Successful Project Management at the Executive Level
By Sabah al-Binali
The dream: A management team meets to deal with an opportunity or challenge. After some discussion a decision is made. Goals are decided. A project leader is appointed. A short number of weeks later the project leader calls a management meeting to present his deliverables. Management agrees that the deliverables have been met. The project is closed.
The reality (you know where this is going, don’t you?): A management team meets to deal with an opportunity or challenge. After some discussion a decision is made. Goals are decided. A project leader is appointed. Time passes. Nothing happens. The opportunity starts fading, or the challenge gets worse. More management meetings are called. The team leader gives his excuses. Management update the goals. This cycle is iterated until the opportunity disappears or the challenge becomes a crisis.
This happens repeatedly in nearly every company that I have seen. It doesn’t get resolved because executives think the solution is to hire professional project managers. Yes, you read that correctly, professional project managers are the reason that executives can’t manage projects.
The problem here is the difference in complexity of projects run by executives versus those run by professional project managers. This in turn drives the complexity of the tools needed. Applying mission critical project management tools to designing and executing the first moon landing is completely different from a project to roll out a new marketing campaign.
The choice that the average executive faces in terms of tools and techniques is unfamiliar software that requires hundreds if not thousands of inputs and near real-time updates, all the way to Microsoft Outlook, i.e. email and a to do list. So what can be used as the middle ground?
Executive Project Process
The overall project process for an executive project is similar to that of a formal project. I’ll discuss some of the important elements that might differ or should be highlighted in this process.
Absolute clarity as to why the project is necessary is important, otherwise you end up with zombie projects all over the place that use up resources but never finish. This means not only clarity on goals but also on what existing alternatives might exist that satisfy the needs of the business.
Major goals and constraints need to also be clarified and implicit assumptions identified. Once all of this is done then a second sign off from management is necessary. This might sound bureaucratic but it saves a lot of time and energy down the line.
The work break down structure, or listing every single task necessary to complete the project, is rarely necessary for an executive project. Major milestones need to be identified and, to borrow a concept from [Getting Things Done], [next actions] need to be identified.
Determining the next actions in a project, i.e. the smallest tasks that need to be accomplished to move the project forward to the next step, is far more difficult than it seems. The reason is that we have been brainwashed from childhood to believe that “Do Homework” is a task. It isn’t, it’s a mini-project.
More importantly the project team will rarely agree on what the next action is. Invite two friends over and try to assemble an IKEA cabinet. I predict that you’ll get into an argument in the first 30 seconds, and that’s with detailed instructions.
For the executive project there are three main issues here. The first is to hold a project meeting every one to two weeks when the previous meeting’s next actions are reviewed and new next actions are agreed. A simple rule of thumb that actions more than a week overdue are red-flagged helps keep things moving.
The second issue is that everything material needs to be documented and quickly circulated no more than 24 hours later. This keeps momentum going on the project.
The last issue is stakeholder communication. At the executive level corporate politics is lethal. Stakeholders need to be continually appraised individually and collectively both informally and formally to ensure that the project remains healthy and relevant.
Political integration of the deliverables is the final issue that an executive faces when managing projects. There is no use providing an operational deliverable if it is not then politically accepted. It is naive to think that simply meeting all technical goals of the project is enough, a political integration campaign needs to then be launched to have the deliverables deployed.
Lessons from Experience
The absolute key to successful executive project management is the ability of the project team to effectively determine the next action and to do it on a regular basis. For those of you with a project management background this is just the work breakdown structure distributed over time.
The other main issue is monitoring delays. If a task is delayed more than two days then team members need to be trained to immediately seek help from the project manager. In terms of where the problem lies, the first thing to review is if the assigned next action is actionable and if it is truly the next step, i.e. there are no antecedents.
If an executive level project team is having trouble and is looking for training, then they should hire a professional project manager but should tailor the training to their needs.
The focus should be on being able to develop next actions. Lots of practice and case studies would be useful here, and the professionals certainly have plenty of them. This would also be a good exercise to practice estimating resource needs per task, especially the time required to complete the task.
Other training that would be useful would be exercises and case studies in reviewing stalled tasks and analysing what the issue is as well as how to resolve it.
There are exceptions to this less rigorous approach to executive project management. With complex projects or high risk projects executive project managers should revert to more formal approaches of project management and this is where professional project managers become invaluable.
In the financial services industry operationally complex projects involve such areas as IT and brokerage operations. High risk projects include anything with high regulatory scrutiny and operations relating to large or frequent client or proprietary funds.
Project management tools range from pen and paper to electronic task lists to spreadsheets to dedicated project management software. The techniques are similarly varied. Success comes from selecting the right tools and techniques not just for the project at hand but in terms of your whole project portfolio.
Removing project management complexity that is not necessary to your project not only reduces costs and time to delivery but also greatly improves the probability of success. Simple tools and techniques are more likely to be learned, retained and applied correctly.
Dr. Sabah Hamad Al-Sabah Al-Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader, with a track record of financing, building and growing companies in the MENA region.
He has held several senior positions in the finance industry including Chief Investment Officer of and CEO of Credit at Shuaa Capital, founding CEO and CIO of Saffar Capital and Head of the Treasury and Investment Division at Union National Bank.
Dr. Al-Binali has also held several board positions including Vice Chairman of Gulf Finance Co., Chairman of Gulf Installments Co., Vice-Chairman of Shuaa Capital Saudi Arabia, Director of the Board at Credit Suisse Saudi Arabia, Chairman of Zawya as well as Director of the Board at Visa International CEMA Region.
You can read more from Dr. Al-Binali on his blog.