Project Management Institute

In command



The article is based on material in the white paper “Getting Executives to Act for Project Success,” presented by Michael O'Brochta, PMP, at PMI Global Congress 2005—North America in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.



who work for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) often must go up several layers of management to win project approval—all while exercising savvy resource planning and managing projects under tight budget cycles. “There are a lot of processes around how you manage your projects in and around your hierarchy,” says Sean O'Hara, PMP, program manager with the CIA's Directorate of Support in Langley, Va., USA.

Getting through these layers requires project managers to develop finesse in taking projects to the top and winning upper-echelon support. “There's wider involvement as you brief up,” Mr. O'Hara says. “Especially at medium- to larger-scale companies, you often don't have this level of knowledge-sharing.”


At most any global enterprise, garnering support for projects from higher-ups and getting them to act is half the battle. “The very definition of project success has expanded beyond the traditional bounds of project management,” says Michael O'Brochta, PMP, a senior project manager in the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. “It goes beyond the triple constraints of time, cost and performance to include systems and enterprise considerations.” Mr. O'Brochta also runs the agency-wide project management training and certification program.

At the same time, a number of forces have made project managers substantially more dependent on executives to get the job done. For starters, projects no longer exist in a vacuum. Years ago at the CIA, for example, a Science and Technology project may have entailed building a stand-alone piece of hardware for collecting specific signals. “Today's expanded definitions involve building a piece of hardware and having it function as part of a system that includes software, collection, analysis and dissemination,” Mr. O'Brochta says. The Science and Technology unit has handled projects as diverse as satellites, secret writing and U-2 aircraft.

Also serving to expand the definition of project success, Mr. O'Brochta says, enterprises have adopted a customer focus and are more aware of the project's impact on the organization. They now view projects from all sides with the strategic vision in mind. Executives must recognize their roles have changed from yesteryear's command and control model toward today's servant leadership, he says. The new hierarchy literally puts the boss at the bottom of the structural pyramid to support and guide projects, not dictate them.


img   Project managers can gain influence with executives by positioning themselves as the lead information gatekeeper.

img   To build upper-level support and participation, position the project in the context of its business value.

img   Use project management councils to make your case to executives and spur them into action.

img   Middle managers must recognize project management as its own discipline and understand they may need to relinquish authority over projects.

the right questions

With the right information, executives take action on projects across the portfolio. Yet, the process starts with the project manager, the CIA's Michael O'Brochta says. To aid the process, he recommends executives ask these eight questions when interacting with the project manager:

1 What can I do to help?

2 What are the project's requirements?

3 What is the plan?

4 What is the status compared to the plan?

5 What are the top risk areas and the mitigation strategy?

6 How do the stakeholders and customer(s) feel?

7 What is the basis?

8 How do you know?

The Gatekeeper

Project managers wield far more influence than they may be aware of, according to Mr. O'Brochta. “As a rule, project managers have more authority than they used to and they can do an awful lot to get executives to act. It's well worth their time spent.” To that end, project managers can take a cue from two axioms: knowledge is power and there's power in numbers.

“Project managers have information power and far more authority than they use,” Mr. O'Brochta says. “They know more about the project than anyone else and ought to be using that information, leveraging it to influence people. Project knowledge can serve as the basis for opinions, decisions and actions.” Project managers should send project status reports to middle managers and executives to create the awareness that they are the source for all project questions. “The next time the executive wants something, he knows who to turn to,” he says.

The twist, according to Mr. O'Brochta, is using key words the executive relates to, such as profits or return on investment for a CIO, for example. For others, it might be growth, and so on. “It behooves the project manager to truly understand the viewpoint of the executive and put the project in the context of business value,” he says. “You have to engage your executive and middle manager using the business context important to them to speak to them in the terms they are motivated by.” For those project managers who are unsure, Mr. O'Brochta advises conducting stakeholder interviews.

Power in Numbers

No matter the maturity, change readiness or differing viewpoints found at an organization, project management councils reveal the strength and power in numbers. A council examines ways to improve project management within the organization and selects aspects of the discipline project managers want to improve. Councils also pave the way for project managers to effectively link with executives by making recommendations that can prompt them to take action. “It's a community of practice, not a management function,” Mr. O'Brochta emphasizes, noting an ideal council consists of project managers committed to their practices, chaired by an executive.


executive action list

Project managers must judiciously choose what they ask busy executives to do. Michael O'Brochta, a CIA senior project manager, advises following an action list to help executives pinpoint where to concentrate their efforts:

  • img Organize and manage work as projects. More will get done.
  • img Pick the right projects. Good portfolio management isn't just the job of the project manager.
  • img Develop and maintain close stakeholder and customer relationships. Help the project manager when they face a barrier or issue in this area. Leverage existing relationships with stakeholders and customers in the organization.
  • img Adhere to suitable project management process. Make sure the project manager is supplied with a preferred process or life cycle to follow.
  • img Ensure projects follow a documented plan. Give the project manager adequate time to build the project.
  • img Make sure projects are based on documented requirements. The top reasons projects fail are requirement-related; the project manager must have an adequate opportunity to work on setting and documenting requirements.
  • img Require cost estimates to have a written, definitive basis. Do a better job at costing.
  • img Make sure project resources are commensurate with needs. Funding can come from various sources. Executives need to hold themselves accountable to see that resources (time, people and money) match needs.
  • img Engage middle-management help. Especially in project management-based enterprises, middle managers must recognize some authority transfers to the project manager. Hold middle managers responsible for supporting project managers and encourage them to ask the right questions of project managers.
  • img Establish and use job definition and performance standards. To fully engage middle management with project managers, incorporate job definitions and performance standards around this area.

In one recent CIA council, project managers in an office in the Directorate of Science and Technology found the need for additional rigor in the project management process to stabilize their working environment and lend predictability to project events. “Their recommendation to the executive was to implement the policy they had drafted to adopt a standard officewide process for the management of their information technology projects, and they crafted the process,” he says. Project managers used terms in the proposal they knew would resonate with the executive, and the new standard was adopted and ultimately proved to increase customer satisfaction. “The project managers’ work environment improved because the amount of uncertainty about how to succeed at major milestones had been reduced,” Mr. O'Brochta says.

Layer Upon Layer

Teaming up also lessens the threat of barriers to project success, Mr. O'Hara says. He oversees about 10 projects at any given time in the CIA's Directorate of Support, which is focused on mission-critical projects that benefit all directorates within the agency. A detailed plan is developed for each project that states how it will be managed and outlines stakeholder roles in each phase. Stakeholders can then approve, conditionally approve or disapprove each control gate. “At the CIA, all of our projects are totally dependent upon receiving stakeholder approval at the end of a current phase prior to moving forward to the next phase,” Mr. O'Hara says.

Briefings are central to the process. The structure of the CIA means project managers get schooled quickly in the art of presenting to executives. In Mr. O'Hara's case, this entails six levels of reporting. He frequently presents to stakeholders at each level, and the meetings increase the likelihood of winning buy-in on projects from upper levels. “You get the support of those people in between, so when the person at the top has a question, chances are you've heard it and you have answers,” Mr. O'Hara says. “In addition, you have the support of others whom you've briefed on the way up.”

The support is contagious, he says. “If the chief of a group or division respects someone below them and they know that person is the expert and they're buying in, they'll nod their head yes to something. Or, if many levels up, a director says, ‘That's the best direction we can take,’ then someone lower is much less likely to raise an issue.”

Securing Buy-in

But CIA project managers rely on far more than charismatic charms alone to win friends and influence people. The CIA project management process (dubbed CPMP) for IT is one of the project management life-cycle processes used by the agency. “CPMP is highly structured and requires project management briefings with stakeholders,” Mr. O'Hara says. It requires significant work in doing not only the technical work of the project itself, but also developing all the documentation and briefing slides around that.”

CPMP mandates project managers be the single source for all project-related questions. “The project manager as the single point of contact is absolutely necessary because we interface with so many different groups at so many different levels,” Mr. O'Hara says. The CIA methodology also requires project managers to enlist the support of their supervisors as stakeholders. “It's all the way up to the folks that make the decisions whether or not you get funded.”


Project managers must report up the chain of command if they anticipate going past a project control gate deadline, for example. “The value of the structure of the CIA is you really get everyone involved the higher up you get, so it's very good for project success,” he says. “We go layers deep in project reviews where different levels of people are in attendance.”

Mr. O'Hara has found getting one executive to act often is contingent on getting others above or below that executive to show support. “It's extremely important for the project manager to realize the value of executive buy-in. Regardless of how big your bat is, someone with a bigger bat may not be supportive of your project.” As a result, he says, when an executive isn't accepting of the schedule or a cost overrun, project managers must have the presence of mind to inform other executives of the issue so they can take their own stand, such as why a change must be made or supported.

CIA project managers also present quarterly briefings to supervisors on the status of every project. Mr. O'Hara says the agency uses a standard format called the quad chart that shows a quadrant with the following project information:

  • Line summary of the project, with delivery date, current expenditures and funding
  • Current and historical status
  • Risks and issues
  • Upcoming project events and control gates.
Making a Difference

Perhaps the way information is disseminated separates the CIA from other enterprises. “There's wider involvement as you brief up the chain of command,” Mr. O'Hara says. “We might be discussing our project status and someone seemingly unrelated in another area will inform us of a dependency that their project has on our delivery. For obvious reasons, the flow of information at the CIA is tightly controlled. “Certain people know compartmentalized information that other people—regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy—may not know. If they don't have a need to know, they just don't know it.”

The project manager as information gatekeeper is the hinge on which project success rests. “It's fundamentally essential throughout each project to identify the important players, and focus on building and sustaining strong professional relationships,” Mr. O'Hara says. PM

Marcia Jedd is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based supply chain and business writer.

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