If Things Aren’t Going Well, When Do You Want to Know?
Imagine a scenario where you are an executive and have assigned me to manage a project on your behalf. At some point in the future if I come to doubt the project will meet your goals, when do you want me to tell you? Go ahead and think about it for a minute… I’ll wait.
Did you think:
- “Mondays are bad… never on a Monday”, or
- “I wouldn’t want to spoil the weekend, never on a Friday”, or maybe
- “When you have some good news to balance it out”?
If your answer was anything other than, “As soon as you have concerns”, you have failed the sponsor test. Effective leaders want to know the minute a project manager becomes concerned about project viability. They don’t want project managers to cry “wolf” every time the printer runs out of paper, but if a project is not on a trajectory to deliver, executives want and need to know.
This is the often-unrecognized priority of the project manager’s role. Ask people to describe the number one job of a project manager and few will get it right.
Defining, planning, and managing projects is important. Leading teams fairly and effectively is important. Expectation management is vital. Creating and maintaining plans, managing risks, monitoring progress, writing status reports…these are all aspects of the project manager’s role, but the most important job is providing timely and accurate information to sponsoring executives to support their decision making.
Think about this for a moment. If you agree with this priority, then why do you imagine there is so much hesitation? Why is it so common for project managers who are managing troubled projects to cross their fingers and hope for a miracle? Why do otherwise sane project managers exhort their teams to excessive overtime that everyone knows can’t be sustained? Why is there so much hesitation about logging and reporting risk status? The only answer I can think of is fear.
What might these project managers be afraid of?
Maybe they are afraid of the sponsor’s reaction. Perhaps the sponsor is irrational and believes that all projects are feasible within the originally established constraints? Perhaps the sponsor is a bully who relishes the chance to “hold project managers accountable” for outcomes whether or not those outcomes are within the control of the project manager? If this is the case, the problem is the sponsor, not the project manager. Plan your career accordingly.
Maybe the project manager feels like an imposter and is worried that delivering the truth will reveal that they are not all powerful and able to drag any project across the finish line to success no matter the challenges?
This fear is based on an unrealistic expectation. Some projects, no matter how well conceived, planned or managed will not accomplish their originally defined results. That’s because we live in an uncertain world and can’t foresee all of the variables that might come to influence our projects.
Project management is not a job for the fearful or the timid.
The tools and skills of the project manager try to set realistic goals, identify problems early and minimize difficulties along the way, but they do not guarantee success. Every experienced project manager has had some failures - some self-inflicted, others beyond their control. Some were recoverable, some were not. The challenge of our profession is to do our best to avoid problems and learn from our mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to fail to deliver bad news promptly. This compounds the problem by increasing resource consumption while you wait to deliver the message and decreasing the amount of time available for an executive response.
The worst management advice ever is, “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution.” Translated: “If you are ever unsure about how to proceed, I don’t want to know.”
Contrast that with my early mentor’s advice: “Never come to me with a problem until you’ve thought about it (but never fail to come to me promptly if you have a problem).”
The first discourages timely communication. The second encourages candor and collaboration. When things aren’t going well, treat your project sponsor the way that you want to be treated.
Early in my consulting career a client executive had an interesting sign on the wall behind his desk: “Around here, we don’t shoot the messenger… unless he’s late.”