Project Control; myth, fantasy or a great big gap?

I suggested in a recent Blog  that senior managers should can carry out their governance role more effectively. I had a couple of direct emails from people saying they agreed, but what should the senior manager (sponsor) be doing?

One of the people suggested the detail of role people play depends upon the project underway. I have no problem with this concept except….the detail of the role should be written down. There is a need to be clear who does what, who has responsibility for an activity and who is ultimately accountable. I do not believe in long winded job descriptions however there needs to be some clarity.

So what can you do about the role senior manager’s play in projects? Let’s re-visit and extend my earlier suggestion:

1. open discussions at an early stage with senior managers about project roles

• using the discussions as a base identify who fulfils which roles (you could even draw up a RACI table)

• put the roles on your documentation such as the project initiation document

2. review how the roles are working out at your project meetings. Have this as a standing item on your project agenda meetings and surface any issues.

3. identify those role related issues that are causing “problems”

4. openly discuss what is happening either in the meeting or face to face with the individual

5. resolve the issue(s)

Now I am not naïve and I am aware that to solve issues such as those described will take a lot more than the 5 points above. It needs someone to put their head above the parapet and raise the issue. It needs the use of good interpersonal skills and it needs people to recognise that clear roles can have a good impact on project outputs.

The issue of project roles is a frequent cause of comment on project management events I run. The comments are rarely complimentary and usually involve people in saying they are not always clear on the role they play and the decisions they can make.

Let’s change this!!

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4 Responses to Project Control; myth, fantasy or a great big gap?

  1. I’d add: senior manager or sponsor should be decisive and give all needed feedback to project team as soon as possible. Sometimes we focus on telling people who should do what but we forget about everyday project tasks.

    Sometimes PM needs a decision which path should be chosen fast (e.g. about some hardware order which overruns planned budget) but can’t reach any clear message which makes project stopped waiting for a decision form a manager. Another example is a typical problem with stakeholders when team uses agile techniques – a stakeholder is reluctant to give his feedback about job already done so team has to decide whether the direction is good on their own. At the end it appears that if the stakeholder had delivered early feedback project would have avoided serious problems at the end.

  2. I wonder if there is sometimes too much theory/abstraction when it comes to sponsor ‘roles’.
    I’ve found that sponsors are usually driven by real business outcomes, and are often under pressure from many sides. They rarely have time or interest to discuss what their ‘role’ is in the project.
    In my experience, the effective project manager understands the sponsor’s position, and gets very specific and concise about what exactly it is that he needs the sponsor to actually do, and the consequences/implications of inaction.
    A PM who expects all sponsors to cooperate based on understanding their role will usually end up frustrated. This is a failure to communicate expectations.

  3. Ron says:

    Thanks Pawell and Mike for your contrasting comments.

    I receive many comments from people on project management training events and I can guarantee that the role of project sponsor will be one of them. Yes, I agree that the effective project manager understands the sponsor’s position. However, I am not sure that this is the other way around! From work we have done Sponsors do not always understand their role exemplified by the poor effectiveness of project boards. One final point; many people tell us that the lack of sponsor involvement is impacting on the project. I have suggested they put this onto their risk log explaining why to the sponsor…….


  4. The role of sponsor depends much on a methodology you choose. The closer you are to heavy-weight highly-formalized technique the more you need up front from you project sponsors. This way they have work to do at the beginning (specifying detailed requirements) and at the end of a project (verifying whether the project meets its goals).

    On the other hand if you are agile you expect to have active sponsors who deliver their feedback early and often. That’s one of principles of agile approach: “the change is welcome.”

    Having said that, I agree with Mike that project sponsors often neither have time nor interest to discuss how their role should look like. Most of the time they stick to old waterfallish picture of project sponsor who doesn’t really care how the project is developed as far as it meets specified requirements. As far as your project team expects this kind of behavior – fine. If you expect however different actions you have some issues to resolve. You have to either convince the sponsor to act other way or emulate his role within your team. Either way if you gathered just coarse-grained requirements at the beginning, which is a standard technique in agile approach, you lack information you need to gather.

    I gave this example since it’s often overlooked by agile evangelists and I find the situation quite common, especially in big companies.

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