Trust your gut, dig deeper, get a second opinion
It was an interesting conversation. I had conducted a health check on a project and found that it was in trouble… Big Trouble.
Sadly, this was obvious to the external project delivery professionals such as myself, and the business analysts and testers that they had brought on board to augment their internal project team. However, the project manager was either unaware, or unwilling to admit, that things were heading south in a big way! It did not take me long to identify where the project was going off the rails and recommend how to best fix it.
When presenting the findings of the project audit to the members of the executive team who were also on the steering group, one of the members spoke up and expressed their frustration about the state of the project: “We only know what the project manager tells us!”
I found this statement very telling, and it got me thinking about how Steering Groups can ensure that they are fully aware of the true state of the initiatives that they are overseeing.
Establish a transparent and supportive governance environment: Now this may be stating the obvious, but fear is not a good motivator; and the command “Don’t bring me bad news!” rarely results in good news. However, clear accountability (both of the project team; and of the steering group to act as the executive road-block remover), empowerment, and transparency will create the supportive environment in which high-performing teams will prosper.
Keep engaged with your department’s staff members who are on the project: Typically, the steering groups include the senior leaders of departments that are directly impacted by the project and its outcomes, therefore the project team should include subject matter experts (SME) who are from within the steering group’s line management structure. Do members of your department who are on the project feel comfortable raising concerns to you (either directly, or through their line manager)? If not, it is likely because there is an approachability barrier that should be addressed. Alternatively, if communication within your chain of command is not the problem and you are still not aware of significant challenges within the project, perhaps the SME is not aware of the problems. If the SME is unaware of significant risks/problems within the project that they are on, the question then becomes “why not?”
Management By Walking Around (MBWA): Popularised in the 1980s and just as true today…. Senior leaders can gain valuable insights by casually engaging the project team, observing the mood, and asking questions. Are they confident? Are they nervous or guarded? Are they stressed or relaxed? If there are any red flags, dig deeper.
‘Trust your gut’: You are on the steering group because you are a recognised leader in your organisation. If you feel uncomfortable; if things just “don’t add up” to your experienced eye, there is probably a good reason. Trust your gut, dig deeper, get a second opinion. I recall a project that I was managing, and the projected labour requirements just did not sit right with one of our Steering Group members. He was persistent in raising his concern and questioning the estimation. Because of his insistence that we re-examine the model, a flaw was found that if not caught could have led to seriously over-staffing once the project was live, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Do members of your department who are on the project feel comfortable raising concerns to you - either directly, or through their line manager?
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Look for these status report/steering group meeting warning signs:
Status reports have lots of words, not much clarity. I find that strong project managers who have a good handle on the project are able to communicate status, achievements, risks, issues, and items for escalation to the steering group concisely. If the status report has a superfluous detail about peripheral activities (or long narrative about activities, but not much about tangible achievements, deliverables, and milestones met), that may be because there is not much progress being made.
Verbal questions are answered with diversion, obfuscation, or offence. When a steering group member asks a question of the project manager, and the response is less than clear, concise, confident, and evidence-based, (or an offended response of “how dare you ask?!”) that is an indication that the project manager doesn’t know the answer, or doesn’t want you to know. Neither is good for the project, and warrants further digging until clarity is achieved.
Action items and risks are recorded, but no further progress is noted. Are the outcomes of the steering group meetings recorded (decisions, actions, escalations, risks)? (Hint: the answer should be “Yes” 😊 ). The next question is just as important: In the meeting minutes, are there clear signs that the above items are progressing toward resolution, or are they just being “raised” and then forgotten? If all you see are items action items being identified and risks being raised, but then no further mention in the following weeks – dig deeper. Chances are that your list of risks to the project is just getting longer…and that the action items are nothing more than a “wish list” because nothing is being done about them.
The purpose of a steering group is to provide executive-level guidance and support to the project team to ensure that the project is delivered successfully. This is the critical role that senior leaders play. By empowering the team, engaging with the team, and digging deeper when necessary, you can make sure that you know what is going on and that your team has what it needs to succeed.
Chris Pope is a consultant specialising in business transformation and delivering large organisational change programmes. He has spent the last 20 years leading complex projects and programmes, running a PMO, and improving practices in industries such as airline, local government, education, internet and healthcare in the United States and New Zealand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn http://nz.linkedin.com/in/chrispopepmp and Twitter @chrispopenz.
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