Project Executives: How to get what you need
Barely a week goes by when I don't hear senior managers in the role of project executives or sponsors facing criticism for their lack of availability, indifferent decision-making or general dis-interest in a project or initiative.
My response has always been the same: "what are you doing about it?"
Now, don't get me wrong: there are clear examples out there where a project manager has exhausted every avenue and utilised all their powers of persuasion - and in some instances Jedi mind tricks - to get what they need; and it still isn't forthcoming.
Feel free to tear your hair out and jump up and down if this is you. However, too often, project managers point the finger of blame without first running through the basics of managing upwards.
When it comes to decisions, that's what you will ask for. Don't slide in there and dance around the subject.
If you don't go in and ask for something, you will come out without it. That's obvious, right? If you want an ice cream with a flake in it, you wouldn't ask for a milk product, with a chocolate insertion, would you?
When you need a decision, say that: "I need you decide on…" works well. If you need time off, you say "I'd like a day off on a certain date",
Want to be left alone to manage the project and not be micro-managed? Say "I really respect your input but trust me, I'll deliver this."
Nobody, least of all senior management likes a navel gazer. Don't fluff around when it comes to communication.
Know who you're dealing with
Conversations are so much easier when you know what kind of person you are talking to. You have to understand the position and responsibilities that person has. In order to get the most from the first point, know your executives and the way they operate.
Stakeholder engagement is a core skill of project managers. In fact, this is the engagement type that they should work on the most.
My approach to a football-loving project executive would be completely different to that of a subject matter expert project executive.
Knowing their "buttons" helps you anticipate their moods, questions, sensitivities and likely response to your direct questions.
Without understanding the executives, you're unlikely to gain the trust required to get the job done.
Be solution focused not a trouble-maker
When I first started out in project management I was excellent at being direct and understanding my executive. The problem I had was that once I had their attention all I delivered were problems and not solutions.
The conversation would go something like this:
Me: 'We've lost our test leads in the week we need them most'
Executive: 'OK, what do you need me to do?'
Me: 'Errr, listen to me moan about it?'
You have to be able to demonstrate that you have given the problem some thought. Better than that, provide a number of solutions to fix it. Incidentally, one of these solutions, is always "do nothing" if only to make your other solutions look good!
Then of course, you're going to be direct and ask them to make a decision on one. Usually it'll be the one that you recommend as you know how to sell it to them!
Fibbing is not an option
Dress it up however you like but if you lie, eventually you will get found out. Projects are like that, damn it.
As soon as something goes awry, whether you're to blame or not then fess up as soon as possible.
Explain how it happened as you're solution-focused and what you intend to do to rectify the problem. I had a project once whose - already substantial - budget estimate was out by about £7m.
Once I'd stopped shaking, I got the team together to understand why and what the next steps would be in order to verify the budget. After that I took my knocking knees down to my executive and informed him of the bad news.
I knew that he was passionate about the project and had a very short temper that luckily didn't usually last long. This is how I recall the conversation went:
Me: 'I've got some bad news; the current estimate for the project is £8.5m not the £1.5m that was estimated'
Executive: *String of expletives sharply delivered*.
Executive: Right, what are you doing about it?'
Me: "We're working with our internal team, suppliers and finance to recheck the numbers. Once we have verified those, we'll identify the costs for each component, then the risks around cutting some from the scope, which I'll present back to you in 3 days".
Executive: 'You'd better get on with it then'
Package up these four points in one neat little scenario and you'll get past what before seemed to be all brick walls.
Next time you think of giving senior management a hard time, find a mirror and ask yourself what else you can do first.
Colin Ellis is a self-employed Project Management Consultant and Trainer. You can connect with him on LinkedIn at nz.linkedin.com/in/thepmoguy
Want to find out more about this and other project management skills? Check out the NZCS Project Management courses run by Colin across New Zealand.
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