are defined, the characteristics of each of the model’s four quadrants are explained, and guidance is given for how the model can be used to guide action. The Executive Support for Projects Model is intended to be used as an aid in assessing and diagnosing the organizational environment in which the project manager and executive reside. Armed with a level of understanding about the nature of an executive’s support for projects, the project manager is more likely to be able to find an effective approach to help the executive take the actions for project success. Note that the model represents the observable behavior of the executive and can be used to assist in determining the underlying reasons for the behavior.

Executive Support for Projects Model

Exhibit 9 – Executive Support for Projects Model

The Executive Attitude axis is presented as a continuum that represents the attitude of the executive toward taking actions for project success. At the high end of the scale, executives are characterized as proactive; taking initiative to identify and act on opportunities that they see as supportive of project success. The midpoint on the scale pertains to executives who are reactive, those who take supportive action in response to a stimulus from the situation or project manager. The low end of the scale represents behavior that is counter to the goal of acting for project success; actions taken at this end of the scale reduce the likelihood of project success.

The Executive Ability axis is offered as a continuous range representing the project management related ability of the executive. At the high end of the scale, executives are characterized as being adept at not only the management of projects but also at the management of the organization in which the project resides; organizational change is a skill possessed by these executives. The midpoint on the scale pertains to executives who have a full set of skills to manage within the bounds of a defined project but who are not equipped to impact the organizational environment in which the project is located. The low end of the scale represents executives who, although they may possess a significant range of skills, are not able to manage projects or impact the project environment.

By using the Executive Support for Projects Model, the project manager can gauge both the executive’s attitude and ability. Taken together, these two dimensions can serve as the basis of understanding needed to allow the project manager to help the executive overcome the barriers and accelerate support for project success. The resulting executive support for projects behaviors are as follows:

  • Initiator Behavior: Proactive attitude and organizational project management ability. Concern for taking actions for project success. Thorough knowledge of the management of projects within the organizational context. High motivation to use foresight to identify upcoming opportunities. Project manager can benefit by using full and open communications with the executive to insure that actions for project success are synchronized.

  • Inelegant Behavior: Proactive attitude and non-project management ability. Concern for taking action for project success, but without the benefit of needed understanding about project management. Likelihood of well-intentioned actions being taken that are less than effective. Project manager can benefit from taking the lead to identify the actions for the executive to take and by helping the executive take these actions.

  • Competitor Behavior: Counteractive attitude and organizational project management ability. Concern for agendas counter to project success. Thorough knowledge of the management of projects within the organizational context. Likelihood of subjugating project management to achieving competing agenda. Project manager can benefit from keeping well informed of the executive actions and by looking for a common ground in reducing the level of competition.

  • Obstacle Behavior: Counteractive attitude and non-project management ability. Concern for agendas counter to project success but without the benefit of the understanding needed for project management. Likelihood of somewhat random and unpredictable behavior that may or may not impact project success. Project manager can benefit from some insulation from and resilience to the executive, from an alliance with a more supportive executive, and from efforts to raise the executive’s project management knowledge level.

The Solution

Exhibit 10 – The Solution


Progress is Incremental and Cumulative

Project managers who would like to accelerate executive support for projects and get their executives to take actions for project success would be well served to accept the responsibility to move beyond traditional project management to great project management. At this level, the project manager acts as a transformational leader by accepting responsibility to help change the workplace culture and environment by helping the executive act for project success. At this level, the project manager forms and uses a list of executive actions for project success, he or she uses the Executive Support For Projects Model to guide his or her expectations and interactions with the executive, he or she reaches out to the executive to gain commitment for selected actions on the list, and he or she helps the executive implement those actions.

Victory, when it comes to getting executives to act for project success, is incremental and cumulative. It does not come all at once and does not occur in all elements or all executives of the organization at the same pace. By definition we are dealing with behavior and change, so we must recognize that we are dealing with what is usually a slow evolution rather than a sudden revolution. Executives and organizations have spent years becoming who they are. The good news is that the cumulative effects of modestly paced, genuine changes in an executive and an organization are enduring. The project manager who understands the critical dependent relationship necessary with the executive has joined this evolution.

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© 2010, Michael O'Brochta, PMP
Published as part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dublin, Ireland



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