How To Improve Execution

3 Project Management Traps To Guard Against

From digital transformation to Elon Musk’s vision to travel to Mars, a lack of vision is no longer the problem for corporate executives. Today, the real problem is execution. In many cases, the execution burden falls on the shoulders of project managers. Unfortunately, many executives are unsure how to manage their projects and project managers effectively.

Unfortunately, a majority of executives are dropping the ball in sponsoring projects. A KPMG survey reported by the Project Management Institute found that 68% of companies lack effective project sponsors. Executives are preoccupied with their “day job” responsibilities and often neglect project work as a secondary priority.

These skill gaps in project management translate into bottom line impact. Recent research from the Project Management Institute finds that: “Organizations are wasting an average of $97 million for every $1 billion invested, due to poor project performance.”

Typically, project managers have to corral people across the organization to ship their projects. Further, most project managers do not have any staff permanently assigned to them for support. Therefore, your project managers rely on executive support to break through barriers.

If you’re managing a critical initiative for your enterprise this year, use these strategies to guide your project managers to success. Let’s take a look inside the inner psychology that sometimes holds project managers back from success.

Trap 1: Drowning In Project Management Process

Project managers are known for their adherence to best practices – schedules, project charters, meetings and governance. Those processes add value insofar as they prevent important matters from being forgotten. Left unchecked by a thoughtful executive, project managers may become overly fixated on their processes.

Here are symptoms that you may have too much process:

  • Is your project manager preoccupied on “ticking the box” for the Project Management Office at the expense of project delivery?
  • Are you frustrated by jargon filled responses whenever you ask about the status of the project?

To steer your project managers away from this trap, use this strategy:

Ask your project managers what they would be most proud of reporting to the CEO about the project? That question will focus them on the right priority.

Trap 2: Your Project Managers Are Unwilling To Rock The Boat

Project managers are incentivized to develop great relationships. For the most part, that’s an excellent tendency to encourage. After all, strong relationships allow the project manager to win support from other departments. Like any strength, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Executives know there is a time and place for conflict. For example, calling out a subject matter expert for failing to provide advice and support to a project. Or bluntly informing a vendor that you will have to pursue legal action if they fail to deliver on their contractual responsibilities. A willingness to confront people in the right way on projects is absolutely critical.

Keep an eye out for these symptoms of a “too nice” project manager:

  • Endless follow ups. If your project manager has followed up on a late task more than twice, it is time for a different approach like going up the chain of command.
  • Unexpressed frustration. If you notice your project manager becoming more frustrated in their work, ask why. They may be sitting on a problem and not bringing up for review.

Give your project managers permission to raise problems and conflict with you:

“My role is to make tough decisions in the organization. However, I rely on you to provide me with quality information – including bad news whenever it happens – to make good decisions. If you or someone on the project makes a mistake, please come to me that day.”

Trap 3 : Challenge Misleading or Overly Positive Reports

In the course of sponsoring projects, you will receive status updates and similar documents on a regular basis. Some executives look at these documents for a few minutes before the meeting and then forget all about them. That’s a missed opportunity.

Why is that cursory approach to project reports ineffective?

A quick glance means you are likely to fall victim to the “watermelon report” problem. That’s a term I learned from a top project manager at IBM. At first glance, the project appears to be “green” (i.e. no problems and on schedule). However, when you dig deeper you find the project is “red” (i.e. over budget and behind schedule) on the inside.

Use these methods to challenge the overly positive project reports and presentations:

  • What risks have changed in the past month? Have any been eliminated or grown worse? Why?
  • Are you receiving the support you need from other departments to succeed? Is there anyone you would highlight as a risk to the project or an especially valuable asset?
  • I noticed that project spending significantly increased last month compared to the plan. Why did that happen?

By following these strategies and avoiding these common project management traps, you can guard against problems and get more successful projects.

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