Bridging the top management conceptual divide

Executive Summary

Top management support is crucial for project success, but top managers are not interested in project level concerns. Programme management is the crucial link because programmes deliver the business benefits required to realise strategic goals. web name generator However the project and programme management community will have to learn engage at the strategy level and focus on the achievement of strategic goals. The current approaches are too heavily influenced by project management concepts to be effective in engaging top management.


The need for top management support

IT governance guru John Thorp has advocated for some time the need to manage projects at the programme level in order to realise the desired benefits. I’ve come to the same conclusion from a different angle:

There is now strong evidence that top management support is the most important critical success factor and is not simply one of many factors [i].

If so, then it is very difficult for projects to succeed if top managers do not consider project management to be a matter of direct concern and they don’t [ii].

If projects don’t succeed (in delivering business benefits) then corporate strategies aren’t implemented. Everyone loses. (This almost certainly appears to be the case with one of the best performers in the public sector: the State of Victoria; and it is likely to be the case with the rest of us. It is well known that two thirds of projects deliver no value at all [iii]).

This situation is very dysfunctional with as much as 3% of GDP is being lost because project managers can’t get the attention of top managers.

We can engage top managers through programme management

We believe there is a conceptual chasm between the top management and project management community. They do not have a common language and do not work together to achieve common goals. We have documented our analysis in Bridging the TMS-PM conceptual divide. Our major findings are:

Project management is increasingly being used to implement strategy; an application it was not designed to meet. Projects deliver products that might enable a strategy but they rarely if ever deliver strategies.

Portfolio management is not a solution because the focus is on the selection of projects. If projects cannot deliver a strategy then no matter how well you select projects, it will not result in a strategy being delivered. For strategic goals to be met, it is essential that portfolios are portfolios of programmes not portfolios of projects. This is not how PPM (project portfolio management) is currently practiced.

Programmes are the vital link between strategy and the realisation of strategic goals. We must as John has stated, focus our attention at the programme level. Plan for, select and fund entire programmes (or not). Our point of difference is that we believe mainstream programme management is currently too immature, too inflexible and too influenced by project management to engage the top management audience. Programme managers cannot assume strategy is delegated from on high and only needs to be implemented. The practice of programme management much be enhanced to deal appropriately with much lower levels of certainty than practitioners of strategic planning and programme management have traditionally assumed.

Finally active governance by top managers is essential to go beyond planning to actually realise the desired benefits over time. The future is inherently unpredictable and top level governance is required to steer or navigate around unexpected obstacles. Governance is not how the project management methodologies have portrayed it: to have a steering committee or a project board. Governance is an attitude and requires an active questioning. The 6Q Governance™ framework, an enhancement of HB280 and AS8016, is an excellent guidance that we recommend to all.

But we need to lift our game and learn to contribute to strategy

However, we face an uphill battle overcoming a considerable misdirection of effort being promoted by the project and programme management community. This might seem an arrogant statement but we would ask you to consider how many project managers operate at the level of the board or C-suite? An earlier blog summarised a professional presentation for ISACA that considered board level decision-making. The quotes below are taken from the ‘decision-making’ module of the AICD Company Director’s Course and we believe the last quote may apply particularly to the current thinking in the project and programme management communities. If we are to engage the top managers we need for our success, we need to do it at their level so that both they and we can succeed. The level at which we must engage is strategy and the achievement of strategic goals.

“Decision-making is a process rather than something that occurs in a single point in time”

“The process … begins when we need to do something but we do not know what”

“People in organisations such as managers must pass through stages in mastering greater and greater complexity. This is not a matter of handling more and more information, but learning what information is important – what not to think about – to focus on what is really important” Jaques (1998)

“When a person is out of their depth in terms of the level of complexity they have to handle, they will implement mechanisms to maintain control such as cutting the debate, seeking to silence people … often unconscious behaviours designed to avoid their own lack of understanding”


[i] R. Young and E. Jordan, “Top management support: Mantra or necessity?,” International Journal of Project Management 26, no. 7 (2008): 713 – 725, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V9V-4T8R1VR-1/2/cbb9982c137815f208ac6ca820c3b45f.

[ii] L. Crawford, “Senior management perceptions of project management competence,” International Journal of Project Management 23, no. 1 (2005): 7-16, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V9V-4D636C6-4/2/b6479d1c140991c277782e9cfaff6ffb .

[iii] R. Young, “What is the ROI for IT Project Governance? Establishing a benchmark.,” in 2006 IT Governance International Conference (Auckland, New Zealand, 2006).

  1. David Seward says:

    Raymond,

    I would agree with your comments on “Project” Portfolio Managment, I think the correct level and language at which to consider Portoflio Management is Investments. So think in terms of an Investment Portfolio not a Project Portfolio. Investments will result in Programmes or Projects, depending on their size, complexity, etc. The language of investments is then the right one to engage senior exectuives.

    Following some of your earlier articles and blogs I have been reading the State of Victoria’s Investment Management Standard Overview (http://www.dtf.vic.gov.au/CA25713E0002EF43/pages/gateway-reviews-and-best-practice-guidelines-investment-management-investment-management-standard). It seems to me that if you took the guidelines and approach documented here and then manage the full portfolio of investments using portfolio managment techniques you have the right approach.

    While I see your point about Programme Management vs Project Management as indeed the OGC MSP standard is all about delivering benefits etc. while PRINCE2 is about delivering an output. I would argue that Programme Management is still the wrong language to use with top managers and one should focus on Investment Management. If really practiced, the process that the State of Victoria Guidelines document surelly give you exactly the right means of engageing senior managers.

  2. Raymond Young says:

    David,

    I’m really pleased you’ve kicked off the discussion. You may be right by focusing the discussion around ‘Investments’. My only reservation is that in my mind a discussion of investments conjures up the idea of selecting the right investments and delegating the execution to someone else.

    If we were to steer the discussion towards ‘execution of strategy through programmes of work’, it seems to me that the concept is less passive with the suggestion that senior managers have a strong role in monitoring and actively interceding as necessary.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Raymond Young, Raymond Young. Raymond Young said: project and programme managers have to learn engage at the strategy level and focus on achieving strategic goals. http://tinyurl.com/yj2dnpl […]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.