The missing manager syndrome
how to bridge the managerial gap between strategy and projects
General Manager, Eta Beta
Programs and projects are the natural fulfilment of the strategy of companies and institutions. But one meets widespread and recurring problems when trying to convert a strategic plan into a coherent portfolio of planned undertakings. In this instance, one might quote, as significant proof, the two items on top of the “2005 CIO Agenda” (Gartner, 2005)
- delivering projects that enable business growth,
- linking business and IT strategies and plans.
The opinion gaining ground among researchers and scholars is that the gap between projects and strategy is strongly related to the poor growth in project performances of the past ten years (Standish, 1994-2004). In the first place, reversing from effect to cause, a few emblematic questions occur in this complex pathology:
- How many institutions can boast an “extended” project life-cycle with front-end processes ensuring consistency between strategy and projects maintaining its alignment steady in the long run?
- How many institutions currently avail themselves of the “Business Case” as a means in obtaining a clear and verifiable relationship between business-goals and project-goals?
- How many institutions actually adopt organisational models marked by an effective closeness between structures presiding over strategy planning and functions responsible for project portfolio management?
- How many institutions actually consider program management an extension of project management as well as a multi-disciplinary approach relevant to business dynamics?
Bearing this in mind, could a therapy related to these questions be reasonably believed to effectively fill in the gap we're talking about?
From our latest experiences in different tasks and spheres, the answer would be only partially affirmative. As a matter of fact, though the evolution towards models of organisation and process able to promote alignment between strategy and projects is an essential requirement (Morris & Jamieson, 2004), it is not enough in order to win the game. What is needed here is a combined effort, aimed at curing another pathology: the “missing manager syndrome”. We may describe the disease as a shortage of managers who would combine a business-driven vision with a project-oriented approach. Plainly, managers who would consider corporate strategy and project strategy as the two faces of the same coin.
How should one operate? Here is a prospect of the origin of the situation and a suggestion for some improving measures, based on a few case-studies out of our own experience.
The Missing Manager Syndrome: typical symptoms
In our opinion, the best way to face this pathology is by pointing out straight its most usual symptoms. In order to do so, we need taking into consideration the attitudes and perceptions of two categories of managers:
- the Project/Program Manager, whose duty is to constantly ensure that the right balance on the “triple constraint” level is maintained, while trying at the same time to recognise any potential risk and to convert the latter into opportunities;
- the Functional/Executive Manager, whose duty consists at all times in keeping in mind both business and efficiency outcome and act in view of the company's profit, the only goal for any strategy.
Now that we pointed out the different attitude and disposition of these two tasks, (considering also the professional and language difficulties that marks their interaction), outlining how the condition is perceived on each side may be helpful.
The Project/Program Manager's symptoms
In an article published in PM Network, Michael Thiry gives a forceful picture of the PMs' vision. He describes the relationship between PMs and the company hierarchy as if separated by a “glass ceiling”, invisible, but insurmountable (Thiry, 2005). Hence symptoms of dissatisfaction, growing until they sometimes become a real feeling of frustration, which might be described as follows:
- first of all, a feeling of relegation in a technical role, with few career possibilities inside the company and almost no perspective for higher or different responsibilities;
- in the second place, a feeling of lack of authority and decision making autonomy, which should have been conferred as an essential weapon to overcome any obstacle;
- and generally, a feeling of missing any active relationship to business logic, thus considered as a destabilisation factor, because of the continuous changes, frequently requested in the short run.
The Functional/Executive Manager's symptoms.
For those above the “glass ceiling”, the perception is obviously different, implying fewer problems with regard to individual aspirations. Without generalising, the situation being dissimilar in each company, we could sum up the most usual feelings among managers as follows:
- first, the feeling that the planning and control of a project is a pure delivery process, its performance not being up to one's expectations and its structural costs not compensated by the benefits;
- second, the feeling that being required at all times to respect the planned requisites, the time and cost of the project, often contradicts the goal for profit implied when the project was financed in the first place;
- and generally, the feeling that project management is a discipline for specialists and not a set of principles and best practice from which a manager can obtain many immediate and secondary advantages.
The Missing Manager Syndrome: where to step in
From the above analysis, it should be easy to deduce that the existence of a manager “in full relief” cannot be promoted just by drawing a kind of identikit, equalling the optimum skill-mix (teamwork, communication, loyalty etc) . We are all well aware that in the last few years researches and studies on the leadership skills have developed in many innovative experiences and assessment models. This has also been possible, thanks to the direct contribution of the Project Management Institute (PMI®), whose 2nd annual report concerned just this subject matter. However, we know that even a perfect identikit is not enough in order to catch the criminal!
We believe we are facing an “endemic” disease, a disease that is developing in a particular environment (in our case, companies and institutions) where it arises and spreads around very quickly. As a result, the therapy should take into consideration the organisation as a whole and aim especially at the practices that do not help the mutual enrichment of Project/Program Managers and Functional/Executive Managers and sometimes even interfere with it.
To better explain ourselves: the true problem is not deciding which managerial category has the highest potential in producing best-in-class type of Managers with regard to objective. New best-practices, implementing a continuous experience and expertise “osmosis” among the Managers, are needed. Should this really happen, Managers able to combine the project approach with a strategic vision (Exhibit 1) will arise naturally without any necessity of predetermination.
Exhibit 1 – The combined vision of the “triple constraint”
Should we wish to draw the identikit of a company leading to a continuous experience and knowledge interchange, our first model would be the “learning organisation” so well described by Peter Senge in his renowned text about “Fifth discipline” (Senge, 2001). Drawing inspiration from the line of action in this model, we offer in the next part a few suggestions in order to fill in the managerial gap.
The Missing Manager Syndrome: how to step in
As we have seen so far, the implementation of an authentic “professional osmosis” among Managers has become a must for a company or institution. This entails the courage of changing, more or less radically, several practices and policies.
Managerial selection practices
The search for managers in full mastery of the combined vision of the triple constraint can but start from the criteria applied to the selection of the human resources suitable for such a task. In this context, the first cultural change should actually occur in the choice of a Project Manager. Such choice cannot be seen merely as the search for a specialist in a technical discipline, but as the search for a “respons-able” professional: i.e. someone with a “capacity to respond” to demanding situations through a continuous feedback between interlocutors.
In our opinion, companies focus much too often on such professional requisites, as the candidate's expertise in a particular subject or the kind and quantity of projects implemented in the past, without giving equal attention to the evaluation of the four requirements we consider fundamental in this managerial profile. Our candidate should be:
- business-oriented: with an entrepreneurial frame of mind, as well as being endowed with an all-enclosing vision combined with a good dose of creativity;
- change-oriented: i.e. available in debating his opinions, curious towards any novelty; willing to learn and act with optimism;
- service-oriented: with a talent for sharing other people's problems and a strong sense of responsibility, reinforced by transparent behaviour;
- teamwork-oriented: intended as the expression of authentic knowledge leadership combined with openness to intercultural dialogue and attention to relationship privacy.
These personal characteristics should be those of any Manager. Nevertheless, they become essential for a Project Manager, whose role remains as yet only partially acknowledged and whose career is still below this manager's expectations. It goes without saying that in this matter a company's decision makers are Human Resource Managers. They must implement a change of perspective in the selection of Project Managers and should become object of a strong awakening campaign.
Managerial education practices
We're presently speaking about change in substance as well as in form.
As for substance, in other words the choice of educational subjects, we deem necessary to overturn the present relationship where the conveyance of technical abilities (connected with the knowledge areas of scope, time and cost) outweighs relation abilities (connected with knowledge areas such as human resources and communication). How can we demand the maximum professional competence in planning and control and, at the same time, remain satisfied with a somewhat amateurish approach in relation management, relying only on the instinctive abilities of a manager?
In other words, is it more important to invest in enlarging the number of Project Management Professionals (PMP®) than in increasing the “relation professionals”?
Our answer is obvious and implies wider space assigned to innovative disciplines, such as autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, 1980), neuro-linguistic programming (O'Connor & Seymour, 1990) or the already quoted system thinking (Serge, 2001).
As to form, in other words the criteria and modes of conveying educational programs, many changes are needed. First, as well as integrating the PM's education with business related concepts, managers at all levels need training on Project and Program Management. Second, the proposal of new training forms is essential in order to intensify the interaction and exchange of ideas among attendants. For instance, workshops should be preferred to face-to-face lessons, courses should be held in pleasant locations, away from the company and the exercises should be based on life-projects, the choice of which can be left to each team, rather than proposing expressly created case-studies. The use of advanced techniques of cooperative development, such as Open Space Technology (OST, 2005) can substantially help in this respect. So can any approach based on the “actors' studio” metaphor: “a school where project managers can study and rehearse their characters before playing them on the business scene” (Garagna, 2005).
Role assignment practices
The first relevant question is whether it is right to assign the key roles in a project, including the Project Manager's, mainly according to one's position or status in the company. If we consider projects/programs aimed at technological innovation and organizational change, we may realize that to win such a bet we do need expert players endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit.
Accordingly, in some of the companies we cooperated with in the recent past, projects are considered the best training ground for young managers; trainees are subsequently assigned to other departments (sales, production) of the company, in order to complete their growth as managers.
This is easier to achieve in small or medium companies, (where the ratio between roles and functions is often of type 1:many). Nevertheless, this practice could be highly beneficial in bigger companies too, (where the so-called “white space” between organizational structures contains barriers or the already mentioned “glass ceiling”).
We have a paradox here. If in some cases a Functional or Executive Manager can be assigned the direct responsibility of a project (for the latter, such responsibility usually refers to a program), what is the function left for professional Project Managers? Surely they cannot remain unemployed, nor preside only to such activities proper to Assistant Project Managers or to Project Support Office specialties. The courage in implementing changes offers two openings:
- the first leads to new roles in an innovative project, for example Change Manager, responsible for the planning and control of the progressive adjustment in the processes and in the general organization, particularly after delivery;
- the other option is to offer job rotation to Project Managers; this experience the latter will gain a precious opportunity of observing the project results from a different perspective. He will then be able to operate inside other structures and thus study at close range every department's routine problems.
Performance appraisal practices
A further element towards a shared vision between various managers regards the criteria used in identifying strategies and project objectives and in checking their achievement.
Actually, in a thorough examination of prevailing market trends, we have two different views, both superficial and contradictory. On the one hand, stands the business point of view, where short term benefits are preferred to medium-long ones and the shareholders' interests are deemed more important than the stakeholders' vision. On the other hand stands the project point of view, again on a short term perspective, and the evaluation of the project results according to the triple constraint (time, cost, according to requirement). At the same time, the lapse of time following delivery rests ignored, although its assessment would be essential in order to appraise the real benefits originated by the project.
How could this gap be filled in? In the first place is a shared system of indicators would be necessary, enabling a transparent and verifiable relationship between projects and strategy.
In this regard, the adoption of an approach such as the Balanced Scorecards (Kaplan & Norton, 1992) would be very helpful, thanks to its several assessment perspectives (financial, customer, internal processes, innovation & learning), as well as thanks to the possibility of establishing a close relationship between target value and the actions taken for its implementation (including projects, obviously).
In the second place, an incentive policy strictly related to the adopted system of indicators should be agreed upon, so that all Managers directly or indirectly involved in a project could share the same drive and motivation towards success. In this respect, it is necessary to stress the fact that a discontinuity in the practices of project appraisals could (rightly) reward a project, resulted in tangible business benefits even in extra/budget or extra/time conditions.
The Missing Manager Syndrome: some cases of recovery
In Carlo Beraha's working experience during the past five years, two cases may be connected to the Missing Manager Syndrome, i.e. to the need of filling in a managerial gap while a strategically vital undertaking was being carried on. The following case-studies give an account of this story and highlight the lesson learned.
First case of recovery
- The company: an industry, leader in domestic paint production. As a new venture, a plant of powder paint used in industrial production is bought.
- The target: the creation of an export market, in addition to the restricted sales network already existing in Italy.
- The managerial gap: the company's structure is a classic one, in which each manager tends his own “garden”. The opening to development of international industrial projects is scarce.
- The property's decision: the hiring of an entrepreneur as a fully empowered export manager, responding only to CEO.
- Implemented strategy: toward the market, the combination of the project/planning and the business vision; within the company, the exposition of the projects and plans to all stakeholders and the sharing of the vision with the shareholders. As a result of this strategy, a different organisation and a new marketing approach was introduced.
- The outcome: the opening of a world-wide market, in a procedure corresponding to each interlocutor's necessity, such as a warehouse in some countries, distribution in others, and even a factory with the mother company's know-how in one case. Actually, the export rate rose from zero to 42% of the company's turnover.
- Lessons Learned: the success was due to the total empowerment of a manager, skilful in combining familiarity with international projects with the ability of following up and of never leaving the front line. The second, and negative, outcome was that, while no manager was trained to continue on the same line, there was no renewal of the contract for lack of incentive. One year later export sales dropped down to 20%.
Second case of recovery
- The company: a newly founded small industry of OEM mechanic construction. The company buys the trademark of an old slotting-machine factory (a niche market tool machine). The owner, aged 30, technically very well qualified, is very attentive to immediate business results but also well aware of the need for a project to develop the new activity,
- The target: both the organisational building of the company and the creation of a domestic and export market around an innovated product.
- The managerial gap: the gap is all-embracing, except technical abilities. The need is for a manager covering all aspects of a company and able to design a business plan combined with an organisational project.
- The property's decision: once more the hiring of an entrepreneur as the only manager able to encompass a 360° view.
- Implemented strategy: the designing of a program divided in many different projects, each referring to one aspect of the problem. The first target is visibility on the market, the second one the promotion of the innovation of the product.
- The outcome: having successfully included all stakeholders both in the project phase and in its implementation, after two years the company acquires a place on the tool machine market.
- Lesson learned: project management is finally considered a relevant part of the organisation, and projects are planned working side by side with the technical/sales office. The manager's ability in coordinating the program was the winning element.
As “socratic” people (Ginevri, Beraha, 2005), who start from doubt and a constant check with other people's opinion in order to build temporary certitudes, we have a final question: is the target of increasing integration between Project Managers and other Managers an actual possibility or only an utopian vision?
Well: although we are aware of how difficult the implementation of a cultural change is, we believe this course will be imposed by the present business context, where a company's success is likely to be less and less determined by high specialisation and by results on the short run.
To quote Peter Senge again, we can say that the winning managers will be those able to understand that “reality is made up of circles, but we see straight lines” (Senge, 2001).
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© 2006, Walter Ginevri & Carlo Beraha
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Madrid, Spain