C-Suite's Role in Project Success
Businesses exist to make money. To improve operations they create various initiatives with promises of improving the bottom line. Projects, though, cost money. They do not make a profit. The dichotomy in a strapped economy to spend savings on projects to improve future profits usually results in the conservation of cash. Many an argument has been had over whether it is better to run improvement projects, burning precious cash and heading off the competition, or taking the traditional approach and wait for times with better cash flow. Subsequent to 2008's financial folly, it is well known that most companies sat on their reserves and waited. That action may have some unintended consequences that are in the midst of surfacing.
Few events start a project manager's day off worse than a yellow sticky note on his or her monitor saying, "The finance manager would like to talk to you." An email is equally as bad; however, the note at your desk means that someone actually hunted you down looking to talk about, you guessed it, finances. There must be some problem. Everyone knows the finance folks would never wander into project-land to invite you out for a friendly cup of coffee. You quickly review the project's finances. Everything seems in order. With a sigh, you contemplate whether you should walk over and see her or will a phone call be the least painful option? Yes, painful. Anytime the finance manager calls, there is going to be a lot of new work.
After nearly 30 years of project work, I struggle to understand the role of a project management office (PMO). Even though, I have written of the pros and cons, and read a plethora of articles, opinions, and how-to guides little has been done to convince me that the PMO is reducing project failure. It seems to be nothing more than a tool to fill a void in leadership? Even the acronym, which is so widely thrown around, has little meaning as the "P" has no less than four meanings. It is an executive's crutch for their lack of understanding in how projects work. These, like other, unattended holes in the corporate accountability create opportunities for new and greater bureaucracies and empires that further obfuscate accountability.
Few would question that executives are responsible for ensuring projects are aligned with the corporate strategy. They also need to ensure these initiatives remain in line with these goals as business conditions change. To achieve this, they have to be engaged with the project when it starts and maintain that context throughout its life cycle. This requires more than ensuring the project maintains its scope, schedule, and budget; projects must deliver value. Too many projects start with the inspirational support of upper management, but as the project (or company) drifts, the executives have long since disengaged from the project and are unable to straighten out the misalignment. This wastes company resources and hinders the company's ability to deliver.
Vision, honesty, and transparency: three key traits of an organization that can guarantee project success. This was summed up in last week's interview with Tom Cox, the host of Blog Talk Radio's Tom on Leadership program. His audience, primarily from the C-Suite, is keen to understand how troubled projects are a reflection of their organization's overall health. Projects are, after all, the proverbial canaries in our organization's coalmine. Projects stop performing because there is trouble in the organization.
The lament echoes time and again, "The CIO should have a seat at the table." The claim continues that business cannot survive without the simplest of technologies. Then they provide evidence as if it would be the final nail in the coffin, "Just the other day, when email was down..." Raising my eyebrows in question, I ask, "So your email was down? For how long?" The question is like a scene from a horror film where the sudden realization is that the casket being completed is... your own. Gaining strategic respect is a long way away for those having trouble maintaining their tactical obligations. If your organization is having difficulty providing basic services, you will never have the privilege of being a partner with the business.
I need your help. Why is it that as we get older, so many of us lose the desire to learn? Where is the fun in that? A few years ago, I was nearly sucked into it myself—at least for a few minutes. A half-dozen of us were sitting in a coffee shop talking about growing our businesses and conversation turned to Twitter—about its uselessness. As I drove back to my office, I thought, "The six of us ought to go tell the twenty million people using Twitter how foolish they are." With that utterance, I realized how I had been drug into the world of stasis. I spent the subsequent three days immersed in social media, studying Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and numerous other social tools. Now I am perplexed on how to get others to see the value. Let me fill you in on what I have learned about teaching people, maybe you can point out my flaw.
Again, I was chided for saying there are no Information Technology projects. This time, the excuse was that the company built software. I countered my antagonist by asking if the same group that built their software also maintained the account system, workstations, email, and network. "No, that is a separate group." He was missing that his company's production group was not IT. Information Technology is the support group... and yes, they should not be doing anything that fails to directly affect getting product out the door or reducing costs. Every project's goal must be to deliver to the operational needs of the company—selling product—not to the whims and desires of the IT group. If a project fails to address the needs of the customer (directly or indirectly), then it should never see a penny of funding. This seems such an elementary concept, but it is routinely violated by techno-bigots trying to implement the latest toy or tool.
A couple months ago I asked the question, "Who should the CIO report to?" on the LinkedIn's CIO Magazine Forum. Surprisingly, over 100 people responded, so many that the group's moderator moved the discussion to the jobs section. Maybe they were tired of the attention this old, beat-up subject was getting. I surely did not think responses would be quite as passionate as they were. However, my interest lay in another area, not in the answers to the direct question, rather the reasoning behind them.
Information Technology organizations continually struggle to build systems that meet their customer's needs. They work tirelessly developing solutions that are delivered late, difficult to use, or deficient in key features and functions. This is nothing specific to the last couple decades; it stretches back to the first systems developed. Fredrick Brookes eloquently underscores this in his recount of the 1960's software engineering project to develop the IBM 360 in his book The Mythical Man-Month (1975) and is required reading for all IT executives. For the Chief Information Officer to solve this problem takes a new approach, one, nearly opposite from today's direction.