Why Project Management Fails and 10 Ways a CEO Can Fix It

Why Project Management Fails and 10 Ways a CEO Can Fix It

Despite a plethora of project management software tools and project management certification programs and project management training, protocols and methodologies, there is not always project management success. Schedules slip, costs balloon, plans derail.

Cynical observers of the project management process suggest these stages of a project:

  • Euphoria
  • Disillusionment
  • Panic
  • Search for the guilty
  • Punishment of the innocent
  • Reward for the non-participants

Or so says William (Bill) Mince, InterimExecs RED Team member and Chief Operating Officer at iMedrix, the California-based maker of a mobile clinical-grade ECG device that connects to remote physicians in real time. Since his first job at 3M in the 70s, Mince has built a career focused on project management.

His passion is trying to improve the project management process across organizations. He’s even writing a book about it. Project Leadership: An Executive Handbook for Project Management Success is to be published in the fall of 2021.

He offers these 10 steps CEOs can take to help ensure the success of project management in their organizations.

1. Elevate the status of project management.

Project management should be elevated to the same level as other critical organizational processes, such as sales pipeline tracking, the quality system and financial auditing. To be successful, project management cannot be something left to “let the engineers figure out,” Mince says.

Elevating the status of project management sends the message across the organization that turf wars and communication snafus will not be tolerated and that teamwork is king.

2. Ensure sufficient time and resources for the planning process.

A project is only as good as the plan upon which it’s based. Too often, a project leader will be told, “Take the weekend to write the project management plan and present it to us on Monday.”

A better approach, Mince says, is to say, “I’ve booked a conference room off site for the next two weeks. I’m buying breakfast and lunch.” Then the members of the project management team, all of whom still have their day jobs, can devote 100% of their brain power to thinking through the potential pitfalls and coming up with a plan to meet their assigned project goal.

For those two weeks, planning becomes the team members’ day job.

3. Send the right message across the organization.

When Mince starts a new executive position, his message to the company is clear: “Winning in your department at the expense of others will not be tolerated. If you insist Quality wins at the expense of Operations, I will remove you from the company.”

It was a concept first taught to him by a mentor who said, “A manager’s first responsibility is to the overall health of the organization; functional discipline is second.”

Still, Mince says, he often sees that sort of infighting in organizations. In one case, the vice president of engineering was fighting with the VP of operations over who was to blame for a project that was languishing. Mince told them, “It isn’t about which one of you is right. The investors put a lot of money in this. If it doesn’t happen, none of us will have a job.”

4. Build a culture that supports matrix management.

Successful project management requires people to work across functions and presses responsibility and decision-making down to lower levels.

In traditional functional management, one’s title as a boss confers power. But a matrix system requires that power be shared. A project management team could include anyone from a staff engineer to a vice president, all of whom need to work as peers.

A CEO needs to create a culture that values that kind of teamwork and thwarts efforts by managers who would use their functional power to keep underlings from contributing to the project team.

“A team member’s boss is the most dangerous person in the world,” Mince says. “They can hold back their employees to keep someone else from getting credit or to expand the scope of the project for a self-serving solution.”

5. Appoint the right “project sponsor.”

A CEO should NOT be involved in the ongoing project management process unless the project is focused on a very high-level problem, such as due diligence on a potential acquisition. Instead, the CEO should appoint a direct report as “project sponsor.”

“If the project isn’t important enough to assign a top executive as the project sponsor, don’t start the project,” Mince says.

Using a sports analogy, the project sponsor serves at the project team’s coach. He or she monitors that two-week process of writing the plan but then steps back from day-to-day involvement. During a weekly meeting with the project leader (the person charged with daily oversight of the project), the project sponsor gets updates on the progress and any bumps along the way.

The project sponsor can smooth over the bumps by using his or her functional power – the power that comes with the title – to discuss fixes with peer executives. Only when that doesn’t solve the problem should it be elevated to the attention of the CEO.

Without a project sponsor who can wield that executive power, the project can flounder. The team members “sit in a lunchroom and whine and complain. They can’t talk to the CEO. They aren’t going to be able to go up six levels and over to Building 7, where the engineers are, to solve the problem,” Mince says.

And, he notes, the project sponsor needs to “own” the project. Don’t appoint the VP who reluctantly agrees that “OK, I can be the project sponsor.”

6. Think beyond project management tools.

Yes, project management tools are important, but they serve a singular function: To keep the team and schedule on track. And it’s critical for a CEO to understand and be able to interpret the project management software the company uses.

But the key to project management success goes beyond software. It lies in choosing the right team. And that team likely will change for every project. Mince, who likes sport analogies, likens it to the pick-up basketball game at the local park. The teams change every day, depending on who’s available to play. Likewise, project management teams change depending on the needs of the project.

7. Formalize the process

Every project should have a written plan that defines the scope of the project, lays out the limitations, and sets key assumptions. Without that blueprint, it’s impossible to keep everyone working in tandem and keep the project on track.

The CEO does not need to be a part of creating that project plan; that is the responsibility of the CEO’s hand-picked project sponsor. However, the CEO, sponsor and peer executives must all agree on the scope, timing and priority of each project before it is initiated and handed over to the project leader.

8. Get monthly updates

All project sponsors and project leaders should come together once a month to review “progress, problems and plans,” Mince says.

If there are 10 projects running concurrently, plan a one-hour meeting with each project leader allotted 6 minutes to present to the CEO, executive staff and their fellow team leaders.

The goal of this meeting is to keep everyone in the loop and solve any organization-wide issues. For example, Mince says, if one project was delayed by two weeks, that may mean the testing facilities won’t be available because they were already were booked for another project. The organization-wide project management meeting is where those conflicts can be identified and resolved.

9. Promote managerial courage

All of the managers in the organization must be encouraged to speak up when there is an issue that will cause a delay or deficiency in the expected outcome of the project. When a conflict with another project or team member arises, it is imperative to allow the free exchange of facts, shortfalls and possible solutions in an open forum.

Sometimes a tough decision will need to be made which will cause some members of the management and executive ranks to feel their authority has been challenged. A good CEO will provide strong guidance and not shy away from this confrontation.

“Our customers are best served when we win as team” is the overriding principle here, Mince says, and is based on the needs of the organization as a whole and not one individual.

10. Respect the process.

Having appointed a trusted project sponsor and a team of people critical to the project, a CEO should take a step back. Know that the teams are working on their appointed tasks, the project leader and project sponsor are meeting weekly, the project sponsor is running interference as needed and the CEO will be called in if needed.

If that call never comes, the CEO can take a bow. The project management system worked!

InterimExecs RED Team is an elite group of CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and CIOs who help organizations through turnaround, growth (merger, acquisitions, ERP/CRM implementation, process improvement), or absence of leadership. Learn more about InterimExecs RED Team at www.interimexecs.com/red-team or call +1 (847) 849-2800.

More Resources:
*The 6 Biggest Mistakes Companies Make
*Business Growth Strategies: Scaling During Rapid Growth