The Disconnect Between Senior Management and Project Management

Posted on: June 27th, 2016 by Jim

This post is based not only on my own personal experience but also on a book that the Project Management Institute published in 2002 called, “Selling Project Management to Senior Executives.” By “selling” they don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of a sales team or consultant but in the sense of persuading senior executives of its value. I’m not sure that the situation the book describes has improved a great deal.

In my travels, whether as consultant or trainer, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon – senior executives and project managers are frequently not on the same page in terms of the value of project management. I say ‘frequently’ as opposed to ‘always’ as sometimes there is no disconnect as, for example, when a company has a clear career path from project manager to program manager to management.  (I know a consumer goods company that does exactly this.)

Now firstly, I come neither to bury senior management nor praise project managers. The disconnect exists and it is not the fault of one side or the other. It just exists. So I’m writing this just to get people who may read this to think about it, maybe start engaging in discussion, here or at work.

So why is this disconnect there? Why does it exist? Some thoughts:

  1. Project management’s value is generally perceived to be at the operational level, and it is still mostly studied and treated as a tactical concept. This, despite the fact, that in most organizations, projects are often done for strategic reasons. In fact the portfolio should be comprised of strategic projects, not “let’s move the lab to the third floor” initiatives.
  2. Project managers and senior managers do not necessarily share the same language. This might well be a result of the first statement. But PM’s often tend to get buried in the weeds of Gantt charts, finish-to-start vs. start-to-finish, etc. One manager said to me recently, “I don’t care if it’s Agile or not Agile. Just get the damn thing done.” Fair enough.
  3. Senior executives focus on business goals, results, and outcomes from projects, while practitioners and consultants tend to focus on the tactics of tools and techniques.
  4. Project managers believe they have a complex job that requires training and understanding of tools such as schedulers. Some senior executives believe that it is not difficult and “anyone can do it.”
  5. The previous statement can often lead to the “accidental project manager” who – as often as not – gets no training and fails. Which leads to more discussion about “why do we even need project management as it fails so often?”

I’ve talked to project managers who just don’t understand why their VP does not understand the value of project management, why they don’t just “get” it. PMI addresses this and calls that a “naïveté on the part of the project manager.” This may possibly be explained by PMI’s finding that only 21 percent of their survey respondents strongly agree that project management is a valued discipline.

An interesting finding in the PMI study is that management tends to get very interested in project management in times of crisis. And so while you might think this a good opportunity to instill best practices, often employees are pulled from other teams to put out the fire – which may well have been caused by bad PM practices in the first place – only to repeat the cycle the next time there’s a crisis. In the more enlightened organizations, yes, they get people to put out the fire but also look at the problem long-term and start getting training and best practices in place to hopefully prevent the crisis from re-occurring.

I believe that in order to begin to close this gap, there has to be more dialogue and education. By education, I don’t necessarily mean just formal education although there’s that. But I also refer to informal education on both sides.

On the project management side, we as PM’s need to demonstrate how project management relates to – as noted above – business goals, results and outcomes. Even the traditional “on-time, within scope, on-budget” arguments are not necessarily sufficient. Not if your senior management is focusing on, say, increased market share, ROI, and innovation.

According to the PMI report, PM’s need to “describe project management in terms of potential senior executive/financial value, tying those arguments to long term/strategic benefits ,and combining arguments with detailed explanations of PM techniques.”  I’m not so sure about the detailed explanation part. If can make a case to the VP, I don’t need to necessarily bore her with my details until and unless she wants to hear them.

I have also believed for some time that MBA candidates should get a better grounding in project management. Now I am by no means suggesting that they should get certified or have the same in-depth knowledge as a PM. But failing a concentration in project management, perhaps MBA candidates could spend, say, a week building a schedule using some case study. And then another candidate plays sponsor and makes difficult-to meet demands. Walking a mile in the PM’s shoes, even temporarily, would help executives better understand what happens at that level.

So, to my fellow PM’s, act like a project manager, think like an executive. (And yes, I have to constantly remind myself to do this as well.) And to senior management, no, project management is not rocket science. But it also ain’t trivial.

Comments are closed.