Who Really Manages Your Projects?

Who really manages? In many organizations today, there exist competent and experienced Project Managers, Senior Project Managers and Program Managers. We refer to them all as PM or PMs in this article. And, they all have the responsibility and authority to deliver the organizational changes and benefits.  Senior Managers, Executives, and internal and external customers expect those actions of the PMs. They are a credit to their organizations. The Managers and Executives are incredibly effective, and their organizations (Government and Enterprises) thrive as a result. We shall call this phenomenon Exhibit A.

IPMA’s* Advanced Project and Program Manager certification program, is perfect for these competent and performing practitioners. And IPMA-USA’s PRO program, Performance Rated Organization, is a perfect match for the Exhibit A organizations.

And then we have the other organizations, that we shall call Exhibit B. In the Exhibit B organizations, project success usually depends on several layers of Managers, rather than the nominal Project Managers. These other layers are directing or controlling Time, Cost, Scope and Talent (and other factors). They leave the PM to be a mere implementer; despite his or her best efforts. The result: Poor PM Performance, and Executive Managers, who blame the practice of PM, rather than their misplaced authority.

Who really manages: Who Sets Time, Budget, Scope and Talent?

Some of those Exhibit B organizations depend more on team heroics than deft management. Too often, Project Managers are identified after timelines and budgets are set; scope is never quite “nailed down”. Not only that, promised talent never appears, while cherished talent disappears. Much to the chagrin of PMs, requests for some flexibility somewhere are met with the classic excuse: “we just have to do more with less”. This almost always results in delivering far less with less.

We cannot solve this problem by sending PMs or team leads to yet another class. Especially if that class parrots the same tired concepts that already failed to establish PM competence in the organization.

What we really need higher-level Managers to do, is to:

  1. Delegate to competent and performing PMs the authority to manage the project.
  2. Develop and significantly improve the PM competences of those who make the project management decisions.

That target audience for the second action listed above may be one, two or three levels “up” from the PMs. We must close that gap, improving the PM competence and effectiveness of those levels. Otherwise, everything else you could do might just be a total waste of funding and time.

Who really manages: The Time and Budget Constraints

It is common in today’s environment for projects and programs to have Time and Budget constraints. Actually, that has always been the case, but the pressures are even greater now. Project Due Dates (only incompetent project managers have tight and inflexible deadlines) are real. Often, they are based on when the organization needs the result, and have no relationship to the scale of the effort needed to deliver that result.

We have written about using Budgets as a resource, rather than a constraint. Still, funding Executives need the same level of transparency and control over their project portfolios as they have in operations. When a team completes its discovery and identifies design options, competent Managers must make the right decisions. They must either move forward, or table the initiative until refinements cause the benefits to outweigh the costs.

Less effective Managers in Exhibit B organizations mandate what in my years of growing up in the West we called a blivit: Ten pounds of bulls**t in a five pound sack. You don’t really want to put much pressure on a blivit. Yet too often, when PMs raise concerns, their Managers respond with something like: “Get it done anyway!” This worst possible action results in predictable sub-optimization. Executives tend not to like the outcomes of blivit projects.

Who really manages: The Scope

One problem with managing scope: in most projects, you can’t truly measure scope until 15%-25% of the way through them. Indeed, in some projects some cannot even measure it then. By that time, it is really, really difficult in less-effective organizations to change project time and budget. That is the case, even when the changes are based on new project information. Even after Requirements are clear, some projects have significant additional scope discovery later. Sometimes much later—despite the team’s best efforts.

Meanwhile, nearly everyone knows that a smart way to manage to time and cost is to cut scope. The challenge is, some projects are so organic, with everything tightly-connected, that you must deliver all or nothing. So the team reacts to the pressure with surprising, but exhausting and non-repeatable heroics. The Managers of those teams thus use their teams down, rather than talenting them up.

Downstream in projects, Managers pressure some teams to add scope, while avoiding any resulting impact in time and cost. In too many cases, we find and expose unethical and illegal actions, such as charging efforts to other projects. Or worse, teams avoid recording the needed overtime, because of prior punishment for doing so. Of course, this only happens in incompetent organizations, and not yours, right?

Who really manages: Use Of Advanced Certifications

The situations described above are a challenge for PM practitioners who seek advanced certifications. This is because all such certifications expect the applicant to demonstrate how he or she was responsible for their project successes. Too often the PM has little of the needed authority; instead, someone 1-3 levels up kept that authority. That certification applicant was merely a project controller, and never an actual project or program manager. Bzzzzt! Not yet able to provide evidence of PM performance.

Of course, that practitioner can still receive an entry-level, exam-based cert. But that neither helps the organization recognize and improve performance, nor helps the individual to advance, does it? Indeed, this is one challenge IPMA faces in offering Advanced PM competence-based certifications. This is because some of our certification candidates come from those Exhibit B organizations we mentioned above. But doesn’t that narrow our audience?

And, here we depart from our Exhibit A, Exhibit B generalizations. We have found that in every Exhibit B organization we coach to improved PM Performance, there are Exhibit A groups. Usually these groups are under the spell of a visionary, incredibly effective Middle Manager. She or he creates an oasis of PM competence in the midst of the desert of just OK. Sometimes we recognize and reward those Managers. and sometimes, we cannot. So even Exhibit B organizations can benefit from IPMA’s differentiating PM certifications and assessments. Or, better put: Especially Exhibit B organizations can benefit, so the least can catch up with the best–internally.

Who really manages: Closing the Gaps

It was in the early 1980s that we (Stacy) realized this phenomenon: if you truly intend to improve PM Performance, you must move beyond project managers, to improve the effectiveness of the Managers in the Middle. We do so, using tools like 360 degree evaluations and competence assessments (our PM Competence Model). Working across the entire project stakeholder group, we usually find a handful of consistent patterns across almost all industries. We increased the entire organization’s ability to perform projects and programs not by evaluating the Project Managers. Instead, we do so by focusing on the PM competence of Managers in the range two levels up from the PM, and two levels down from the CEO. In some organizations that range involves 10 levels; in others, 2-3.

When we identify the problems to these Managers, they always cite them as coming from someone two levels up from them. This occurs, no matter who we speak to. In almost every case, the outcome of our PM competence development and performance improvement initiatives is this: Managers manage effectively across multiple levels, and Project and Program Managers manage their initiatives successfully. Performance increases; team and customer satisfaction soars. Those who manage to establish clear and relevant measures of success, measure performance well beyond their 2x-4x-plus targets.

Who really manages: The Greatest Heroes

Organizations need heroes, but they should not always be the project teams. They work their hearts out, to yet-again achieve impossible success in the face of extreme odds. In every competent organization, those heroes also include your stellar Middle Managers. Those are the ones who focus the organization’s resources on the top-priority projects. This, while also deftly conveying the most-important progress, status, and open issues up and across the organization. Clearly, competent and performing Project and Program Managers help. This is especially true, when they learn how to manage their Managers (a survival skill). But the greatest gift that we find in achieving high-performing project-oriented organizations is the incredibly competent Middle Manager.

Of course, those are the same heroic Managers who are most-likely to help their PM talent succeed. Those managers also tend to seek Advanced, Performance-Competence-based PM Certifications. They are also the most-likely to see the benefits of engaging Assessors in PRO, the Performance Rated Organization standard for PM performance assessment. They know that, no matter how good their organization is, there is always the potential to further improve PM Performance.

So which organization is yours—Exhibit A, or Exhibit B, and Who really manages what will you do about it?

* IPMA is the International Project Management Association, the World’s first Project Management association, and the first with a Competence-based certification series for Project and Program Managers.