Navigating the S’s in Our Projects

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
I recall from my days of Sports Car racing in the 1970s the importance of aggressively, yet smoothly, navigating “the Esses.” These were the sections of the racetrack with a series of somewhat gentle left and right turns–such that, if you looked at them from above, looked like several repeated capital letter S’s, laid down. The other competences of racing included preparation, apexing correctly, mastering the braking and acceleration points, all while maintaining steely focus and concentration, and strategic competitiveness. But even with all that, one’s performances through the Esses often made the difference between winning and losing. The reason: This is where the most-competent drivers gain the most speed.

The analogy is similar in projects. In projects, the Esses, or S’s, as shown in the title, include: Stakeholders, Sponsors, Sustainability and Success. And just as in racing, these appear to be gentle curves that the project throws at you—but competent and performing project managers know they are far more than that. They are the places where you can achieve the most project momentum.

Project Stakeholders
Everyone knows that Stakeholders are important in projects, yet too many project teams do a poor job of aligning with them, understanding their needs, and delivering to them. This is of recent interest for some, as the new ISO Standard for project management, 21,500, adds Stakeholders as one of the key Subject Groups. And, the PMBOK® Guide’s 2013 release also now includes Stakeholder Management as a knowledge area. Of course, many of us have long recognized Stakeholder savvy to include knowledge, skill, competence and a key performance area. This insight has been key to project success for decades.

Professor Rodney Turner, who was recently recognized as an IPMA Honorary Fellow (congratulations!), made a very insightful point about Stakeholders in a video filmed by The PM Channel at the 2012 IPMA World Congress: Professor Turner stated that the correct term should be Stakeholder Engagement, not Stakeholder Management. Of course, more-experienced PM practitioners know the difference. Stakeholder Engagement begins much earlier than most project managers realize, and extends longer than most project managers stay on the project. Which brings us to another of the Esses.

Project Sponsors
Who is it that does (or should) participate in projects, from inspiration through benefit realization? Our Project Sponsors! Every effective project team has one or more Project Sponsors. In cross-functional projects, there may be a Steering Committee of Sponsors, with an Executive Sponsor chairing it. But what does a Project Sponsor actually do? Is this just an honorary role? It too often is, which reminds us of a story.

Over 20 years ago, working with one of my consulting firm’s best long-term clients, I held a two-day workshop for the Executive Sponsors and Project Managers of the organization’s 12 largest, most-strategic projects. We called the workshop Enterprise Project Management, and most of the content was oriented to the essential front-end actions of major initiatives. We applied each of the workshop topics directly to the portfolio of projects this leadership team was managing. In one exercise, teams in each part of the room were identifying the most important responsibilities of each of five key roles: Sponsor, Resource Managers, Core Team, Customers or Clients, and Internal Experts.

The room was abuzz with conversations, as each team recorded their assigned role’s responsibilities on a flipchart. And then one group, those documenting the responsibilities of Sponsors, suddenly went quiet. We walked over to that group, observed an excellent list of responsibilities, and asked, “You’ve done a great job; but you’ve stopped. Are you finished?” And the VP of Marketing, who was holding the marker, said, “Yes, we were on a roll. But I stepped back, looked at this significant list of responsibilities, and asked, Is anyone doing any of this stuff?” That’s when the group fell silent. The answer: No! That session began the transformation of the way that organization manages projects.

We’ve maintained our own version of these lists for each of these roles for over 30 years, because we understand their importance. We’ve used them in our consulting engagements for project start-up, for risk analysis, and for project interventions. But start-up is the best time to capture the commitments of Sponsors, because they are the key to getting the engagement of all your other Stakeholders. In fact, that Stakeholder Engagement responsibility is the first item on our list. Sponsors check each item on the list for which they will assume or assign responsibility. The team reviews the list at each major milestone or decision point. And thus effective Sponsors help the team navigate the Esses of projects.

Sustainable Project Management
This is a “new” topic that is not really new at all. The most effective project managers and teams have always had sustainable practices. Much of the recent interest in Sustainable PM can be attributed to friends and members of IPMA-USA, including Joel Carboni and Tom Mochal. The Sustainable approach involves a wide range of smart practices that add value to a project in much the same way spices add to a meal. For example, they add considerations that all teams, including stakeholders, should add to each step along the project’s course.

We like one key aspect of the Sustainability concept, the element of People, one of Joel Carboni’s five measurable elements (based on attributed sources). Sustainable PM includes pacing your team, rather than burning them out. It should improve scalability by continuing to develop Talent. Sustainability probably also includes engaging your Stakeholders, rather than merely managing their expectations. Which brings up another story.

In another client company, we performed a workshop for Information Technology (IT) project managers and their top internal customers. We were discussing key themes in successful projects, and introduced the topic, “Managing Expectations.” Immediately, one of the Customer Managers said, “We know what that means. IT is coming to tell us what else we are not going to get.” Sad, but often true. This is not a Sustainable approach! Managing the momentum and energy of the team and meeting stakeholder expectations are, in our opinion, key Sustainable approaches to project management. Of course, this is in addition to all the other insights the Sustainable PM enthusiasts coach us in applying.

IPMA-USA has done quite a bit of work in this arena, from spirited dialogues and articles to webinars, to building the foundation for a true understanding of success. Parts of that foundation include our IPMA-USA Competence Baseline, our Performance Competence-based advanced certifications, and PRO, our Performance Rated Organization standard. Yet some pm practitioners still think that if the project is completed on time and in budget, that it is successful. Others believe that the endeavor is only successful if you have met the business needs. Some, for example, IPMA-USA Certification Chair William Duncan, clarify by separating Project Success from Business Success; then he states that both are essential.

Of all the Esses to navigate in your projects, this Success curve can be the trickiest one. And, rather than just “managing expectations” of all stakeholders, we must clarify each stakeholders’ view of what Success looks like, learn how they will measure it, identify who will do so, and schedule when that will occur. Then we must engage (not just manage–thank you Prof. Turner!) our Stakeholders in meeting those expectations. At the end of the project, when we are in the Winner’s Circle, accepting the acclaim for a project well done, it is our Stakeholders who are the winners, and we are really just driving the car that got them there.

The skill and competence with which you navigate these Esses of your project have more impact than all the formulas, memorized facts and processes, and most everything else most project managers focus upon. Well, in addition to your grasp of your context, and your effective communication and interpersonal skills, of course. Standards, such as the new ISO 21,500 provide a great starting point, but communication and interpersonal skills, plus negotiating the Esses, differentiate the merely standard from the outstanding.

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