We know that the active and sustained participation of a project’s decision makers is the primary contributor to project success. Even Project Management Institute (PMI) research reveals “that having actively engaged executive sponsors is the top driver of project success.” So what does it mean to have actively engaged executives and how does one ensure that their project’s decision makers are, in fact, actively engaged? Measure their level of satisfaction, of course!
In this case, we’ll see how a project manager, frustrated with the lack of key stakeholder commitment and availability, used a comprehensive decision framework and frequent measurement and reporting of satisfaction levels to force active engagement and steer a troubled start to a celebrated and successful conclusion . Disclosure: I did have a couple of phone conversations with the PM and one two hour meeting with the PM and two key members of the team early on. That was the extent of my involvement.
Thanks to M.A. for the insights on this story.
This pharmaceutical company had made a number of acquisitions over the years but had not rationalized the operating processes and technologies of the acquired companies. The CEO recognized the increasing burden this mishmash of practices and systems was having on the overall effectiveness of the organization – increased costs for redundant software and services, a significant drag on productivity and a costly impediment to the realization of corporate strategies.
The CEO targeted the consolidation of business processes and supporting technologies, what he called the Refresh project, as a top priority and believed he had the support of his executive team. In fact, the VP’s had agreed to defer a number of priority projects to focus on the Refresh undertaking, believing that their initiatives would be simplified and less costly to implement on the upgraded processes and infrastructure.
The CEO worked with the CFO and his PMO director to select an appropriate PM to lead the Refresh project. They picked an in-house PM with a stellar track record, good contacts with the affected organizations and an understanding of the processes and technologies that would be addressed by the project. The CEO then gathered his executive team and their direct reports together, reviewed his expectations for the project, introduced the new PM and asked for everyone’s support. The Refresh project was underway!
The Refresh project was to deliver one set of processes and a homogeneous infrastructure across all operating units. The CEO set a target to have the project wrapped up within eighteen months. While there were no project estimates as yet, he had put a target maximum of $4 million on the endeavour. At that price, he expected to get a payback within two years. He also decreed interim implementations every four to six months to reduce risk and accelerate value delivery.
The new Refresh PM, we’ll call her Elizabeth, was excited. She had an engaged and enthusiastic sponsor in the CEO. All the key decision makers were in attendance at the launch and apparently fully supportive of the endeavor. She had a sizeable cost target to manage within and what seemed to be a reasonable target date. So off she went.
She pulled together a small team to help build the charter and project plan. However, as she approached the VP’s to get the needed staff, she ran into varied responses. The CIO and CFO responded immediately and provided their top talent. Two of the operational VP’s responded in a similar fashion. However, the remaining two VP’s were much more difficult to connect with, were reluctant to provide the necessary staff and didn’t offer their top talent. In fact one of these VP’s never did respond in spite of numerous emails and phone messages.
Approval of the project charter and plan was also problematic even though the material was presented to the executive committee and individual reviews were offered to those who had concerns. Like the staffing experience, the CEO, CFO, CIO and two of the operational VP’s responded quickly. The others were laggards and by some of the feedback, it was evident that they had not reviewed the material in depth. Elizabeth was becoming concerned. She was only six weeks into the project but was already experiencing commitment challenges with key decision makers. She decided to try something different.
Elizabeth was aware of Project Pre-Check, a stakeholder management practice, through a course she had attended a number of months previously. The practice measures key stakeholder satisfaction on a broad range of project and change related items called decision areas in a comprehensive decision framework. She believed its use could improve the response and engagement of the laggard VP’s and facilitate consensus across all the stakeholders by soliciting their views at a granular level and reporting the findings and evolution of the results to the executive team on a regular basis.
She downloaded the material from the Project Pre-Check website and called me to get my opinion on her planned approach. I agreed. She then completed the questionnaire herself and, with that experience under her belt, decided to review her plan with the CEO first. When she met with the CEO, he insisted that he go through the exercise himself. She scheduled a one hour follow-up meeting. The full questionnaire contains 125 decision areas (organized within four domains and eighteen factors) and asks for opinions on relevance, accountability and satisfaction on each. Forty-five minutes into their meeting, Elizabeth pointed out that they had covered barley half of the decision areas and perhaps they should spend the remaining fifteen minutes on reviewing the process and her plans going forward. The CEO called out to his assistant to rebook his next meeting and told the PM to keep going. He wanted to finish the whole thing.
It took another forty-five minutes to complete the questionnaire. The CEO was pumped. They agreed to cut the questionnaire back to the fifty-seven decision areas they both felt were relevant to their project. They could add or delete as new views came in and the project progressed. The CEO also encouraged Elizabeth to get the results from the other executives as soon as possible and agreed to send out a message to the executive team asking them to expedite the process.
Elizabeth proceeded to meet with each of the executives to gather their views on relevance, accountability and satisfaction on each of the fifty-seven decision areas. A week later, she had covered all but one of the VP’s, one of the original laggards. When she reviewed the results with the CEO, he noticed the report did not include any results for the laggard VP and ask why. When she explained, the CEO suggested she try him again the next day. Elizabeth did call him and found the laggard VP most cooperative. Sponsor influence in action!
Elizabeth also decided to survey her own team to see how their views of the project related to the executives’ perspectives. She sliced and diced the results for the executives and her team a number of different ways to gain insight into the collective views and the issues that needed to be addressed. Some of the results from the first iteration are shown below:
The stakeholders were asked to determine the relevance of a given decision area (e.g. business goals and objectives) to the Refresh project. A “Don’t Know” response simply indicated that the stakeholder needed more information or deliberation before making a call.
On the Refresh project, the fourteen “Not Relevant” and the four “Don’t Know” results were driven by her team. The executives felt that all fifty-seven decision areas were relevant. Elizabeth facilitated the discussion with the CEO and her team to explain the rationale. In the end, her team understood the relevance of the fifty-seven.
One of the keys for effective ongoing project performance is to understand which stakeholder has the final authority to make decisions on each of the relevant decision areas.
On the Refresh project, there was wide disagreement initially on who was accountable for what, with 242 selections for the fifty-seven decision areas. Again, the PM facilitated the resolution of accountability so there were only fifty-seven specific accountabilities, one for each decision area. The CEO was accountable for the business related decision areas, the CIO for the technology related ones and the PM for the project related ones.
The executives and team members were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with the current state of each decision area on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is Dissatisfied and 5 is Completely Satisfied. One of the key elements of this assessment was to base the judgement on specific evidence or products (e.g. a report, presentation deck, email, video, prototype, etc.)
The Refresh project results presented a typical early project range, from a low of 2.2 to a high of 3.8 among the executives and a low of 1.5 to a high of 4 among team members. As Elizabeth and her team explored the reasons for the variations, she found some of the high scores were not evidence based and the stakeholders reduced their assessment accordingly. In other situations where the evidence existed, sharing the products with others resulted in upward adjustments across the board.
As the assessments were rationalized and the gaps identified, the PM updated the plan to reflect the work needed to bring satisfaction levels up to the target of 4.0 or greater for all decision areas. She continued to survey the stakeholders on relevance and satisfaction and reported the results to the executives and her team on a monthly basis. It was a very action oriented exercise with the outliers visible at a glance.
The project progressed with converging assessments across the board. The most contentious issues focused around technology alternatives and business process design, highlighted clearly in the stakeholder assessment results. That made it much easier to get the executives’ attention and, eventually, agreement on the way forward. The executives were committed, even the former laggards. Her team had crystal clear guidance throughout.
The project was completed in the planned eighteen months at a cost of $2.8 million, significantly below the target cost of $4 million. Implementation was phased on a process by process basis with implementations every four to six months reducing risks and accelerating value delivery, reducing the payback period to fourteen months. There were no outages, minimal rework and an essentially seamless transition to the new world. Terrific results!
However, what Elizabeth found most revealing in her post implementation review was this – there was no need for the post implementation review. The challenges, issues and opportunities that would normally be revealed in a project post mortem were identified and dealt with during the course of the project, by getting and maintaining agreement on decision area relevance and accountabilities and by resolving satisfaction gaps as they were disclosed. Additionally, the executive ownership for the undertaking was palpable. They knew, at a granular level, what was being done and why. And they were eminently satisfied! Even the former laggards. The final satisfaction scores: for the executives – 4.5, for the team – 4.8.
How Great Leadership Achieved Success
There’s a lot of talk these days about the vital role executives play in project success. Elizabeth took it one step further. She measured and reported executive satisfaction. That act garnered an accountability transformation. It wasn’t her project any more. It was theirs. They looked after the Five W’s (the Who, When, What, Where and Why decisions) on the business and technology transformation. That allowed Elizabeth and her team to focus on How.
How did she manage that evolution? Five simple steps:
- She identified the key decision-makers: the CEO as sponsor, the CFO, CIO and four VP’s as targets.
- She engaged these key decision-makers. They knew why they were involved, what their responsibilities were and ultimately took it upon themselves to understand the proposals, issues and options on all fronts and work to achieve consensus.
- She leveraged a proven practice to measure and manage the satisfaction levels of the key decision makers and her team. She didn’t have just one satisfaction measure. She had fifty-seven relevant points of light covering the breadth and depth of the change.
- She used the satisfaction results to drive the plan and build consensus on the issues that were disclosed
- She tracked relevance, accountability and satisfaction on a monthly basis until they became the primary metrics on project progress. Sure, budget, schedule, scope, risk, resources and quality were tracked and reported. But satisfaction became the litmus test.
Elizabeth’s satisfaction tracking and reporting transformed the experience for everyone, engendered active participation and turned the key decision makers into project owners. It was a terrific process leading to a great result. So, please, put these points on your checklist of things to do in future endeavours so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering stakeholder, the engagement and collaboration process and decision area best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.
Finally, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, past or present, that you’d like to have examined through the Project Pre-Check lens and published in this blog, don’t be shy! Send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, we’ll post it so others can learn from your experiences. Thanks
Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a blogger on Project Times. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project deliver. He is also the author of Project Pre-Check – The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath – The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. Drew works with organizations to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org