PM Articles > Brian Irwin > Pay Attention to Me!

Pay Attention to Me!

by Brian Irwin

Question #1

"I am the project manager for a construction equipment manufacturer. I lead engineering development projects for the creation of new equipment. Recently, I traveled to a customer site with two of our engineers. One, whom I'll refer to as Dan, has several years experience in engineering but only about one year with our company. Dan also has a Ph.D. and holds several patents.

During a meeting with the customer, which was to be a requirements-gathering and feedback solicitation on our products, Dan began to present detailed information (including drawings) of equipment modifications and improvements he devised in our current product line. The problem is that these were known to nobody but Dan and had not been shown to our management. Further, the designs presented would be cost-prohibitive for us to manufacture and produce. A few days after our visit, the client called to inform us they were planning to set aside some of that year's capital funding to purchase some of the new equipment. The sales manager was caught off guard and there is now enormous pressure to produce the design as the client is one of our largest. How should I now handle the situation?"

Dazed and Confused

Dear Dazed,

Please excuse my being blunt, but why did you allow the situation to get this far in the first place? The correct thing to do was to stop Dan as soon as you perceived he was going down a different path and pull the meeting back to its intended purpose - to gather customer feedback and gather requirements. At that point, you could have told the client that this was something your organization was considering but that it had not been through your internal process and that you were out of line for presenting it without prior approval. Since you're the leader it is your job to accept the responsibility. I then would have had a stern discussion with Dan about what he was attempting to do.

Dan has undermined any authority you had and has now placed your organization in a precarious position. The client has been left believing that the design is going to be an actual product - an idea which has been reinforced by the sales manager's acceptance of the customer inquiry. Since you failed to stop Dan's presentation you must accept responsibility for the situation. As such, you need to take prompt action. Here's what I suggest you do in this scenario. First, contact the client and explain what has occurred. To save face, I recommend you communicate to the client that, upon further review, it's been determined that the design is cost-prohibitive (if it is). The customer will be appreciative that you're trying to save their capital budget and are taking responsibility for the mistake. Apologize for the inconvenience to them and offer anything within your authority to provide to make a good faith amends, and to help reinforce the mutual relationship between your organizations. Then hold a meeting with Dan and his supervisor to discuss what has been learned and how future incidents will be avoided. Do not blame or push responsibility to Dan for his behavior - that's the job of his manager. You need to take accountability as the project manager in charge of the meeting which went awry. But, that does not leave Dan off the hook. He needs to be held accountable for his behavior. Good luck!

Question #2

"I work in an IT department as a project manager. About four months ago, I was assigned to lead a large project for one of our business units. The problem I'm having is that the project sponsor, the Vice-President of the business unit, remains unresponsive to my requests for information. I sometimes send two or three reminder email queries about the same thing. Is there anything I can do which will help provide responsiveness from my sponsor?"

Feeling Ignored

Dear Feeling Ignored,

Lack of project sponsorship is still cited as one of the primary reasons for failed projects. However, this does not mean that it's entirely the sponsor's responsibility to engage the project manager. As project managers, we need to understand that high-ranking executives are very busy individuals and usually interface with others at, or near, their same level in the corporate hierarchy. Here are a few suggestions on how to go about levying sponsor (executive) support.

First, consider what's being asked from your sponsor's viewpoint. Could this information be gathered from someone lower in the hierarchy? If so, get it from another source. If it's required from the sponsor be very clear why it is that you need the information and what your intentions are with it. Your sponsor may not be privy to why you need the information. Explain it to ensure they're clear. Remember, information is power and some executives do not want to relinquish informational power. Make sure they know how the requested information will benefit the project and, ultimately, the company.

Second, getting attention of upper management is an art which comes with time and experience. If you are relatively unknown to the executive, is there someone you both know whom your sponsor holds in high regard? If so, ask if you can use their name in order to get your sponsor's attention.

You should also realize that sending emails may not be the best way to communicate with your sponsor. This is especially true if you are collocated. It's unrealistic to expect an immediate response to email from anyone, not to mention executives. They are literally drowning in the amount of email they receive on a daily basis. If you send several emails about the same topic you run the risk of being seen in a negative light. Make an appointment with your sponsor to explain the level of engagement you require to help you perform your job in a way which will help guarantee success. The key to doing this effectively is getting to know the administrative assistant. The executive's assistant frequently manages their calendar and also speaks with them daily. The key to getting in front of the executive could be getting in front of their assistant.

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