In the dark


Is the executive suite out of touch with its project managers?


To keep communication channels open, executives can start by sending an unequivocal message that they want to remain informed—whether the news is good or bad.

Amid rampant uncertainty in the global business environment, there's one constant executives can count on: increasing complexity.

Upper management must contend with issues such as growing competition, globalization and virtualization—all set against a backdrop of economic instability. With that in mind, it's no wonder that some executives don't have the best grasp of what's happening with their project teams.

Is it even necessary to add that item to an already lengthy list of business responsibilities? For executives looking to maximize project success and strategic alignment, the answer is “yes.”

But that requires considerable effort to ensure executives are getting the right information without undermining the work of project teams.

“Upper management is under increased pressure to continue to deliver on their objectives during these difficult times,” says Christy Kulasingam, director of Radbourne Consulting, a management consultancy for the IT, media and telecommunications sectors in London, England.

Business leaders sometimes must undertake transformation and turn-around initiatives to achieve their objectives—and those initiatives require complex programs and projects.

Economic pressures can lead executives to seek more control. Such attempts could very well be counterproductive, though.

“The more complex the business world gets, the more important it is for upper management to not get involved in micromanagement, but to trust their subordinates to make good decisions,” says Jürgen Oschadleus, PMP, founder and director of the project management consultancy and training firm Act Knowledge in Sydney, Australia. “Being second-guessed by someone remote from the issues serves only to destroy initiative and task ownership.”

That's the fine line executives must walk.

“It is essential for upper management to have a grasp of what is going on in their projects. But this doesn't mean that it's essential for them to understand what's going on in the trenches,” says Mark Mullaly, PMP, president and facilitator at Interthink Consulting Inc., a project management consultancy and training firm in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

That distinction is an important one, says Mr. Mullaly, co-lead investigator of the recently completed Researching the Value of Project Management study sponsored by PMI. Executives create the environment that allows projects to succeed—or fail, he says.

There are two governance decisions an executive needs to make about a project, Mr. Mullaly adds:

  1. Can the project be late and/or over budget?
  2. Do you still value those results?

If the answer to both questions is affirmative, then the project should continue, he says, “and executives should do the best they can to create the environment their teams need, and otherwise stay out of the way.”

When the answer is negative or uncertain, it's the executive's responsibility to find out what needs to be done to resolve the situation, he says.

And that can mean fundamentally changing expectations of the project, or even cancelling it.


Yuvinder Kochar, CTO and vice president of technology at The Washington Post Company in Washington, D.C., USA, has witnessed a business evolution that's changing the way he tracks projects. Because many companies now emphasize agility, product cycle times have been reduced. The result: fewer large projects, and a proliferation of quick-delivery initiatives.

The trend has emerged in a range of industries, Mr. Kochar notes, and he has experienced it firsthand in his executive role.


When executives want to stay informed, project management practitioners can help. consider these tips for effective communication with upper management.

Know your audience. Learn what communication style your upper management prefers and accommodate your style and frequency to fit those preferences, says Ron taylor, PMP, principal of the Ron taylor group, a project management training and consulting company in Fairfax Station, virginia, USA.

“Some people prefer to be informed in person, some by phone and some in writing. Some want to be informed infrequently, and some very often,” he says.

Above all, keep your message brief, but tie it to corporate goals and strategy when possible. “Executives don't have much spare time, and they will appreciate it if you don't waste their time and can demonstrate an understanding of strategic issues,” Mr. Taylor says.

Peel the onion. Tell executives about the project's progress and prognosis at a relatively high level. Provide the most important information first and let executives ask for more detail if they are interested, Mr. Taylor says.

Keep score. Try using a “scorecard” to give executives a snapshot view, says Vikas Kamran, managing director of Revel, a program and project management consultancy in Kirkland, Washington, USA. It could include:

  • Project highlights
  • Goals and deliverables
  • Milestones
  • Progress against goals
  • Roadblocks
  • Any executive management decision requirements

Keep it open. Although management doesn't need (or want) to hear every last detail, it helps to practice open communication via email, phone or in person, Mr. Kamran says. The idea is to enable executives to ask for project details when needed and to let project managers request executive input when desired.

Create consistency. Establish expectations by outlining a schedule for communication, suggests Jim Boland, PMP, senior program manager at Chambers Design Inc., a New York, New York, USA-based green design consulting firm.

During his tenure at a Wall Street firm, he was charged with leading a yearlong project. Before it launched, he took steps to gain executive support and motivate stakeholders.

“The linchpin was getting each executive's signature on the project charter, which spelled out how we would communicate and how the project would be governed—all on one page,” he says.

His next step was to make sure he lined up meetings with executives on dates that coincided with project milestones. He also sent progress reports to the executives three to five days in advance of the scheduled meeting to ensure they knew what topics would be discussed.

Keep in mind that meetings do get cancelled, Mr. Boland notes: “It is important to develop a relationship with the executive's administrative team and get the meeting back on track.”

“If I look at my road maps from three or four years ago compared to now, we have many more projects flowing through the pipeline, much smaller projects,” he says. “It's just the nature of how business and IT are collaborating now.”

He doesn't expect that pace to slack anytime soon.

“What always worries me and keeps me up at night is that it's going to get faster, not slower.”

That development poses a significant challenge: How can an executive stay on top of all of those projects?

For Mr. Kochar, the answer entails being selective and focusing his attention.

“The idea of spending weeks doing a deep project plan, detailed weekly project status reports and close oversight is long gone” for all but a couple of the largest IT transformation projects at The Washington Post Company, he says.


With a dramatic increase in project volume, there's a risk of information overload for executives who track them.

“The way I've seen my work change is that instead of being a tight manager of projects, I've become more of a facilitator of many projects,” Mr. Kochar says.

He looks for key data points on the highest-priority projects, and then decides where to delve in. Then he analyzes critical milestones and the team's ability to hit those dates on a regular basis.

“Instead of getting deep into each project, I'm skimming many on the surface, but going deep on a few very key projects,” he says. “I'm trying to align my time utilization based on risk.”


To keep communication channels open, executives can start by sending an unequivocal message that they want to remain informed—whether the news is good or bad.

“There needs to be accountability for those working on a project to elevate issues of material concern before serious problems develop,” says Michael Krigsman, CEO of Asuret Inc., a Brookline, Massachusetts, USA-based consulting firm specializing in enterprise IT implementations.

To create that accountability, Mr. Krigsman recommends creating defined parameters to let project managers know at what point they need to report problems.

And the best way to make project teams pay attention to those parameters is to ensure that team members understand the importance of communicating concerns about potential challenges or issues, he says. For a multimillion-dollar strategic project, Mr. Krigsman says executives could insist that project leaders inform them when the risk of cost overruns reaches 10 percent—and let them know that in extreme cases, failure to notify executives about potential problems could result in employee termination.


Regular reports can be helpful—but don't be lulled into thinking that approach automatically means you're properly informed, warns Jürgen Oschadleus, PMP, Act Knowledge, Sydney, Australia. “Reports can be deliberately or inadvertently skewed to state whatever you want them to reflect,” he says.

Executives must be informed consumers of the information they receive. Know what you are looking for, and what answers you expect to see, says Mark Mullaly, PMP, Interthink consulting Inc., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. When you recognize that you're not hearing those answers, you need to probe further.

“An incredibly simple and effective approach is to compare last period's status to this period's report,” he says. Look at what has changed—and, just as important, what hasn't.

“It's amazing how often dates of deliverables will change from report to report, without the change being flagged in any way,” Mr. Mullaly says. “The change is made with a view to ‘slipping it under the radar.’ If it doesn't get challenged, it goes away.”

Mr. Krigsman acknowledges that when it comes to sharing vital information, he takes a harder stance than most project management practitioners. He suspects that outlook has been shaped by the number of projects he's seen spiral out of control because executives were kept in the dark.

But he also emphasizes that communication is a two-way street: If executives want forthright project leaders, they must resist the urge to blame the bearers of bad news. “It takes effort to drill down and identify the real underlying cause of the problem, but doing so will certainly improve project success rates,” Mr. Krigsman says.


Increasingly, executives are requesting dashboard views of projects, where a red, yellow or green status indicator is linked to key project components, such as budget, schedule, scope or risk.

At Thales Group, an electronic systems maker for the defense, aerospace, IT and transportation industries headquartered in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, reporting dashboards have provided a useful way to share project information with executives, says Jean-Roch Houllier, PMP, senior project manager and program line manager for the organization.

To bolster that usefulness, project managers and executives must first take the time to agree on the modalities of reporting and data exchange, he says. That could mean sharing cost and schedule information on a monthly basis, for instance.

“Project managers should have their own detailed dashboard, with tabs dedicated to thematics such as planning and finance,” Mr. Houllier says. That way they're ready to extract key elements for communication with various stakeholders.

His organization puts a master dashboard into place and includes basic follow-up information for each of the projects in the portfolio. It's regularly sent to executives.

At CS Stars, a risk technology provider in Dallas, Texas, USA, information travels up the corporate chain, starting with weekly meetings between project managers and their teams.

“We then update our project management office (PMO), and the PMO updates our executive committee with weekly calls to review our projects by region,” says Daniel Vickers, PMP, program and project manager at the company. The executive committee in turn updates the principals regularly on the overall status of projects and expected revenue for each quarter. The executive committee and the principals use this information to make what they feel are the most advantageous business decisions regarding research and development, sales and marketing, and infrastructure development.


Above all, executives must lead by example.

“If people don't bring serious issues to the attention of upper management, it is very often a reflection of us not truly wanting to hear that information or tolerating bad news,” Mr. Oschadleus says. “Irrespective of our declared willingness to have an open-door policy, it's about how we make team members feel when they do come in to talk about something.”

The upper ranks not only have to be accessible, but “when they do have a discussion with a project manger, they can't just listen for two or three minutes and then interrupt the speaker to give them the solution,” he adds. “Frequently, they don't truly understand what the real problem is or what ideas the team member has to solve it.”

By keeping in touch with project managers, executives can shed light on steering their organization through an ever more chaotic business landscape. PM


> TIP Use a wiki to collaborate on projects, says Yuvinder Kochar, The Washington Post Company, Washington, D.C., USA. His technology group uses wikis to allow efficient access to important information.

“It's very valuable because I don't have to call someone and ask, ‘Can you send me the latest updated project plan?’ I can go access it myself,” he says. “When I want to look at a specific project, I know where to go. I can see what documents were updated last week.”




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