The only purpose of undertaking a project or program is to have the deliverables it creates used by the organisation (or customer) to create value. Certainly value can be measured in many different ways—improved quality or safety, reduced effort or errors, increased profits or achieving regulatory compliance—the measure is not important, what matters is the work of the project is intended to create value. But this value can only be realised if the new process or artefact ‘delivered’ by the project is actually used to achieve the intended improvements.
The organisation’s executive has a central role of in this process. There is a direct link between the organisation’s decision to make an investment in a selected project and the need for the organisation to adapt so it can make effective use of the deliverables and, as a consequence of the change, generate the intended benefits and create a valuable return on the initial investment. The work of the project is a key link in the middle of this value creation chain, but the strength of the whole chain is measured by its weakest link: a failure at any stage can result in lost value.
In a perfect world, the degree of understanding, knowledge and commitment would increase the higher up the organisational ladder you go. In reality, much of the in-depth knowledge and commitment is embedded in the project team and the challenge is moving this knowledge out into the other areas of the business so that the whole ‘value chain’ can work effectively. To achieve this, the project team needs to be able to ‘advise upwards’ effectively so its executive managers understand the potential value that can be generated and work to ensure their organisation makes effective use of the project’s deliverables.
An effective project sponsor is the direct link between the executive and the project or program and has a key role to play in this process. Working from the top down, an effective sponsor can ensure the project team fully understands the business objectives for which the project has been created and work with the team to ensure the way the project fulfils its charter will maximise the opportunity for the organisation to create value.
Working from the bottom up, new insights, learning and experience from the ‘coal face’ need to be communicated back to the executive so that the overall organisational objectives can be managed based on the actual situation encountered within the work of the project.
The critical importance of the role of the sponsor has been reinforced by findings reported in PMI’s 2012 Pulse of the Profession report (download PDF here). According to the report, 75% of high performance organisations have active sponsors on 80% of more of their projects. An effective sponsor is crucial to ensuring top-level management support for the project, contributes to the project’s success and is critical to achieving the ultimate goal of generating a valuable return on the initial investment.
If your project has an effective sponsor, make full use of the support. The challenge facing the rest of us is persuading less effective sponsors to improve their level of support: you cannot fire your manager!
How to manage your sponsor
The solution is to work with other project managers and teams within your organisation to create a conversation about value. This is a very different proposition to being simply ‘on-time, on-scope and on-budget’; it’s about the ultimate value to the organisation created by using the outputs from its projects and programs. The key phrase is: “How we can help make our organisation better!”
To influence executives within this conversation, the right sort of evidence is important; benchmarking your organisation against its competitors is a good start, as is understanding what ‘high performance’ organisations do.
The other key aspect of advising upwards is linking the information you bring into the conversation with the needs of the organisation and showing your organisation’s executive how this can provide direct benefits.
In this respect, the current tight economic conditions in most of the world are an advantage: organisations need to do more with less to stay competitive, or stay effective in the public service. Developing the skills of project sponsors so that they actively assist their projects to be more successful is one proven way to achieve a significant improvement with minimal cost; in fact, if projects are supported more effectively there may well be cost savings and increased value at the same time.
What’s in it for us as project managers? The answer is we have a much improved working environment—everyone wins.
The challenge for many project managers is learning to speak ‘executive language’ because advising upwards effectively is a core skill. Do you think you can start a drive to generate this type of improvement in your organisation?