Project Managers almost always report to someone in a higher pay grade with the stature to drive a change through the organizational silos to success. That’s often a necessary requirement for successful change but it can also lead to a power imbalance and, ultimately, project failure. The important thing to remember as a project manager is speaking truth to power.
In this post, we’ll look at a project that had a great PM but a remote and uninvolved sponsor. Fortunately, the PM persisted with some critical yet fundamental practices, sometimes in the face of fierce executive resistance, to achieve success. That’s why I call this post Speaking Truth to Power!
This organization was a large international financial services firm with world-wide operations. Because it was listed on a US stock exchange, it was required to comply with the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). The bill was enacted in the US in 2002 as a reaction to a number of major corporate and accounting scandals including those affecting Enron, WorldCom and others.
The legislation not only affected the financial side of corporations, it also affects the IT departments whose job it is to store a corporation’s electronic records. SOX required all business records, including electronic records and electronic messages, to be saved for “not less than five years.” The consequences for non-compliance were fines, imprisonment, or both. IT departments were increasingly faced with the challenge of creating and maintaining a corporate records archive in a cost-effective fashion that satisfied the requirements put forth by the legislation.
The organization launched a SOX program that included nine separate projects to address all lines of business and corporate functions. The PM running the Individual line of business SOX initiative departed nine months before the targeted and required completion date and so the company hired a contract PM to pick up the reins and see the project through to completion. All of the nine projects reported a Green status – everything going according to plan – from the inception of the program.
Before even starting on the job, the new contract PM read everything he could about SOX, the motivation, the risks, the penalties for non-compliance and what other companies were doing to address the challenge. On assuming his role as PM and with only 9 months remaining, he talked to the project’s stakeholders and project staff and discovered the following:
- The stakeholders and project staff had little or no knowledge of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and its implications for the organization.
- Managers were including their own personal agendas and pet projects under the umbrella of the SOX initiative, swelling the effort, costs and risk.
- There was no believable plan in place, no risk plan, incomplete testing and acceptance plans and inadequate resourcing. In short, there was absolutely no justification for a Green status.
- To compound the challenge, the program sponsor, the corporate CFO, was not available to PM’s. They were required to report through their respective line of business CIO’s.
At the end of his first week on the job, the contract PM filed his first status report, with a status of RED. That colour would grace all the status reports for the following ten weeks. He endured pressure from his stakeholders to change the colour – not fix the project, just change the colour -because they were feeling the heat from the CFO. He was threatened with termination. He was berated, challenged and accused of incompetence. But he held his ground. Gradually, he was able to equip the stakeholders with an understanding of SOX, get their agreement on project scope, cut the pork barrel add-ons, develop a comprehensive plan to deliver on target, get the right resources and, after almost 3 months on the job, report his first Green status.
As the ultimate testimony to his achievement, his project was the only one of the nine SOX initiatives to deliver on plan! Ironically, after all the abuse he took in the first couple of months on the job, he was offered a follow-on contract. He declined!
How This Great PM Achieved Success
This organization, or at least the CFO and his reports, was more interested in the look of things than in actively managing a complex change. That’s a very difficult environment for PM’s. Not only do they have to get the job done, they have to battle the corporate or division culture. Also, it’s probably a more difficult challenge for employees than contract PM’s. However, great PM’s will always speak truth to power regardless of their employment status.
In this case, the PM focused on a few key changes to achieve success:
- He identified and molded the key stakeholders into the effective decision-making group he needed for success.
- He equipped them with the SOX knowledge and an understanding of the organizational impact necessary to make decisions on scope and priority.
- He adopted a project reporting scheme that objectively determined the colour of the status report and ensured the stakeholders were on side with the criteria used. That took some executive heat off him in the second and third months and encouraged the decision makers to focus on the issues rather than his judgement.
- He leveraged the CFO’s wrath to secure the right staff, with the right skills at the right time. That some other, concurrent, non-SOX projects took a hit was not his concern.
Fortunately, in this situation, the contract PM was able to leverage the Project Pre-Check fundamentals of stakeholders, defined processes and a best practice based decision framework to achieve great results. And, he didn’t hesitate to speak truth to power. So, if you find yourself in similar circumstances, put these points on your checklist of things to do so you too can be a great PM, and your sponsor’s best friend.
In the interim, 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, send me the details and we’ll have a go.
Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, 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. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org