Project Management Institute

Tips for executives

looking astute in the third millennium


by Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP, Contributing Editor

EXECUTIVES IN THE THIRD Millennium will face a peculiar challenge: they'll be ultimately responsible for the success or failure of projects, yet will have less and less formal authority to command that things be done a certain way. Although executives theoretically possess power, in the modern era that power is more closely related to influencing through skillful articulation than it is to command-and-obey power. Even in military settings, where superior authority is theoretically absolute, the laws of nature sometimes refute the power of command: A ship captain's command to change course is obeyed, not instantaneously, but many minutes later when the straight-ahead inertia of the vessel is overcome by the power of the engines and steering mechanism. If nature resists authority even in command-and-obey settings, imagine the size of the challenge when the power is increasingly based on competence, political skills and communications.

When it comes to managing by projects, even the uninitiated executive can appear astute by asking timely, intelligent questions. The partially experienced can also benefit from the question approach, as can veteran executives well versed in the practice of managing projects. You can never go wrong by asking the questions reporters use when they prepare stories: who? when? where? why? what? and how? These words help executives formulate questions to themselves and direct queries to project managers and project teams. It's important that the question-and-answer sessions have a “show and tell” format. In other words, all of the answers should be documented in report or graphic form and reviewed jointly. Two question-and-an-swer approaches are presented in the sidebars.

Nature resists authority; better polish up your influencing skills. Asking the right questions will give you an edge.

Short and Sweet. The question-asking approach ensures that executives focus on the critical project issues. Yet questions alone aren't sufficient to make sure that projects are successful: some basic building blocks have to be in place to ensure a happy ending. For the busy executive, here's a thumbnail guide for making sure projects are done right. If these five executive actions are taken, success is a shoo-in.


Paul C Dinsmore, PMP, PMI Fellow, is the author of seven management books, the latest of which is Winning In Business With Enterprise Project Management [AMACOM, NY, December 1998]. Comments about column may be sent to [email protected].


1. Ensure strong executive sponsorship. Executive sponsorship means the ultimate caring and nurturing of the project from a strategic standpoint—making sure that the foundations for managing the project are in place. It also involves ongoing strategic alignment of the project within the organization's overarching business objectives (for more on this topic, see Chapter 3 of Winning In Business With Enterprise Project Management [AMACOM, 1998]).

2. Staff the project with the right manager and team. If the project is staffed correctly, most project matters will take care of themselves. A seasoned project manager is aware of the broad project issues that need to be dealt with.

3. Champion the cause for project team alignment. Team building takes place through inspired leadership, kickoff workshops, planning sessions, team integration programs and on-the-job training.

Asking Questions Phase by Phase …

Each project phase has issues that call for specific questions. Here are some examples:

Pre-Project Phase

Does the project meet company standards in terms of profitability or return on investment?

Is it coherent with the organization's strategic plans?

Are resources available to carry out the project?

Are the premises and numbers used in the feasibility study valid?

Concept Phase

Is there a project charter that defines the project mission and primary objectives?

Is the overall scope of the project clearly defined?

Is all information for the project to proceed available and organized?

Have the design assumptions been validated?

Have the client requirements been formally confirmed?

Has a macro risk assessment been carried out?

Are key stakeholders involved?

How about the project manager? Does he need more support? Or on the job training? Or could she use additional guidance during a given phase?

Has a formal project kickoff been planned? What format is planned: meeting? workshop?

Planning Phase

Has a quality assurance plan been developed?

Are project management and implementation strategies and methodologies in place?

Have project risks been identified, quantified, and risk responses identified?

Are systems for document management, activity scheduling and tracking, procurement management, estimating, budgeting and cost control in place?

Have the systems been debugged and is the staff competent at operating them?

Has an overall, technically oriented detailed project plan been developed (what is to be done on the project and how will the work be performed)?

Has a project management plan been developed (how will the project be managed)?

Is there a stakeholder management plan?

Have statements of work (sOWs) been written for the work packages?

Has the project communications plan been developed?

Have the meeting and reporting criteria been developed?

Implementation Phase

Are regular tracking meetings taking place?

Is change management being formally managed?

Is decision-making proactive and solution-oriented?

Final Phase

Have project closeout procedures been developed and are they in place?

Has a transition plan (from project completion to operation phase) been prepared and is it being followed?

Post-Project Phase

What was done right on the project and what needs improvement on the next one?

How did the project size up with other comparable projects within or outside the company?

What lessons learned need to be shared with others in the company?

How can project results be used for marketing and promotional purposes? images

4. Ensure that project management methodology and support are in place. For the core project team to work effectively, the team members need a methodology coherent with the company culture and with the project's needs, and they require support personnel to look to for help in project scheduling and project administration.

5. Ask questions—the right ones, at the right time. For example, EDs has institutionalized the question-asking process: the company has a list of suggested questions for executives to ask at project approval time and during project reviews.

Promoting Enterprise Project Management. Although project sponsors are normally assigned to specific projects, in a broader sense all company executives are project sponsors, no matter what the formal relationship is to given projects. successful projects are in the interest of the company and thus all projects deserve support, aid, and guidance. This general sponsorship role is akin to that of “executive facilitation” where the role of executives is to clear away roadblocks and generally facilitate the pathway for those who do the work.

American Express is an example of an organization that takes upper-level project support seriously. “If your project fails, our company fails,” is the way American Express executives perceive their “partner” relationship with project managers. That relationship is bolstered by a “We will not let you fail” posture, according to Kathy Mayer, vice president for advertising and interactive business development. The function of senior management at American Express, according to Mayer, includes:

images Communicating the project need clearly in the context of strategic direction

images Ensuring alignment across functional lines

images Ensuring access and senior management accountability to the project team

images Underwriting success of all strategic initiatives.

Strong involvement in project work is clearly a part of the job profile for American Express executives. As Mayer puts it, “senior managers won't be senior managers much longer if they don't get up to par on managing projects.”

At AT&T and Lucent Technologies, hundreds of executives and professionals are certified as Project Management Professionals. This program was spearheaded initially by Dan Ono, PMP, now of Lucent Technologies, who influenced AT&T management to invest heavily in the program.

FOR EXECUTIVES LOOKING to take full advantage of the benefits of applying project management across an enterprise, following the format of the questions and suggestions given above is a good start. Executive involvement, through skillful articulation and intelligent questioning, sets the tone for boosting strong project management culture and ensuring a healthy bottom line for the organization. images


… Or By Knowledge Areas

An alternative approach is to ask questions stemming from the PMBOK Guide. Key questions are selected from each of the areas, for asking at approval time, or upon review during the project. Here's a list of sample questions using a body-of-knowl-edge logic at points during the project where executive involvement is critical: at the beginning or project kickoff (k) and throughout the project during periodic reviews (r):

Integration. Do project charter and detailed project plans reflect the work that needs to be performed? (k)

Are the project plans being tracked (actuals versus estimated), and are all changes being registered and monitored? (r)

Scope. Is there an agreed-to project scope statement, work breakdown structure, and scope change procedure? (k)

Have all scope changes been reviewed, and are the lowest-level activities of the project breakdown structure fully detailed? (r)

Time. Is there a master schedule that outlines deliverables and milestones for the project? (k)

Is the schedule up to date, showing actual progress versus scheduled progress, and are appropriate efforts being made to manage the critical path items? (r)

Cost. Are all the assumptions documented for costing and estimating, and is the preliminary project budget based on a resource plan? (k)

Is there an updated cost report that accurately flags potential overruns and distinguishes between in-scope and out-of-scope work? (r)

Quality. Has the project documentation been reviewed by the project team and the customer, and has agreement been reached regarding quality standards? (k)

Are periodic project reviews being held, and are quality issues being dealt with in terms of technical quality and customer satisfaction? (r)

Communications. Has a project communications plan been developed that outlines how information is to be managed during the project? (k)

Is information flowing in accordance with the communications plan? What present project challenges are attributable to communications problems? (r)

Human Resources. Have a project mobilization chart and a team member responsibility matrix been developed, and have provisions been made for building a productive team? (k)

How is the team performing with regard to expectations? What is needed to improve performance from a human resources standpoint? (r)

Procurement (Supply, Contracts). Has a contracting plan been developed that defines the scope and basic conditions for all third-party furnished items? (k)

Have changes been made to the original scope contracted? Are they documented? What other changes may happen? (r)

Risk. Has a risk plan been developed that identifies, quantifies, and foresees a feasible response to probable risks? (r)

What changes have come about that affect the risks as originally assessed? How are risks being controlled? (r) images

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.

February 1999 PM Network



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