Do poor project sponsors drive failure?

I was speaking at a PMI conference early in Sweden in March, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on a number of other sessions. This one is all about programme and project sponsorship. It is a topic close to my heart and one I have blogged on before and no doubt will again . . . but is is a topic that business leaders actually care about?

In programmes and projects, sponsorship is not like sponsoring Tom to run a Marathon. Do too many business leaders believe it is someone else's job?

In programmes and projects, sponsorship is not like sponsoring Tom to run a Marathon. Do too many business leaders believe it is someone else’s job?

On the point of sponsorship, here are the key messages Peter Taylor gave out at his presentation on sposorship:

  • 85% of organisations had sponsors in place
  • 83% of organisations don’t train/support/guide sponsors
  • 100% of respondents believed that having a good sponsor was key to project success.

PMI’s recent Pulse of the profession showed that those organisations with active sponsors are more likely to have better project outcomes. This is supported by Colin Price’s research (McKinsey). Standish believes ‘The most important person in the project is the executive sponsor. The executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for the success and failure of the project’. I agree.
BUT most spend business leaders spend less than 5% of their time on sponsor related activity, yet this is all about making change happen – leading change. . . . and mismanaging change is the commonest reason CEOs get fired.
If you look at project failure, six reasons are cited and the top FOUR of those come under the accountability of the sponsor.

  • 40% Unrealistic goals
  • 38% Poor alignment of project and organisation objectives
  • 34% Inadequate human resources
  • 32% Lack of strong leadership
  • 21% Unwillingness of team members to identify Issues
  • 19% Ineffective risk management

So despite all this wealth of research and learning, many business leaders continue to ignore the issue or treat it informally. Everyone says they believe it is critical to project success and yet:

  • Sponsors are not ‘trained’ to be effective
  • Sponsors do not have the ‘time’ to be effective
  • Sponsors are just expected to ‘know’ how to do the job.

Is that right?
Is it even worth bothering about?

Peter then showed some broad-brush estimates of the value of good sponsorship:

  1. Meeting Project Goals +29% variance with good sponsorship in place
  2. Project Failure -13% variance without good project sponsorship in place

So if you have a £1bn portfolio, the range of benefits and costs is:
+ £290m
– £130m
Peter argues that those figures are certainly worth thinking about.I certainly agree. I also wonder that if senior leaders are only spending 5% of their time on sponsorship, what are they actually doing and who do they think is looking after the future of the business?

You can see Peter’s paper here – Project managers are from Mars, project sponsors from Venus

Change, communications and sponsorship

Since the Project Workout was first published, I have advocated projects as the vehicles for achieving strategic objectives or as I often say, projects are the vehicles of change. When I first wrote this in the late 90s, most people were still focused on deliverables and outputs, but, I am pleased to say the drive to towards benefits driven project management as standard is gaining momentum. This blog picks up on Steve Delgrosso’s views.
PMI’s Pulse of the Profession reviews are really starting to focus on the outcomes from projects being the most critical thing from senior management a senior management viewpoint (hurray!). Steve DelGrosso, from PMI, gives his views on what the priorities need to be, if organisations are to keep pace with the escalating rate of change. In his view, these are:

  • Priority One – communications
  • Priority Two – sponsor engagement

This mirrors McKinsey’s Colin Price’s findings about the essential role of the project sponsor in his book, Beyond Performance Management. It also mirrors the view that to be effective, senior management must not only have a vision, but also be able to communicate it.
A look at PMI’s research shows that organizations report that only 52 percent of their strategic initiatives are successful. The failure of strategic initiatives has a significantly greater financial impact than just project failure: they say that nearly 15 percent of every dollar spent on strategic initiatives is wasted–US$149 million for every US$1 billion spent. By comparison, PMI’s 2014 Pulse of the Profession® study finds that US$109 million is wasted for every US$1 billion invested in projects.

So, not much seems to have changed since David Munt, founder of GenSight, did a similar study in 2002. His research suggested between 35 and 50 per cent of all investment is directed to unsuccessful projects and that about 30 per cent of project investment by FTSE 100 organisations in 2000 actually destroyed shareholder value!
Strategic initiatives are the programmes and projects though which an organization’s strategy is implemented. By their nature, strategic initiatives drive change to transform an organization from current state to future state.
Failed projects can result in huge financial losses for an organization, but a failed strategic initiative has an impact far beyond just the costs of the initiative. When an organization embarks on change, it’s likely that systems, processes, vendors and perhaps even the overall organizational mindset (or mission) will be impacted. Failure to successfully enable sustainable change can lead to an organization losing its competitive advantage.

Select the right projects to support your strategy Selecting the right projects will help you achieve your objectives by realising benefits which support your strategy.

Select the right projects to support your strategy

I have a feeling there will be a lot more blogs on this topic as it challenges the prevalent “iron triangle” or “triple constraint” view of project management, and builds on it. Developers of standard and proprietary methods take note! In the meantime, have a look at The Project Workout, Chapter 3, page 50 and Chapter 15, page 198, in particular.

The secrets of successful programmes

CranfieldI recently went to the International Centre for Programme Management (at Cranfield) for a forum on learning and knowledge management  and as part of that we were given a white paper called “Beating the odds – the secrets of successful programmes”.

The white paper describes the findings from a recent two-year study of 21 major programmes of many types, with varying levels of success in a wide range of organisations in Europe. Those findings explain many of the causes of the differeing levels of programme performance and how business leaders can improve the success rate for their own organizations.

Seldom do I read an article or paper with the words “Yes, yes, yes” ringing in my head. It is packed with useful insights and wisdom, gleaned for the programme teams who took part in the study. The wisdom in this paper won’t be found in methods and processes, they are more about how experienced and skilled people apply them and the issues they face.

I recommend this to any person who considers themselves to be (or aspires to be) a business leader. As expected, there is lots about vision, strategic alignment, business readiness, foggy objectives, stakeholder engagement, business cases, planning and behaviours. If, as a business leaders, you believe you have a great strategy, then good for you. On its own, however, that is not enough. You need to be able to convert your vision and your strategy into action on the ground. Do you have the right mind set, tools, methods to do this?  Read this article and decide for yourself.

This is the executive summary:

  1. Strategic alignment. From the programmes studied, those identified as integral to the future business strategy were all at least partially successful. It could be concluded that the ‘positive’ nature of the programmes’ intentions meant that there was little stakeholder resistance to the initiative and hence the organisation was able to deploy its most capable resources. Senior management and executive involvement was sustained throughout the programme. Conversely those programmes that had primarily ‘reductionist’ intentions, e.g. restructuring to reduce costs or eliminate inefficiencies, were less successful. Executive involvement in the programmes was weak and stakeholders’ commitment quickly waned.
  2. Need and readiness. Interestingly and perhaps counter intuitively, in most of the successful programmes the need was ‘high’ – clearly recognised as a business priority – but initially the readiness was ‘low’. In these the argument for investment and change was endorsed at executive level and time and effort spent at the start to achieve the buy-in of the rest of the organisation and develop the ability to undertake the changes. In the majority of those that were partially successful the readiness appeared to be ‘high’ as well as the need. Why they were not entirely successful is best explained as over-ambition or even over-enthusiasm; rather too many optimistic assumptions were made at the start with little assessment of the potential risks involved.
  3. Value drivers,benefits and business cases. The more successful programmes were also based on a clear strategic driver plus a strong financial business case. Those with weaker strategic drivers but good financial cases gained less commitment and were usually less successful. Very often financial benefits were overestimated, while the risks and the problems in making the changes were underestimated, perhaps because realistic estimates might have made it difficult to secure funds and resources. During the programme, as the scope becomes clearer, this inevitably leads to changes to the costs involved and the benefits that can actually be delivered, but only a minority of organisations revisit the business cases as programmes evolve.
  4. Foggy objectives. Programmes cannot be fully planned in advance and have to adapt to both changing business conditions and programme achievements. This is not necessarily a comfortable position for senior management and requires a knowledgeable, accountable and empowered governance group to oversee and, where necessary, adapt the programme. Rather than decrease during the programme, uncertainty can often even increase, especially due to changes in the external environment.
  5. Planning. Some organisations thought they may have ‘over-planned’ things at the start, due largely to the demands of some stakeholders for detailed plans, which were then not really used. However, the planning activities were seen as essential to bring stakeholders together and for reconciling their different priorities and interests. The process of planning was more important than the plans produced and helped address many of the initial uncertainties.
  6. vision and stakeholders. Having a clear vision of the intended future business and organisational models and then allowing compromises and trade-offs in the detail of how they are implemented, is more likely to achieve stakeholder commitment than imposition. The successful transformation programmes usually addressed the organisational, people and capability aspects first, before dealing with the process and technology aspects. The less successful tried to do the reverse.
  7. Learning and un-learning. Most ‘strategic’ programmes require the development or acquisition of new capabilities and knowledge in order to be carried out successfully. Management generally underestimate how much has to be learned by the organisation and individuals to define, manage and implement a major programme. Introducing new ways of working may also require considerable ‘un-learning’ by large numbers of professional people – not easy to achieve without actually removing the old processes. If the programme relies heavily on the capabilities of suppliers (especially IT suppliers), they may exert undue influence over what is done – the scope and achievable benefits – rather than on how the programme can be successfully delivered.
  8. Realising the benefits. Most business change programmes involve at least two distinct and different phases – first to create a new capability and second to exploit it. In most of the cases the new capability, for example a global HR database or Finance & Accounting Service Centre, was created, but not always used effectively, hence the benefits achieved were often less than those originally envisaged. While creating a new capability can be done ‘off-line’, separately from business as usual, using and exploiting it often competes with other operational priorities or can have negative effects on other aspects of operational performance, as was observed in some of the cases.
  9. Organisation and governance. Programme governance structures and staffing profiles are likely to change significantly over the life cycle. There seem to be three basic approaches to organising programmes: (1) a separate task force, (2) as part of business-as-usual (BaU), or (3) a combination (matrix). Not surprisingly the last of these proves most problematic. Some programmes have dedicated change managers, others have senior managers assigned to the programme, but they can find it difficult to reconcile achieving change at the same time as sustaining performance. Running change programmes in parallel with BaU causes tensions within the organisation and a clear statement of priority for which takes precedence is essential.
  10. Portfolio management. Few organisations, as yet, have the capabilities in place to manage multiple concurrent programmes with varying levels of uncertainty, competing for the same resources over extended periods. No organisation in the study had an effective mechanism in place for managing a combined large portfolio of ‘strategic’ programmes and more traditional projects – although some are trying to address this issue. Managing multiple programmes (Programme Portfolio Management) requires an additional governance structure or regular strategic and operational review and reconciliation at executive level especially if there are programme inter-dependencies or contention for critical and scarce resources.

Do you want to know more?

Cranfield had very kindly let me make the full article available to you here

So why was I saying “yes, yes, yes,” to myself? Many of the lessons are embedded in the Project Workout:

  • vision, strategic alignment: are covered in the gated approach to projects, from the very beginning(Chapters 3 to 11)
  • portfolio management is covered in Project Workout as “Business Programmes” in Chapters14 to 17.
  • business readiness,is a prerequisite for Project Workout’s Ready for Service Gate (page 118)
  • foggy objectives,are discussed in Chapter 12, along with other types of “Eddie Obeng” projects
  • stakeholder engagement,is covered in Chapter 19 as well as threaded throughout the book
  • business case, is at the heart of the Project Workout’s business led approach
  • planning in Chapter 19
  • behaviours are covered in Chapter 18

Of course, in the “real world” these are not isolated activities but happen in a complex network of cause and effect and that is why it is all so difficult to do in practice.

Agile Delivery in Large Enterprises

There is no point in speeding if you are on the wrong road.

There is no point in speeding if you are on the wrong road.

Recently, I went to an “Agile Edge” conference at Valtech to hear Greg Hutchings talk on “Introducing Agile”. Here is what I learned.

You must know WHY you want to “do Agile”
The normal reasons people state for wanting agile are to:
– reduce time to market
– be more flexible
– be more efficient (less cost)
– increase quality.
All very laudable and valid reasons but Greg said there was one, less quoted, which he believed had the greatest leverage  – to increase customer intimacy. By working with customers, you build up a lasting relationship which can survive many of the knocks of corporate life. Business is, at heart, about people working with people. Efficiency is not generally a compelling case for Agile; flexibility and time to market are usually better. If you launch your services early, then your benefits flow earlier, often dwarfing the cost aspects (although costs centre accountants might not look at it that way!).

One thing Greg warned of was not to aim for all those benefits; you’ll just fail. His advice was to choose just one, then aim and focus on it; keep an eye on the others, but don’t let them drive you. He also warned that some things may get worse, but I am sure you “change-savvy” readers know all about that.

Who wants it anyway?
Greg’s key message was, if there is no-one in the Executive (top) level of the company who wants Agile, don’t waste your time. Successful implementations should initially come top down, with the senior leadership team signed up and then management trained on what it’s all about. You can then come bottom up with the training of the practitioners. Why? Agile relies on the right behaviours which, in some organisations, can look very strange or even appear subversive!  (See case study 2, later.)  You also need to make sure your sales force and customer services people are trained, so they can explain effectively to customers what Agile is all about. Finally, traditional contracts may no longer be appropriate as they tend to build in rigidity which works against the flexibility of Agile. Naturally, the customers also have to be involved; if they aren’t, you have no “customer intimacy” and Agile becomes futile!

Big bang or incremental adoption?
Incremental every time! In this way you have the space to “inspect and adapt” your approaches to suit your organisation. Greg did come across a company where they successfully implemented a pilot in three months and the senior leadership team was so impressed, the rest of the company was instructed to roll it out in the next three months. The manager commented that he did it . . . . but it was nowhere near as well done as the first tranche, as he was pushed to hit schedule deadlines rather than make sure it was right. It seems his leadership team had the view that new methods can be turned on and off like a switch. Will we ever learn?

There is no substitute for face to face working
One question from the floor concerned the trend for distributed, remote and home working. Greg was very clear that despite having wikis, teleconferencing, and all that stuff, there is no substitute for face to face work for critical activities. The hidden cost to an organisation of not letting people truly work together can be vast.

Case study 1 – FAILURE
Agile was implemented bottom up on an incremental basis. There was no top-down support. The consultants were removed from the company as what was exposed during the implementation work was too embarrassing for the incumbent Vice President. The implementation had no top down sponsorship nor effective governance. Most of the staff involved were fired. Six months later the Vice President in charge of the area lost his job for covering up some critical business issues. That company now has new leadership and is getting on much better . . . and adopting Agile.

Case study 2 – you’ll die waiting
The second case study is a large, global industrial company. They had executive sponsorship, a core team to implement it but very few people engaged in the outer global reaches of the company. After four years, they decided that Agile was a valid approach to IT development and may be used!

Case study 3 – A large telco – SUCCESS!

This organisation had executive sponsorship, a core team to lead and manage the implementation and good geographic representation. They focussed on product development but were careful to choose which developments in their portfolio would benefit most. They discounted the products at the end of their life-cycle, the cash cows and the highly innovative. They focussed on the others.

. . . . and then Greg ran out of time.

Summing it up
My own view is that I can’t see many customers wanting a fixed timescale and price for a variable output from their contractors. So, going in with the approach with an unconvinced customer may be dodgy. Often, however, a company will have many long term contracts which include “future services” clauses to cover stuff the customer wants but hasn’t a clue as to what the real requirements will be. Surely this is the opportunity space for using Agile?

Business change through effective sponsorship

Is leading from the front always right?

All organisations have to change at some time, some more frequently than others. Something, somewhere always needs to be created or improved. Many leading organisations are now directing and managing change by using business-led, programme and project management techniques. As organisations have become more integrated through the use of complex systems and processes, the effectiveness of managing change through the traditional functional hierarchy has diminished. Programmes and projects, in the modern sense, are now strategic management tools, ideally suited to the complex organisations of today. Business leaders ignore the newly reborn discipline of enterprise-wide programme and project management at their peril. It is no longer the preserve of specialists in the engineering or IT sectors, but something every director and manager should have in their ‘tool box’. Well directed and managed programmes and projects enable an organisation to react and adapt speedily to meet the challenges of the competitive environment, ensuring the organisation drives towards attainable and visible corporate goals. Effective business-led programme and project management will increase the likelihood of business success by ensuring visibility, accountability and control over business change activities. In particular by:

  • linking business needs directly to visible actions plans;
  • enabling you to manage across every department in your organisation;
  • ensuring accountability can be assigned, safe in the knowledge any gaps are covered;
  • providing a flexible and responsive method to respond to changing needs;
  • focusing on priorities;
  • enabling you to track progress toward your business objectives.

It is not just the “project geeks” saying this now, but also strategy consultants, like McKinsey & Co. All senior executives should be leaders of change within the organisation. For some this may be a new experience. They will be in the position of advocating a new order, acting in the interest of the wider company needs rather than those of the department or line director they serve. For the first time, they may be operating outside their own departmental or functional structure. They will have to work with people they don’t have direct authority over and this may require all their influencing and leadership skills if they are to achieve their aims.

To summarise, the sponsor is the business advocate accountable for directing a programme or project to ensure the business objectives are met and benefits realised. In simple terms the sponsor role can be referred, exactly as that:

  • Programme sponsor
  • Project sponsor.

The UK public sector calls the roles “Project Executive”, for a project and “Senior Responsible Owner” for a programme. These are derived from the MSP and PRINCE2 methodologies respectively.

If I am a programme or project manager, what can I expect of my sponsor?  And what can I do if he or she doesn’t meet those expectations? You should expect your sponsor to:

  • Take an interest – their interest! It’s their programme or project!
  • Communicate their vision;
  • Be clear on what outcomes they need;
  • Agree the governance;
  • Keep you informed of the business context;
  • Challenge you;
  • Be realistic;
  • Make decisions and give you direction; and
  • Accept that all risks are their risks!

If you don’t get what you need, try acting as if they are the perfect sponsor:

Remember it’s “their project”, not yours;

  • Make your “personal contract” with them;
  • Assume they want to undertake their role;
  • Make requests for direction and decisions;
  • Look at the world through their eyes – outcomes and benefits;
  • Make the risks plain – their risks;
  • Report the world through their eyes;
  • Don’t assume or expect them to understand your “jargon”; and
  • Don’t try to take over their role.

You can read the full article from the Project Workout Community, articles section. In the meantime, who do you think is accountable for “making change happen”? Is there a simple answer? Is a project manager a change manager? Is a change manager a project manager? I suspect it all depends on how you views those words.