Saturday, February 22, 2014

Is your sponsor really an executive, and does it matter?

Most of our governance best practices place very high value on the effectiveness of the executive sponsor and/or decision board. What if true executives are disappearing?

The role of the executive. whether in the organization or in the specific context of governance, is to make decisions that have significance, can be implemented, and will stick.

The literature assumes that "executives" are as a matter of definition sufficiently well-placed in the organization to provide "top cover" or "air support".  As this story line goes, the executive has a strong interest in the success of the investments (projects, if you will) because they are accountable for that success. They understand the business drivers, and are able to determine the balance between speed, cost and quality. When things need to be smoothed over, a few words between executives can result in a remarkable increase in cross-group cooperation.  When a project manager needs a bit of support, the mere possibility of the executive having to get involved serves as a major deterrent. When project managers have the opportunity of presenting their project at milestone reviews, it can be a make-or-break moment; that in turn provides the governance staff (PM, security, etc.) with the opportunity to help the PMs get through those reviews.  If unfortunate events occur, the executive may be able to reach into some sort of reserve fund, or at least reshuffle priorities across other activities, to allow resources to move to where they are needed.  And, when the project is successful, the sponsor has some ability to set the corporate rewards machine to flowing.

In order to have these capabilities, the executives must:

  • Be fully accountable for the success of their initiatives.
  • Have the ear of the top executives.  
  • Have quite a bit of discretion to act, or not act.
  • Have discretionary resources.
  • Have some control over their time.  If "managing by walking around" was rare when it had to be written about, it is very much rarer today. I am starting to think that this is the single biggest factor that distinguishes an executive from an overpaid middle manager.
But it has been my observation that fewer and fewer executives have these resources.  Why?

  • More meetings, more paperwork, more meetings, more rules, more meetings.  Maybe the flood of "information", all requiring reading, digestion and collaboration, has achieved critical mass. If the executives do not have time to participate meaningfully, how meaningful is their participation?
  • Rules.  Ever-increasing compliance requirements are being levied on both the technical work and the basic processes for managing the organization itself.  Organizations are run by rules, not by leaders.  (Of course, one might argue that the events in so many private and public organizations over the past 10 years provide clear evidence that rules are a poor but necessary alternative where leadership is completely lacking).
  • As a sub-set of "rules", there is not much in the way of overt discretionary funding.  A lot of deals get made under the table, which undermines governance even further, but the modern executive doesn't seem to have the resources to make an impact on a project once it is launched.  They most certainly do not seem to have any way of rewarding the project team for a job well done, except perhaps to mentor one or two them to more important roles as the executive herself moves up the organization (or to others).
  • It does seem to me that executives are increasingly insulated by politics (internal, not partisan) from any real accountability.  They take the bonuses and nobody at the top gets fired, even if things do not go well.  Rocking the boat just gets the executive chucked out of it; sinking quietly yields a generous severance or pension.

What do you think?  Are there lots of enabled executives out there? If so, let's hear about organizations are making that work.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Is your board room just an echo chamber?

Are CIOs (and other executives) simply listening to their own voices echoing off the boardroom walls?

You may want to weigh in on an excellent posting from Jim Anderson on "The Accidental CIO", an occasional (sort-of biweekly) blog that usually has something insightful to say.   This week's edition is about how a CIO can engage in effective listening, and how to tell whether that is working.

I think if the CIO has gotten to that step, the organization is already in the top quartile.  Two-way conversations are important. But a workplace is going to be dysfunctional if it can't even handle one-way communication.

As a consultant for most of my career, and a government manager for the rest of it, my perspective is probably skewed; people don't often hire consultants to help improve things that are working well.  They hire consultants to fix things that are broken.  Very often, the executives want help with better oversight mechanisms (governance!) because from their perspective it appears that the organization is simply backsliding on carrying out their instructions, policies and strategies.  And more often than not once you start poking around you find that the rest of the floundering organization is frustrated that nobody seems to be in charge of it (or there is a little cabal doing back-room deals, which in practice amounts to the same thing).

I've always been astonished at the results of a simple test.  In any open meeting, have people fill out a blank 3x5 card (no hints) with what they think the CIO's top 3 priorities are (this works for any leader, really) .  Then have the CIO reveal what he/she thinks they are.  Then reveal what the people thought.  The revealed gaps - if any - tell you all about whether there is any open communications channel at all.

I suppose one could vary this to test for upward communication too.  How do you do that?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Can it be that PM best practices -- aren't ?

 I've always found it ironic that the major and minor consultancies around DC are paid billions of dollars every year to continue providing the same advice on best practices that (in the of project management anyway) have been largely unchanged since the 1980s.  There are only a few possible explanations for this:

  • Consultants are very bad at providing advice.  
  • The advice the consultants are giving is very bad.  In other words, all this project management stuff is just a bunch of malarkey.  
  • The clients are incapable of implementing the advice they are paying so much for. 
  • The clients do not wish to implement the advice that are paying so much for.  which would mean that they really do not care.  In which case, why would they continue to pay for it?  (And why would we keep giving them all this money for work if they don't care whether it gets done or not)?

Did I miss an obvious answer?

Although the fourth choice (they don't care) seems like an easy answer in these days, I don't think I am ready for that one just yet.  There are too many cases I know of where public servants really are trying to get things done. And too many case where, despite their best efforts, nothing seems to happen.

The third choice (incompetence): the vast majority of public employees are pretty sharp and very hard-working.  Maybe they aren't ready for Silicon Valley or Seattle, but for the most part we're not talking about those skill sets. Federal employees must be able to define, plan and oversee a project, with enough technical knowledge to avoid getting too much of a snow-job.  I think the agencies have lots of people answering to that description. Whether they are allowed to exercise those skills goes to the fourth option. Maybe public-sector IT projects are biting off more than anyone can possibly chew?  Clinger-Cohen and later policies have tried to address that by requiring delivered capabilities within 12-18 months, but that has been largely ignored (see option 4). If we really believe that the public-sector is simply unable to attract the skilled labor needed to manage and execute IT projects that are otherwise perfectly feasible, then we have to figure out a way to get someone else to be responsible for delivering these highly-complex projects.  Not just contracting out - that's what we do now.  It would require a pretty creative solution.

Option 1: I'm not opposed to laying some of this at the feet of the consultancies, which after all have a vested interest in a permanent presence.  So maybe they are providing over-engineered solutions that are theoretically elegant but quite impractical and so never quite take root.  But in that case their advisory services should be equally ineffective in the private sector, where in fact it does seem to work (or maybe we just do not get to hear about those failures?).  Maybe the people buying the services need to take a look at why private-sector IT seems to have moved so far ahead of the public sector.  Or else only the newest or worst consultants are being used on public-sector accounts.  If you agree with option one, then you should be looking at a major business opportunity.

Well, if you're not buying any of that, there's option 2: it's all hocus-pocus.  As a certified project manager and architect, I'm supposed to (and do) believe that these disciplines can work together to produce efficient and effective solutions.  It seems self-evident that an organized approach has to work better than just muddling through. Yet so many organizations seem to operate on that opposing premise, and they not only survive but thrive (even if their projects are frequently fiascos).  Ulp.

In this confusing environment, we must be very clear about the intended benefit of any governance practice.

  • If the organization doesn't want it, there will be no benefit from any investment in it.
  • If the benefits of governance as compared to the status quo are not crystal clear, then the organization (especially those who benefit most from the status quo) will not want it.

If the benefit is not totally clear, then perhaps this piece of governance can wait while we focus on the parts that the organization will get behind.

What do you think?