Project Management Institute

An investigation into successfully managing and sustaining the project sponsor-project manager relationship using soft systems methodology

MICHELLE BARRON, UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

Introduction

Research literature presented on project management very often highlights critical success factors required to make the consulting relationship successful. Very rarely do these research results focus on understanding the worldviews which characterize the consulting environment (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). The situation of concern brought about by the literature lacks connection to the different perspectives that influence the behavior of project leadership—project sponsors and project managers (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004).

The main objective of this research was to engage the primary stakeholders in a learning process to elicit the perspectives shaping the relationship between project sponsors and project managers. The aim of this inquiry was to understand the perspectives as well as what influences the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors about how consulting relationships are managed and sustained during the delivery of an IT project, and how the relationship ultimately impacts the project outcome. Based on the outcome of the investigation, a management process has been formulated to accommodate the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors in managing and sustaining successful consultancy relationships. This research attempts to reconcile these views sufficiently so that organized action is achieved. A secondary objective was to observe whether the critical success factors referenced in the literature was evident in the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors about managing and sustaining the client-consultant relationship.

There is a lack of understanding of project managers' and project sponsors' worldviews which characterise the consulting space. This research aims to bridge this gap through a soft-systems inquiry of the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors shaping their worldviews of the client-consultant relationship.

Literature Review

An IT project is defined as a temporary undertaking with resources working towards meeting specific milestones within a set timeframe to accomplish the defined project goal (Schwalbe, 2006). Human, technical, administrative and financial resources are required to accomplish the defined goal, it requires (McLeod & Smith, 2001). The project outcome is then measured either as successful, failed, or challenged (The Standish Group Report, 1995).

Project success is defined as the deliverance of a project on time, within budget and meeting the client's requirements (Jang & Lee, 1998), a situation known as the triple constraint (Schwalbe, 2006). In addition to fulfilling the triple constraint criteria, success is also defined as when knowledge and skills transfer takes place between the client and consultant in order for the client to sustain the implementation of the solution recommended by the consultant (de Castro, Alves, & Proenca, n.d.).

It is argued that measuring project success according to the elements of the triple constraint is inadequate as it excludes the measure of outcome related elements such as learning, value and use (Nelson, 2005; Espinosa, DeLone, & Lee, 2006). The triple-constraint elements measure how well the project process is carried out, whereas the outcome-related elements measure the value of the system with regard to system performance and quality, functionality and usability (Espinosa et al., 2006). The measure of both the triple constraint and outcome elements when evaluating projects is deemed a more holistic view of measuring project outcomes (Nelson, 2005).

Based on measuring both the triple constraint- and outcome-related elements to determine project outcomes, project success is broken down further into failed success and successful failures (Nelson, 2005). Failed success occurs when the triple-constraint elements are deemed successful but the outcome elements are deemed as a failure due to the misalignment of business strategy and processes (Nelson, 2005). Successful failures occur when triple constraint elements are deemed as a failure but the outcome related elements are deemed as a success (Nelson, 2005).

Similarly, these types of projects are classified as challenged projects according to the Chaos Report (The Standish Group Report, 1995). Factors contributing to these types of projects relate to insufficient involvement by the users and top management, unclear objectives, and requirements and unmanaged stakeholder expectations (The Standish Group Report, 1995).

Measuring the success of an IT project is also argued to be subjective, as success means different things to different people and therefore cannot be limited to the elements of the triple constraint (Nelson, 2005). Thus it is important for each stakeholder to define his/her expectations upfront, in order for the project manager to understand each stakeholder's view of project success, which must be managed throughout the life of the project (Nelson, 2005).

Stakeholder expectations are influenced by their perception of the project objective and how the implemented solution will fulfill these objectives (de Abreu & Conrath, 1993). Therefore, the measure of the project outcome by each stakeholder is determined by the fulfillment of his/her expectations (de Abreu & Conrath, 1993). The evaluation of the fulfillment of stakeholder expectations can be determined by conducting a post-implementation review of the project (Nelson, 2005). This type of forum encourages stakeholders to reflect and share their perspectives on the process and outcome of the project, promoting learning by highlighting the areas of improvement to be carried forward into future projects (Nelson, 2005). Hence it is concluded that defining stakeholder expectations and determining the extent to which they get fulfilled are predictors of project success (de Abreu & Conrath, 1993).

Project Failure

Projects are classified as failures when they are not completed, that is, cancelled at any time during the lifecycle of the project (The Standish Group Report, 1995). Reasons for project failure identified by literature are categorized under technical, data, user, and organizational factors (Bourne & Walker, 2005).

Technical factors include lack of detailed project planning, limited knowledge about and a lack of proper project and IT management skills (The Standish Group Report, 1995).

Data factors include undefined, incomplete and changing business requirements often leading to solutions which do not add significant value to the organization (The Standish Group Report, 1995). User factors include a lack of user involvement and unrealistic expectations which are not effectively managed (de Abreu & Conrath, 1993). Organizational factors include a lack of resources required by the project as well as a lack of executive support and commitment (de Abreu & Conrath, 1993). Also, organizations do not really know what they want, often resulting in systems which were never initially required (The Standish Group Report, 1995).

Above all, a lack of stakeholder expectation management is identified as the most significant reason for project failure (Preble, 2005). Stakeholder expectations help the project manager to identify potential problems and gain an understanding of the factors contributing to the problems' existence (de Abreu & Conrath, 1993). Consequently, an approach to manage stakeholder expectations is required in order to effectively manage the project outcomes (Sutterfield, Friday-Stroud, & Shivers-Blackwell, 2006).

Critical Success Factors for Projects

Extensive research has been undertaken to identify the critical success factors for achieving successful project outcomes (Espinosa et al., 2006).

Effective project management includes clearly defined objectives and goals, as well as agreement between the client and project manager on how they will achieve these goals and objectives (Jang & Lee, 1998). It is important that the means of achieving these goals and objectives are aligned with the organization as this would impact the support received from the organization (Jang & Lee, 1998). It is also important to align the project goals to the organization's vision, which is the responsibility of top management to develop and maintain (Sutterfield et al., 2006). In contrast, Christenson and Walker (2004) believe that developing, communicating, and maintaining the vision is the responsibility of the project manager. Only once the project vision, objectives, and requirements have been properly defined can effective planning take place (Sutterfield et al., 2006).

It is important for business resources to get involved in the project to ensure that they feel a part of the change and that their contribution is seen as valuable to the process (Bourne & Walker, 2005). This facilitates the change management process by promoting collaboration among the client team members and also helps reduce resistance to change (Jang & Lee, 1998). Success encompasses identifying the client's problem, finding a solution and implementing the solution, collaboratively with the client (Gable, 1996; Jang & Lee, 1998).

Executive support is also an important factor which is rated as one of the top five factors for achieving project success (Jang & Lee, 1998). It includes identification of a project sponsor who completely supports the project and believes that this project will add significant value to the organization (Sutterfield et al., 2006). Visible executive support sets the example for the rest of the organization and encourages employee participation and buy-in across the organization (Sutterfield et al., 2006).

Constant communication with the organization is essential for project success (Jang & Lee, 1998). Communication involves educating the project sponsor and other top management about impact of the project on the organization as well as communicating the progress of the project (Jang & Lee, 1998). It also includes soliciting issues and risks associated with the project from all stakeholders, as well as resolving conflict within the team (Sutterfield et al., 2006). Constant communication to the right stakeholders at the right time ensures that the project will be less susceptible to budget, schedule, and resource issues (Smith, 2002).

Project Stakeholders

A stakeholder is a person or group who has a direct interest and impact on the project outcome and determines whether the project is a success or not (Schwalbe, 2006). Stakeholders that form part of the project can include consultants, controlling organizations, suppliers, competitors, end users, financial institutions, clients, media, public authorities, line organization, insurance companies, labor unions and third parties (Karlsen, 2002; Preble, 2005). According to Karlsen's (2002) study, the clients and end users are the most crucial stakeholders on a project, and more focus was required on project stakeholder management.

Consultant/Project Manager

For the purposes of this paper, the consultant will assume the role of a project manager, as the project manager is responsible for nurturing the relationship with the client (Kitay & Wright, 2003). The consultant nurtures the relationship by directing and controlling the project using specialized knowledge, skills, and best practices (Applebaum & Steed, 2005).

The consultant must first analyze, assess, and understand the business problem identified by the client in order to establish a common understanding of the business problem and to confirm that it is indeed this problem that must be resolved (Smith, 2002). However, this can sometimes be quite challenging if the consultant assesses that the problem identified by the client to be resolved, is not going to be beneficial in the long-term or perhaps needs other dependent projects. Then it is the consultant's duty to put the client's needs first and convince the client of this (McLachlin, 1999). It is important that the consultant remains objective in his/her analysis and interpretation of the business problem (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). Most importantly, the consultant is responsible for identifying, managing, and fulfilling the client's expectations (Nelson, 2005; Schwalbe, 2006).

The project manager will also be responsible for planning, scheduling and controlling all activities for the project which involves coordinating and integrating team members in order to build successful and sustainable relationships to achieve the project objectives (Schwalbe, 2006). In order to successfully execute these activities, the project manager must be a good communicator, have good management skills, be innovative, knowledgeable about technology, have an established rapport with the project team and client organization, be able to lead his/her team (never losing sight of the goal), and be able to work well under pressure (McLeod & Smith, 2001).

Project Sponsor

There are two types of roles that the client can assume, one being the project sponsor and the other a project stakeholder (Smith, 2002). The project sponsor is the key stakeholder as he/she takes ownership of the business problem and is responsible for ensuring a successful project outcome (Kloppenberg, Tesch, Manolis, & Heitkamp, 2006). The project sponsor has the power to influence decision making and identify stakeholders who will assist in the project delivery as well as identify stakeholders who will directly or indirectly be impacted by the project (Schwalbe, 2006). The project sponsor is responsible for obtaining stakeholder and employee buy-in to ensure that the project is successful (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). Ultimately, the project sponsor also represents the link between the client organization and consultant (Nelson, 2005). Like the project manager, the project sponsor must also coordinate communication activities, encourage open relationships with the project team, and acknowledge and address the concerns and interests of the project team (Nelson, 2005).

There are various stakeholders who are impacted by the project, and it is therefore important to acknowledge that these stakeholders each have different needs and expectations that need to be fulfilled by the project (Applebaum & Steed, 2005; Schwalbe, 2006). The consultant needs to manage and fulfil all stakeholders' expectations in order to execute the project successfully, and therefore it is crucial to understand how to manage the expectations of each stakeholder (Schwalbe, 2006).

Project Stakeholder Management

Managing stakeholders is very important for projects to succeed because certain stakeholders control resources and information which impact the achievement of project objectives (Karlsen, 2002; Preble, 2005). It is important for the project manager to understand each stakeholder's expectations of the project upfront, as the fulfillment of these expectations will ultimately decide whether the project is a success or not (Karlsen, 2002). This is due to the fact that each stakeholder has different perspectives as to what constitutes project success because each stakeholder has different interests in the project (Karlsen, 2002).

Clients' Expectations of Consultants

Some of the expectations of clients from consultants relate to their expertise (ability to transfer and share knowledge) as well as their work ethic (Jang & Lee, 1998).

Consultants' expertise relates to their analysis skills, ability to manage the project and deliver successful outcomes (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). The client expects consultants to objectively analyze problem situations by investing time to understand the client organization in terms of culture, values, and processes (Jang & Lee, 1998). This will also allow the consultant to challenge the client organization and propose new, original ideas that are shaped by the consultant's expertise and objective perspectives.

The client expects the consultant to deliver quality solutions that are practical for the organization to implement and sustain, which are aligned to the skills and competencies of the organization (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). Therefore, according to the client, it is important for the consultant to share his/her knowledge and competencies with the rest of the organization in order for the organization to successfully sustain the solution implemented (Jang & Lee, 1998).

The client expects the consultant's work ethic to be of a high caliber (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). Qualities include professionalism, commitment to delivering quality products, taking pride in their work, being accountable for their delivery, showing initiative, being delivery-focused and practical, demonstrating that they are team players, demonstrating honesty and trustworthiness, and being open to constructive criticism (Stumpf & Longman, 2000).

Consultants' Expectations of Clients

Consultants expect clients to have a clear understanding of their problem situation, and to take ownership of the problem (Fullerton & West, 1996). Consultants expect clients to embrace the changes brought about by their recommendations to resolve the business problem identified, as well as have the ability to influence the organization to implement the recommendations made (Fullerton & West, 1996). Consultants expect clients to recognize their credibility by acknowledging the value that consultants add to the organization (Fullerton & West, 1996).

Managing Expectations

Expectations should be managed and constantly assessed throughout the life of the project in order to achieve project success (Preble, 2005). Communication is a crucial tool to facilitate stakeholder expectation management (Smith, 2002).

Preble (2005) defines an iterative approach to stakeholder management. The approach includes identifying stakeholders and their expectations, assessing their expectations against the business objectives, prioritizing expectations according to project constraints and communicating about the prioritization of expectations with all stakeholders the approach to be taken to fulfill these expectations, and lastly, monitoring and controlling these expectations throughout the project (Preble, 2005). This approach was shaped by the stakeholder management theory and provides a methodical way of identifying and managing stakeholders' expectations (Preble, 2005).

Value management is also a methodology increasingly being used to identify, define, and achieve business objectives through stakeholder expectation management (Thiry, 2000). In contrast to Preble's (2005) approach, Thiry (2000) disputes that problematical situations can be addressed through rational analysis, especially when there are different perspectives which need to be combined in order to makes sense of the situation. An interactive process is suggested to address the varying perspectives of stakeholders, which promotes sharing and challenging each perspective presented (Thiry, 2000). The outcome of this process delivers a common understanding of the problem amongst stakeholders and develops a strategy to address the problem (Thiry, 2000). Thiry (2000) proclaims that there are no perfect evaluations of the situation, but rather relevant assessments which make sense to the people affected by the situation (Thiry, 2000). Value management ultimately is about sharing worldviews and challenging worldviews in order to create new worldviews based on a shared understanding (Thiry, 2000).

The previous sections discussed the client and consultant roles as separate entities. The next section aims to examine the interaction of the client and consultant within a project context in order to understand how the client-consultant relationship contributes to project success.

The development of the client-consultant relationship is explained in the developmental stage model which identifies the various relationship development stages (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). It begins with the “cold” stage where the consultant provokes attention by word of mouth, advertising or referrals with the objective of meeting with the client. The second stage is the “conversation” stage where the consultant aims to demonstrate his/her credibility. The third stage involves identifying a client problem that the consultant is best suited to resolve based on their expertise. This stage requires the consultant to apply his/her business analysis skills in order to understand how to fulfill the client's requirements. The end result is developing a proposal which the client will either accept or reject. This is a theoretical model of the development of the client-consultant relationship (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). The models which follow assume that the client has accepted the proposal and that the engagement has begun.

The most common model described in literature is the economic and expert model which describes the interaction between the client and consultant as an economic transaction where the consultant provides expert services to the client through knowledge transfer and application of best practices (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). This model has been criticized because it does not demonstrate the collaborative efforts between the client and consultant to achieve the project objectives and fails to acknowledge the expectations of stakeholders, which is considered the most critical factor to achieve project success (Mohe & Seidl, 2007).

The advisor model builds on the economic model by extending the relationship with social boundaries, whereby the consultant builds rapport with the client and gains the client's trust (Kitay & Wright, 2003). This is demonstrated by the client's dependence on the consultant's expertise resulting in additional project work for the consultant within the organization (Kitay & Wright, 2003). This can also be seen as the consultant creating a continuing demand for their services and expertise (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). This is supported by Stumpf and Longman's (2000) effort allocation model, which demonstrates that the quality of the relationship will strengthen over time, based on the continuous assistance and work carried out by the consultant.

It is evident from the above models that both the client and consultant contribute to the outcome of the consulting relationship (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004). Constant attention must be given to the development of the client-consultant relationship in order to sustain the relationship (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). The ultimate client-consultant relationship is achieved when the expectations of both the client and consultant are satisfied, resulting in a mutually beneficial outcome (Stumpf & Longman, 2000).

Consulting Problems

The literature presents key problems with consulting which potentially impact the outcome of the project and determines the quality of the consulting relationship (McLachlin, 1999). These problems include being consultant-centric rather than client-centric, recommending solutions which are not practical to implement within the organization, not breaking the project up into manageable chunks of work, and a lack of a collaboration between the client organization and consultant (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). Communication between the client and consultant is also seen as problematic (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004).

According to Devinney and Nikolova (2004) communication problems are experienced due to the presence of different interpretive communities, that is, the client organization, the client-consultant team, and the consultant organization. This is due to individuals having different interpretations of the same situation based on their worldview or perspectives, which are influenced by their experiences (Checkland & Poulter, 2006). To overcome this communication boundary, a learning process needs to be initiated in order to gain an understanding of each stakeholder's perspectives. This will establish alignment and a shared understanding of what is being communicated (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004; Smith, 2002). This learning process involves sharing perspectives by defining conceptual frameworks in order to gain a common understanding of these concepts (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004), enabling knowledge sharing and transfer, as there is a common understanding of the problem situation. Gaining a common understanding of conceptual frameworks between the client and consultant is a precondition for knowledge transfer and building long-term relationships (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004). By sharing different perspectives, stakeholders can reflect on their knowledge, and if necessary, modify their perspectives (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004).

Success Factors of the Consulting Engagement

Both the client and consultant influence and contribute to the outcome of the consulting project (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). However, there seems to be a gap between the critical success factors identified by the consultant and those identified by the client. This section aims to outline the critical success factors identified by consultants and clients and suggests the critical success factors which should be shared by both the consultant and client in order to bridge the gap between their perceptions of what constitutes a successful consulting relationship.

Critical Success Factors Identified by Consultants

Consultants place significant emphasis on building a relationship with the client in order to achieve consulting success (Fullerton & West, 1996). The foundation of building this relationship rests upon the consultant investing time and effort to understand the organization by interacting with various stakeholders that would be impacted by the project (Fullerton & West, 1996; Kakabadse, Louchart, & Kakabadse, 2005). Through this interaction with the various stakeholders, the consultant encourages collaboration, valuing the stakeholders' input and involvement. In this way, the consultant establishes rapport with the client, which becomes the stepping-stone for developing a trusting relationship with the client (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). It is found that consultants who invest time in gathering information about the organization to improve their understanding of the specific business area impacted by the project, were rated more highly by the client (Applebaum & Steed, 2005).

Critical Success Factors Identified by Clients

In contrast, clients viewed the success factors leading to a successful relationship to include defining clear objectives for the project, making valuable use of the consultant's time, and maintaining control of the project (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). Project goals need to be set by management in order to achieve successful project outcomes (Driscoll, 1988). According to McLachlin (1999), the success of the consulting engagement is measured by the client's satisfaction that their expectations have been met.

Based on the above, it is evident that the consultant places more emphasis on building the relationship than the client. Three reasons are suggested for explaining this observation (Fullerton & West, 1996). One suggestion is that the client has an inadequate understanding of the role of the consultant. Following this, consultants do not take time to educate the client about their role. Inconsistent values within the consulting relationship also contribute to this finding. Lastly, clients are ignorant to the fact that their perception of successful consulting relationships centers on their interaction with the consultant. Research suggests that consulting relationships may fail as a result of the different perspectives held by the client and consultant about successful relationships (Fullerton & West, 1996).

Bridging the Gap: Critical Success Factors for an Ideal Client-Consultant Relationship

There are inconsistencies between the client and consultant's views of the factors contributing to successful working relationships. Consultants place more emphasis on client behavioral factors, whereas clients place more emphasis on the skills of consultants (Fullerton & West, 1996). In order to address these shortcomings identified above, the critical success factors for an ideal client-consultant relationship will be discussed below.

The most frequently cited reason for a successful client-consultant relationship is for the consultant to be viewed as a credible resource (Fullerton & West, 1996). However, Czerniawska (2006) argues that trust is seen as the most essential factor for a successful client-consultant relationship. Trust is built on the consultant's integrity, knowledge, experience, and commitment (Czerniawska, 2006). Only once trust is established within the relationship will the recommendations made by the consultant become credible (Czerniawska, 2006). It is important for the consultant to demonstrate his/her skills and competencies from the beginning of the relationship in order to effectively establish rapport and build trust with the client.

The consultant's competencies should support the client's needs (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). The consultant should know the limits of his/her capabilities and must make this clear to the client (i.e., what he/she is able to achieve based on his/her competencies) (McLachlin, 1999). In addition to this, there is also a need for an interpersonal match between the client and consultant that refers to management style, personal chemistry, and values (Driscoll, 1988; McLachlin, 1999). Therefore, it is important for both the client and consultant to share their expectations and objectives for the project when the project kicks off in order to manage and meet these expectations throughout the life of the project (McLachlin, 1999; Smith, 2002).

The consulting process approach should be clearly communicated and understood by both the client and consultant (Fullerton & West, 1996; Smith, 2002). The consultant approach must include the client and consultant's expectations for their working relationship as well as establishing an approach to achieve successful outcomes with clearly defined roles and responsibilities (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). The presence of visible senior executive support is vital to the success of the client-consultant relationship and this approach will also help in guiding senior management through the consulting process (Applebaum & Steed, 2005).

Consultants should be conscious of the client's constraints when recommending solutions (Fullerton & West, 1996). It is important to involve stakeholders and elicit their input in order to assess the impact of the change on the employees as well as to ensure that the employees are equipped to deal with the change (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). In order for a consulting project to be successful, the consultant must provide an innovative solution which adds significant, measurable value to the organization that the client is able to sustain (Schaffer, 2002, as cited in Applebaum & Steed, 2005). It is suggested that the consultant should be part of the implementation of the solution, as he/she recommended and designed it (Applebaum & Steed, 2005; Smith, 2002).

The consultant cannot have any hidden agendas and must always put the needs of the stakeholders first (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). This demonstrates the characteristic of the consultant's integrity (McLachlin, 1999). The integrity of consultants is described by the consultant's personal characteristics such as: motivation, ethics, objectivity, honesty, loyalty, and confidentiality (McLachlin, 1999). However, integrity also includes turning down client requests which may compromise the working relationship (McLachlin, 1999).

The client must maintain control of the engagement in order to effectively manage the consulting relationship (McLachlin, 1999). If the client does not maintain control, consultants may be tempted to explore their hidden agendas. By maintaining control of the consulting engagement, there is a shared responsibility between the client and consultant for the outcome of the project (McLachlin, 1999).

The client and consultant must be committed to achieving a common goal (Applebaum & Steed, 2005; Jang & Lee, 1998). It is important that the approach for achieving the goals is customized and can be measured by the client (Applebaum & Steed, 2005).

Projects should focus on fulfilling the client's needs and expectations (Schaffer, as cited in Applebaum & Steed, 2005). This promotes client ownership and ensures that they share in the responsibility of the project outcome.

Project delivery should be designed into smaller work packages, thereby facilitating project manageability and ensures that successes are realised incrementally (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). This also serves as an advantage, as process related issues would be discovered earlier rather than later.

Communication is a critical factor contributing to the success of the client-consultant relationship (Applebaum & Steed, 2005; Sadowski, 1987; Smith, 2002). The consultant and client must agree on the outcomes to be achieved in order to have a common understanding of how success and quality will be measured (McLachlin, 1999). In order to obtain a clear agreement, the client needs to understand his or her problem situation and what the requirements and expectations are of the consultant to resolve the problem (McLachlin, 1999).

Methodology

The main objective of this research was to engage the primary stakeholders of the consulting environment in a learning process to elicit the perspectives that shape the relationship between the project sponsor and project manager. The aim of this inquiry was to understand the perspectives as well as what influences the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors about how consulting relationships are managed and sustained during the delivery of an IT project and how the relationship ultimately impacts the project outcome. Based on the outcome of the investigation, a suitable management approach was formulated to accommodate the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors in managing and sustaining successful consultancy relationships.

In addition to the above, the research also verified the critical success factors identified in the in-depth literature review of client-consultant relationships.

Research Strategy

The literature does not offer much understanding about the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors with respect to the consulting relationship, but rather offers an abundance of empirical critical success factors required for the relationship to succeed. Based on the objectives of this research, we required insight into understanding the perspectives held by project sponsors and project managers as well as what influences these perspectives. Therefore, an action research approach was adopted. This form of research gave us an opportunity to better understand the perspectives of participants and their behaviors. It also allowed the researcher to reflect on the participants' experiences that shape their perspectives about consulting relationships in order to take action to improve the behavior of project leadership. This form of research is entrenched in action research (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2007).

An action research method was used through the application of a Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) inquiry. We played a participatory role in the study, which was concerned about eliciting the influences shaping project leaderships' perspectives about the way consulting relationships are managed and sustained throughout the delivery of an IT project and the impact on project outcomes. The intention was to actively engage the participants within a consulting environment, in a systemic inquiry, to understand the perspectives held by each participant about consulting relationships. Furthermore, an attempt was made to understand what influences the participants' perspectives in order to define a management process to address the problem situation, as well as contribute to the body of knowledge that is used to train practitioners. These perspectives emanate from within a case-study context, which is a business consulting organization located in the Western Cape of South Africa.

The research project used an SSM inquiry to learn about the situation of concern with both project managers and project sponsors. The first set of interviews was designed to elicit the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors about their roles, and reflect on their experiences within a consulting relationship. Following the interviews, we were able to formulate a perspective based on the interviews held with project managers and project sponsors. Our perspective was transformed into a conceptual model to improve the behavior of project leadership in order to manage and sustain a successful relationship while delivering IT projects. A follow-up interview was held with a project manager and project sponsor to discuss the action researcher's perspective and management process formulated, as well as obtain the participants' perspectives of the conceptual model.

As mentioned, the area of application was the IT consulting environment from which the participants emerged, where project leadership had conflicting views about the consulting process. Such perspectives impacted project delivery negatively.

Sampling Plan

The crucial parties involved in an IT project are the project sponsor and the project manager. These roles shape the consultancy relationship as well as contribute to the project outcome. The project manager is responsible for nurturing the relationship with the client by directing and controlling a project using specialized knowledge, skills, and best practices (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). The project sponsor takes ownership of the business problem and has the power to influence decision-making (Kloppenberg et al., 2006). The project sponsor also identifies stakeholders who will assist in the project delivery as well as identify stakeholders who will directly or indirectly be impacted by the project (Kloppenberg et al., 2006; Schwalbe, 2006). The project sponsor is also responsible for obtaining stakeholder and employee buy-in to ensure that the project is successful (Longman & Stumpf, 2000).

Target Population

Based on the above context of project stakeholders, the target population was clients and IT consultants who had worked on IT-related projects (i.e., systems development and implementation projects). Therefore, the target population comprised project managers and project sponsors whereby the client's role within the project was a project sponsor and the consultant's role was a project manager.

Sample and Sampling Method

A purposive/judgmental sampling procedure was adopted with specific client and consultant roles, namely project sponsors and project managers. This sampling procedure was adopted, as informants were chosen based on the information that they can offer within the consultancy space. The total sample size was seven participants, which included the role of the action researcher as a project manager. Four project managers were contractors for the specific client organization from which the sample of the two project sponsors were representative. Of the four project managers, three worked for the same external IT consultancy company, and the other project manager worked for another external consultancy company. The fifth project manager, who worked for one of the companies, also assumed the role of a program manager. The two project sponsors were from the same client organization, with whom four of the project managers have previously worked with on a project.

One-on-one semi-structured interviews were conducted with four project managers and two project sponsors. Clients and IT consultants were engaged and agreed to participate in the research. The client sample was based on the clients serviced by the IT consultancy. The sample size was dependent on the access to and availability of consultants and clients. All data gathered from the six participants were used for the analysis of the problem situation.

Data Collection

Data was gathered in the form of semi-structured interviews, following the explicit application of the seven-stage model of SSM. The seven-stage model was used to structure the inquiry and learning process, while semi-structured interviews allowed interviewees to make additional contributions, thereby permitting some level of deviation from the interview structure (Kakabadse et al., 2005). The first interviews were conducted with two project managers; thereafter, the project sponsors were interviewed. The reason for this was the availability of the participants at the time of initiating the interview process. Thereafter, two additional project managers were interviewed. There were two reasons for this: (1) To obtain a project manager's perspective from a different IT consultancy company, and (2) To obtain a holistic view from the perspective of a program manager regarding the issues experienced and reported by the project managers involved in the program of work

Interviews were recorded via a digital dictaphone and in writing. This ensured that data could be cross-referenced for accuracy and clarity. Follow-up one-on-one interviews were conducted to share and discuss the preliminary findings.

Qualitative Data Analysis Methods

A rich picture of the literature review was constructed to start the enquiry. Additionally, the sense-making devices of CATWOE and Root Definitions were used to explore perspectives of the project manager and project sponsor. A conceptual model was then proposed, which defined an approach to manage stakeholders' expectations and communication activities, and which took into account the worldviews of project managers and project sponsors who were interviewed.

Data was transcribed for each interview conducted and was compared to the literature review as well as other interview data gathered. The rich picture was updated based on the data gathered during interviews. The similarities and variances in interview data for project managers and project sponsors were compared to each other and summarized, as well as compared with the literature review. Three root definitions were defined—one from the project sponsor's perspective, one from the project manager's perspective, and one from the action researcher's perspective. A conceptual model was then formulated from the action researcher's perspective. The conceptual model was developed by comparing the worldviews of project managers and project sponsors with the aim of defining a communication management process that was both desirable and culturally feasible, to help project managers manage and sustain the relationship with project sponsors while delivering an IT project.

The preliminary findings of the research and conceptual model were then shared with a representative from the sample: one project manager and one project sponsor.

Analysis of Data

The IT consulting environment is characterized by business and technology consultants working collaboratively with the client organization to advise how best to maximize their technology investments with their business in order to fulfill the business strategy. Business consultants are more oriented toward helping client organizations manage their business processes using technology, while technology consultants are focused on developing software products and solving technical problems.

Business always strives to make its processes more efficient, often impacting technology and human resources. Often, client organizations engage IT consultants to deliver the business objectives, due to a lack of internal resources with expertise or due to time constraints as a result of operational responsibilities. This often leads to a project-related engagement where IT consultants are contracted on a temporary basis to investigate and recommend ways to achieve business objectives. If required, the client organization may extend the contract in order for the IT consultants to implement the recommended solution.

The roles within an IT project consist of the project board, project sponsor, project manager, and project team, which may include external business consultants and business resources. The project board consists of representatives of various business areas and is responsible for making key decisions throughout the duration of the project. The project sponsor is responsible for availing the required financial and human resources as well as supporting the project manager by dealing with issues or risks raised by the project manager which require intervention by the project sponsor. The project manager is responsible for planning, managing, and executing the day-to-day project activities, and is accountable to the project sponsor. External business consultants are responsible for the analysis of the business problem as well as for making recommendations. Business resources are responsible for providing the business context for which the business problem exists. Business resources often play the role as subject matter experts on the project.

The project usually follows some governance process to structure the project delivery and communication processes with project stakeholders for the duration of the project. The governance process usually incorporates best-practice project management methodologies that dictate the project structure in terms of roles and responsibilities as well as the various points of communication required throughout the project.

In order to understand the client-consultant relationship, specifically, the relationship between the project sponsor and project manager, individual interviews were conducted with two project sponsors and four project managers. These investigations were aimed at eliciting project sponsors' and project managers' perspectives of their roles and responsibilities within an IT project and understand how their perspectives influence their behavior in the consulting environment.

Discussion

The aim of this research was to engage the primary stakeholders of the consulting environment in a learning process to elicit the perspectives shaping the relationship between the project sponsor and project manager. The aim of this inquiry was to understand the perspectives as well as what influences the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors about how consulting relationships are managed and sustained during the delivery of an IT project and how the relationship ultimately impacts the project outcome. A byproduct of the inquiry process was also to assess and verify whether the critical success factors referenced in the literature were evident in the perspectives of project managers and project sponsors with regard to managing and sustaining client-consultant relationships and its impact on project outcomes.

Project Stakeholders

When comparing the perspectives held by project managers and project sponsors about what shapes the client-consultant relationship, key areas of concern investigated were expectations, challenges, and managing and sustaining successful working relationships.

There was alignment among the literature, project managers and project sponsors with regard to defining the role of the project manager (i.e., the project manager is responsible for managing the delivery of the project with respect to resources, budget, timelines, quality, risks. and issues). This is achieved by directing and controlling the project using specialized knowledge, skills, and best practices (Jang & Lee, 1998; Karlsen, 2002; Applebaum & Steed, 2005). In addition to this, a particular project sponsor emphasised the need for project managers to manage resources in a manner that keeps them motivated to succeed and deliver, however ensuring that the delivery is still aligned to the project sponsor's expectations. Therefore, it is important for the project manager to allow resources to focus on the right activities in order to keep them motivated and inspired to deliver on a day-to-day basis.

The project sponsors inferred the role of the project manager by defining their expectations of the project manager. As per the literature review, strong emphasis was placed on the expectation of the project manager to deliver the project according to the project sponsor's expectations.

Communication as a tool to manage these expectations was also highlighted. Project sponsors expect project managers to communicate the progress of the project regularly; however, project managers must understand the level of detail required by the project sponsor to make informed decisions. Also, when project managers raise risks and issues, the project sponsor expects the project manager to suggest possible solutions from which the project sponsor can choose. This infers that the project manager must be able to understand the people that they work with, that is, have a good understanding of people and what gets their attention.

Lastly, project sponsors expect the project manager to take constructive criticism about the way they are managing the project. This implies that the project sponsor is actively involved in the project in order to be able to monitor and assess the effectiveness of project managers' delivery.

Similarly, there was alignment among the literature, project managers and project sponsors with regard to the role of the project sponsor in the client-consultant relationship, that is, the project sponsor is seen as the project owner, has the power over human and financial resources required for the project, creates buy-in from the rest of the organization, and has a level of influence and authority to make decisions. In addition to marketing the project within the business, the project sponsor needs to play a reassurance role as well. As the owner of the project, the project sponsor needs to ensure that business resources understand the impact of the project on their business area, as well as the level of participation and influence expected in the project. This facilitates change management upfront by nurturing and assuring business resources about the impact of the project.

Project sponsors also referenced the importance of being active and engaged in the project process by understanding the project at a level of detail which allows the project sponsor to be more interactive, and more understanding of the challenges faced by the project, and also enables the project sponsor to ask the right questions. This also helps the project sponsor in resolving issues and risks that may impact the project.

Project Stakeholder Management

Both project managers and project sponsors affirm the literature by emphasizing the importance of managing stakeholders and understanding and fulfilling their expectations in order for projects to succeed.

What emerged from the interviews with project sponsors, however not that evident in the literature, is the softer skills required by the project manager to manage project stakeholders. This includes understanding what people are motivated by in order to get them to deliver, finding the balance between the amount of detail required by the project sponsor to make informed decisions versus the overall amount of detail available to be distributed to the project sponsor. The project manager should also understand when to raise issues or risks with the project sponsor. The ultimate aim of applying softer skills is to understand the best way to interact with various stakeholders.

Also, through the discussions, it was evident that managing stakeholders is an interactive, collaborative process, that is, the project manager needs to manage the project sponsor, but also that the project sponsor needs to manage the project manager. This is seen as a control process, whereby both parties ensure that there are no hidden agendas being pursued. Project sponsors expect project managers to be open to constructive criticism about the way they are managing the project. This implies that the project sponsor is constantly monitoring and assessing the project manager's delivery according to his/her expectations and addresses any issues directly with the project manager, should the delivery of the project not be aligned to the project sponsor's expectations. However, it is important that this feedback is given not only when the project is going off track, but also when the project is on track. By receiving constant feedback from the project sponsor, the project manager is kept motivated to either continue doing what he/she is doing or work harder to deliver according to the project sponsor's expectations.

Consulting Problems/Challenges

The most renowned challenge which was referenced by project managers and project sponsors, however not evident in the literature, is the project sponsor's time constraints due to their operational responsibilities. Project managers and project sponsors acknowledge this as a constant variable, however, project sponsors acknowledge that in order for the project to succeed, they need to put in the time and effort, even it requires working overtime. The motivation for putting in the overtime should be the goal that will be achieved at the end of the project. This is driven by the project sponsor's passion to succeed and achieve the goals set out at the beginning of the project.

The presence of different interpretive communities exists due to project sponsors having an operational environment background, while project managers have a project environment background. Due to the existence of these different interpretive communities, communication problems are experienced (Devinney & Nikolova, 2004).

However, in terms of aligning expectations, it is important for the project sponsor to understand the project delivery process. Similarly, project managers need to understand and appreciate the demands of the operational environment on project sponsors. This is a learning process where the project manager and project sponsor must engage with the each other to ensure that there is a shared understanding about the demands of the project and operational environment. It is important for the project manager to make the project sponsor understand how the project will be delivered, and set the expectation with the project sponsor about his/her level of involvement required through this process, but also appreciate the demands of the operational environment. Because project sponsors and project managers emerge from two different environments, it is important for both to engage in a learning process about these environments in order to understand, appreciate, and align expectations. This learning process encourages both parties to learn about and appreciate each other's worlds, thereby overcoming the communication boundaries.

Project Success

Measuring project success according to the elements of the triple constraint (i.e., on time, within budget, and meeting the client's requirements), was criticized as being inadequate, as these elements only measured how well the project process was carried out (Nelson, 2005; Espinosa et al., 2006). In order to measure the success of the project holistically, the outcome-related elements (i.e., quality, functionality, and usability) must also be taken into consideration (Nelson, 2005). Project managers and project sponsors interviewed supported this view found in the literature; however, it was observed that in reality, more emphasis is placed on the elements of the triple constraint when measuring project success.

Another measure of project success emphasized by project managers and project sponsors interviewed, but not evident in the literature, is the evaluation of whether the benefits stipulated in the business case are actually being realized. Even though this cannot be measured immediately following the completion of the project, it is still considered a key measure of success, as it originally justified the existence of the project and were seen as key drivers for the project to be implemented into the organization.

The measure of the project outcome is determined by the evaluation of the fulfilment of stakeholders' expectations (de Abreu & Conrath, 1993). This was fully supported by project sponsors and project managers who participated in this research study. One of the ways to evaluate the fulfilment of stakeholders' expectations according to the literature is to conduct a post-implementation review of the project (Nelson, 2005). However, the project sponsors who were interviewed preferred a proactive approach to ensuring the project was being delivered according to their expectations. They strongly believe that if they observe that the project is not being delivered according to their expectations, a direct confrontation with the project manager is required. This confrontation will allow the project sponsor and project manager to engage in open communication, which helps the project sponsor to understand why the project is not being delivered accordingly. The project sponsor and project manager then work collaboratively to align the project delivery once again with the expectations. This approach assumes that the project sponsor is an active participant of the project, and constantly monitors and assesses the project delivery according to his/her expectations.

Different perspectives were held by project sponsors about their knowledge of project management processes. One project sponsor believed that it was the responsibility of the project manager to educate project sponsors about the process and then shepherd the project through the process. This view was supported by project managers, as they appreciate that the project sponsors' background is rooted in an operational environment. Another project sponsor believed that project sponsors should know the basic details about project management processes and that the project manager should just ensure that the process is adhered to. However, ensuring that the project sponsor understands the project delivery process is crucial, as it has an impact on managing expectations with the project sponsor. Therefore, it is important for the project manager to assess the knowledge of the project sponsor on the project delivery process, and if required, educate the project sponsor to ensure that expectations are aligned.

Visible support was one of the key expectations of project sponsors by project managers referenced in the literature. Visible support signifies that project sponsors are interested in the project and demonstrates the priority of the project. It also infers project ownership by project sponsors, as they are taking a personal interest in the project. By the project sponsor visibly demonstrating his/her support for the project, it also encourages the participation and buy-in by the rest of the organization. Visible support can take many forms, however one of the project sponsors specifically considered his duty to play a reassurance role to business users, making them understand why the project is important, what the benefits are and how it would impact their job. This was found particularly important, as it also sets the foundation for facilitating the change management process. In addition, to facilitate the project delivery process, the project sponsor set the expectation with business users about their level of participation required as well as their level of influence over the project. Based on the position of power held by the project sponsor, this type of interaction reassures business users and sets the tone for the project.

Engagement Success

Both project managers and project sponsors noted the subtle difference between project and engagement success. The project sponsors and project managers evaluated engagement success by whether they would work with the respective parties again, which is also supported in the literature.

According to the literature, consultants place more emphasis on building relationships than clients do; however, in contrast to the literature, it was found that clients place as much emphasis on establishing relationships as consultants do, but they are constrained by time due to operational responsibilities. In the literature, the success factors identified by clients included making valuable use of the consultant's time and maintaining control over the project (Applebaum & Steed, 2005). Due to the time constraints of the project sponsor, his/her time spent on the project is very much limited to progress updates and risks and issue management. This infers that project sponsors manage projects by exception. However, based on the interviews conducted, it is evident that if project sponsors are actively engaged throughout the project process, the relationship with the project manager becomes a key focus area.

Significant emphasises was also placed on the values held by project managers and project sponsors that lead to building successful relationships. The literature makes reference to trust, commitment, and integrity (Stumpf & Longman, 2000). Project managers strongly believe that trust is built through delivery according to expectations, which ultimately leads to credibility (i.e., the project manager delivers what he/she said would be delivered according to the project sponsors' expectations).

The researcher also introduced a dialectic management approach for managing stakeholders and their expectations. This approach focuses on the sharing of perspectives by project managers and project sponsors in order to gain an appreciation of each other's environments. This promotes a healthy relationship where conflicting needs are shared with the aim of striving to reach an acceptable balance between the needs and desires of project sponsors and project managers. This dialectic relationship is required for the management of expectations.

Conclusion

SSM facilitated the inquiry process by providing the researcher with a structured, yet flexible framework to execute the inquiry process. It allowed the researcher to gain the necessary insight into understanding the perspectives held by project managers and project sponsors as well as the influences which shape these perspectives. The SSM techniques allowed the researcher to extract the technical, cultural, and political issues that impact the consultancy environment and gain an appreciation of the underlying influences that impact the behavior of project managers and project sponsors. The main objective of this research was fulfilled through the SSM inquiry.

Based on the inquiry process, it became evident that the underlying issue causing the situation of concern was the lack of appreciation of the different environments from which project sponsors and project managers emerged, that is, project sponsors' backgrounds are rooted in an operational business environment, whereas project managers' backgrounds are rooted in a project environment. Therefore, it is not until the appreciation of the different environments is established can project managers and project sponsors engage in successful client-consultant relationships. In order for project sponsors and project managers to gain an appreciation of each other's respective environment, they need to engage in a learning process under which they share their perspectives with the intention of gaining a common understanding of each other's worlds. This encourages a dialectic relationship in which conflicting views are shared with the aim of reaching an acceptable balance between the needs of project sponsors and project managers, in order to work collaboratively towards a common goal.

A key success factor identified by both project managers and project sponsors is the fulfillment of stakeholders' expectations. This not only facilitates the engagement relationship, but also impacts the project outcome. The key tool used for managing stakeholders' expectations is communication.

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