Project Management Institute

Role play



Just about every project manager out there has gone through it. The project scope is slowly creeping out of control, the budget is ballooning and the team is verging on mutiny. So the project manager reaches out to senior management.

And, nothing happens.

Part of the problem may be that executives don't know anything is supposed to happen.

Think of a project as a play in which everyone has a part, says Michael Campbell, PMP, managing director at Holland & Davis LLC, management consultants in Houston, Texas, USA. Referencing the book Change is the Rule [Winhope Press, 2004] by Dutch Holland, Mr. Campbell says for the play to succeed, each character—including project sponsors and executives—must know his or her lines.

Only senior management can require certain actions, when a project requires mandatory compliance related to a deliverable, for instance. So only senior management can communicate that message.


Upper management may also need to step in when functional groups are at odds and unable to agree on how something should be done.

“The sponsor knows that a project manager cannot negotiate between warring functions,” Mr. Campbell says. “He or she will have to get involved with that type of negotiation.”

But senior executives may need some prompting on their lines—they're not always aware of what they need to do to guide projects along at bottlenecks or trouble spots.

“Most senior managers do not have a role description for their role as sponsor, so they rely on the project manager to tell them when their input or authority is required,” he says.


Project sponsors aren't the only ones who need their roles defined—so do project champions. Often just below senior management in director and vice president positions, these people can be the project manager's greatest ally in their ability to communicate expertise and drive projects through critical terrain, Mr. Campbell says.

Ideally, a project champion is:

  • A trusted subordinate to the project sponsor.
  • A seasoned manager with a broad view of the way things operate—not just concerned with the goings-on of their silo.

Project managers should get to know project champions and their preferences for communication. “You can probably get daily or weekly meetings with this person if only for 15 minutes,” he says. “So when you do run into a problem that a project sponsor needs to counsel on, the senior executive will take the call from the champion.”

When included in the project charter, champions are the direct link to the business side of the project.

But project champions are rarely written into the script up front.

“In a lot of projects, there's no such thing as a champion,” he says. If that's the case, go directly to the sponsor or see if a champion can be assigned.


For major projects, Mr. Campbell advises forming a working committee consisting of the project manager, the champion and six or seven members, each representing functional areas of the business affected by the project or key stakeholder groups.

Working committees bring expert business understanding to the project and can serve as a “communication conduit between the project and the rest of the company,” he says.

The committee should establish rules and a regular meeting schedule, such as every two weeks.

In concert with the working committee, project sponsors or project champions can also step in to communicate key messages about the project via forums such as brown-bag lunches or town hall meetings.


Within the last few years, more structured project development processes have provided executives and project champions with a more hands-on role at Swedbank, a retail bank operating in Scandinavia, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic region.

“The stronger role has come also from our project management office owning the development process and not having IT run the development process,” says Rolf Blomberg, senior project manager in IT development at Swedbank, Stockholm, Sweden.

Mr. Blomberg is among some 70 project managers who run IT development projects at the growing company. He and his colleagues, along with another 350 employees in the IT development organization, are typically responsible for 100 large IT projects at any given time—including anything from online banking to IT architecture.

Project steering committees provide guidance and serve as a critical conduit between the business side and senior management. Each committee consists of roughly five to eight members, including an IT account manager and several business owners who act as project champions, Mr. Blomberg says.

“When project issues are encountered, the protocol is to reach out to the account manager first to discuss the issue and then the appropriate steering committee members are informed of the problem in advance of their monthly meeting,” he says.

“Many problems are of course better solved internally and need not be brought to the steering committee. You should really spare them too many details and use them for the really important issues,” Mr. Blomberg says. “When doing this, it's important to prepare for the meeting with the information and do some lobbying for the desired decisions.”

If the problem can't be solved at the committee level, it's then up to the business owner on the committee to go higher up the chain of command.

Mr. Blomberg is called in early and often to provide input, such as project estimates and viability. “We are much more structured around our development process in initiating projects, monitoring milestones and initiating execution,” he says.

Likewise, project champions, as committee members, take on roles as outlined in the project directive and development process documents.

The defined roles and structure from the committees makes tackling project roadblocks easier. “We all adapt to the situation at hand,” Mr. Blomberg says. “But generally we are quite comfortable contacting committee members to do some lobbying or preparation for an upcoming committee meeting.”

On the project level, the company has introduced a balanced scorecard that's updated monthly. Some of the areas monitored are process compliance, efficiency, and adherence to agreed and estimated delivery dates and budget. That means Swedbank can identify troubled projects early and take proactive measures. Scorecards are also rolled up to portfolio level to monitor the performance of the entire development organization.

Since Swedbank has made the changes, a greater awareness of project process has taken hold. Recent enhancements include training given to business owners as steering committee members.

“It's very natural to work this way,” Mr. Blomberg says. “Both the IT and business do cooperate regarding process development and enhancement, and the contribution from each party is equally valuable.”

There's one play where everyone has prepared for their parts. PM


You've hit a roadblock mid-project. Now how exactly do you reach out to upper management for help? For starters, use an executive's time only when absolutely necessary, says Michael Campbell, PMP, with Holland & Davis LLC. “That way, when you do engage them, they know it's serious,” he adds.

Alert them to the potential problem as you become aware of it—along with a plan to address the issue. This way, sponsors aren't surprised and have “already probably begun working the problem in their heads if not in their actions,” he says.

But there's no need to get into the minutiae.

“Don't bore senior management with details on the status of projects,” Mr. Campbell says. “Bring them in on the problem and tell them what you need from them. Most sponsors I have been involved with will absolutely follow the script and role description if it is reasonable and well-thought-out.”

Be concise and to the point. For example, outline the two problems you have and then request decisions by a certain date. Of course, project managers must temper their directness according to the etiquette and protocol of the organization they're dealing with, Mr. Campbell says.

Lastly, reserve e-mail for casual communications, not to discuss major problems.

The article is based on material in the white paper “Managing Senior Executives: Getting the Right Support, at the Right Level, and at the Right Time for Your Project,” presented by Michael Campbell, PMP, at the PMI Global Congress 2007—North America in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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