We often read about the critical success factors for project success. There are even a number of articles written about the critical failure factors for projects. I am intrigued by one issue that is the top critical failure factor identified in over 12 studies on the issue. According to an investigation conducted by (Ibrahim et al., 2013), the most commonly identified critical failure factor is lack of executive engagement and support. This is a topic that has been of great interest to me, as it supports my own experiences.
There are several ways in which senior executives should be engaging in projects within their organizations. One way they may engage is directly, as a project sponsor. The project sponsor serves as a mentor to the project manager, ensuring organizational goals remain the primary focus. As a mentor, the project sponsor coaches the project manager to focus on the business’s need for the project and how it fits into the entire organization. The project sponsor also serves as support to the project manager, providing their authority when necessary to resolve conflicts that are outside the project manager’s control. Often, the project manager needs support from partners or regulatory bodies where the senior executive authority is necessary. The project sponsor also provides governance over the project. In this function, the project sponsor gets involved in large scope changes, review of recovery plans, and ensuring the final closeout with customers.
Another way a senior executive can engage in projects is to be a project owner. In this case, the executive represents the internal customer. For example, the executive over operations will keep an eye on the projects concerning the development of new products or new facilities. Unlike the functional managers reporting to the executive, this role is high level to provide similar support as the sponsor within their realm, resolving internal conflicts and overseeing the scope. In this role, the senior executive’s responsibility is to ensure the project is being developed to fit into the ongoing operations, or to champion the change that the project will cause. As the executive may be providing resources to the project, governance is also their responsibility.
The final way a senior executive can engage in a project is to become a champion. For this role, the executive does not need direct contact with the project manager as with the sponsor, nor do they need to be a direct customer of the project. As a project champion, the executive should understand the benefits to the organization and provide support. In some cases, the champion is in a position to provide resources, but this is not necessary. Another function of the project champion is governance. A project champion will follow the project to ensure the expected benefits are fulfilled.
All senior executives within an organization have a role in the governance of the work of the organization. This responsibility includes their operational function and project work. This role is to ensure that the projects being performed are a benefit to the organization, they use the organization’s resources efficiently, and that the project meets all the objectives as set forth in the project charter. Senior executives may be supported in the governance function by a project management organization, but they still hold the responsibility.
There is one caution for senior executives when it comes to engaging in projects. Respect your project managers. These individuals have unique skills that need to be supported, not micromanaged. The role of the senior executive is high-level coordination. Engaging in projects from the senior executive level is to ensure projects are focused on benefiting the organization, providing the necessary resources, and ensuring that the business objectives are met. The project manager should be encouraged to oversee the assigned project to ensure effectiveness and efficiency. Engagement makes this a collaborative effort. Finding the balance highlights the need for a special set of skills to fill the role of an engaged senior executive.
So, why do senior executives fail to properly engage in projects within their organizations? Some will say that they are too busy with their routine operational responsibilities. This is an avoidance approach. It must be understood that for a senior executive there is a responsibility to oversee all work within the organization, including projects. Another reason for avoiding engagement in projects is fear, fear of acknowledging a lack of knowledge. Many senior executives have no training or experience in project management. Even if they have had training, odds are it was training in how to manage, not govern a project. Again, governance of projects is a different area of knowledge for the executive to learn. That knowledge area will be the subject of future articles.
Ibrahim, R., Ayazi, E., Nasrmalek, S., & Nakhat, S. (2013). An investigation of critical failure factors in information technology projects. IOSR Journal of Business and Management, 10(3), 87-92. Retrieved from http://www.iosrjournals.org
Dr. Glen Jones, Ph.D., PMP, is the president of GMJ Leadership. He is an accomplished leader with over 26 years of experience in the development and management of large, complex international projects within the energy industry. Glen is currently a leadership coach and project management consultant performing project management audits, project audits, and 360 personnel assessments. His education culminated with his Ph.D. in project management from Northcentral University. Glen writes about strategy and governance.