Project Practitioners > What Executive-Level Commitment to Program Management Looks Like

What Executive-Level Commitment to Program Management Looks Like

By Cinda Voegtli

When an organization wants to get better at executing the projects and programs required to meet critical business goals, what do they do?  Get everyone some project management & team training?  Mentor new PMs? Define a new process? (e.g.for project management, software development, new product development…). It’s often one or more of the above. 

Typically, at some point most if not all organizations need some kind of new definition of “the way we do things here” to make big leaps - aka a new process (even if it’s a lightweight one).  But new processes represent change – for everyone, including the executives.  Do those executives understand what it means to truly show their own commitment to the process, through changes to their behavior and new interactions with PMs and teams and functional groups -- AND how much it matters that they do so?

Consider these scenarios:

Our "new way" says we won't start a major program without having a core team member committed from each functional group.... But a PM gets a program, 2 groups "don't have time right now to participate", and executive(s) heard saying "doesn't matter, we've got to make this date, just do it."

Our process says that we won't ship to a customer without having done a specific level of testing (to avoid embarrassing and expensive blow-ups at a customer, of course)...but executive(s) heard to say "there's no time for that, we have to get it out, just ship it."

Our new philosophy says that managing risks from day 1 of the project is paramount and that we'll communicate about them across all functions....but an executive instructs a PM to "take that risk info out of the presentation because it will make us look bad.  We'll fix our stuff; they don't need to know the details."

What happens when teams get executive-level messages that contradictwhat the same executive team supposedly put in place as "the improved ways we'll do projects now to ensure our success?  Here are several common reactions:

They get confused:  "Wait, I thought the "new way" said X.  Did I misunderstand?"  The exec actions just made it harder for team members to understand and added some cognitive burden to adopting the new way (which no busy team member has time or energy for).

They get uncomfortable, anxious, frustrated,"caught in a no-win situation":  "Wait, so you're holding us accountable for this project - but violating what your desired process says is critical for executing a project successfully. How are we then supposed to be successful?"

They get dismissive:  "Well, clearly this process doesn't work because the ones who wanted it can't even follow it, so let's ignore it (because, I mean, THEY are!)"   Their engagement and support for making improvements is gone.

They get jaded, cynical: "They never mean what they say, it's business as usual..."  Their emotional support for the new way has just been retracted and their respect for the executives and their leadership greatly diminished.

So clearly this is not what the execs had in mind when they decided a new approach was necessary and went to the trouble to introduce "a new way"!  So what's going on? 

It may that only a few specific executives are not really bought in and are exhibiting the above behaviors. That's a smaller problem to solve and the techniques I highlight below can help. But whether it's a few people or seemingly the entire executive team, the underlying issues is the same. It's back to that key word:  CHANGE.  Just because some executives are "caught" not following their own supposed edicts doesn't mean they are not mentally committed to the idea of this new way.  They are just human, and on a "significant change journey" with the rest of us.

In being in and working with a bunch of different companies - sizes, types, cultures - below are several key things  I've experienced as incredibly powerful demonstrations of true executive commitment and ultimately follow-through.  One important note, though:  in no instance did the executives demonstrate commitment from day 1 or even 2 or more years on!    But overall the companies, and the executive team overall, recognized that CHANGE would be required, starting now and continuing over time - attitude changes, behavior changes, decision-making changes.  So they planned specific actions to build and reinforce the right culture, top to bottom, immediately and continuing over time.

What kind of actions?  

Initial and ongoing actions to ensure that the intent and basic "how-to" of the new way is communicated pervasively. 

Strong messages from top executives that "violations" at any level - including by them or other executives - are to be acknowledged and addressed! 

Ongoing education of new employees and reinforcement with teams.

These are the keys to managing the changes that a new process, a new way, and evolve toward true maturity.  It's only relentless and consistent follow through that will get an organization there.   IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are reading this and thinking "eh, this is just big company stuff" -- No it isn't.  Small companies or departments within larger companies share the same challenges with change, and specifically with introducing new ways of doing things.  I've seen the same techniques be necessary, and work in 50 person organizations as well as huge corporations.

Overall, the subject of introducing new project, program, and/or development processes is a huge one.  I'm not trying to take on the entire subject in this post, nor even all the techniques I've seen for getting a good practical process well established and truly followed. But here are a few key things I see over and over that have a huge impact:

Presence in and focus of remarks from execs during company training on the process:  The companies invest in some form of internal training on "the new way".  Whether an hour-long informal lunch presentation or a 2 day workshop, the sessions MUST have an executive attend and provide background, first hand, on why the company has moved/is moving to this new way. The MUST is a given in theses orgs.  The executives make time to come talk for 30 minutes in some cases including taking questions. I've seen executives fly to a different site for 2 days to do so. 

A critical message is delivered in the above training and other venues:  Executive permission and outright instruction to push back on "violations", including instances where executives contradict the new way (like those scenarios I mentioned above.)   I hear top executives saying things to the group such as "We KNOW that it's important that people perceive the leadership is doing it.  If you see a leader not following the new way, tell them. Let them know that what they're doing is confusing people."   "Bosses are human, and busy, and just driving to satisfy the customer.  It's fine to remind them, and they expect it and want to hear."   "We are all committed to doing the right thing.  Remember that we don't all have a history of doing this. Changes will come one person at a time.  You can help. Every time you help us use the new way consistently, we get stronger."    "You can even come to me if you feel uncomfortable raising an issue, and I'll help."   Just, wow. How powerful is this?!

Strong messages from top executive to rest of executive team and functional managers, delivered in front of employees.  Executives acknowledging "wins", even if small, from using the new way, and reinforcing that "This is the way we do it from now on. This makes us better.  We won't be perfect but we WILL use this new way."

A laser focus in review meetings and also in the hallways on the "why" of the new way.  (Ultimately the point of the new way is getting better at getting the desired business results from projects.  Executives make that the strong intent, the clear focus - and interact with teams accordingly.  "Are we meeting the goals?  Will we make our customers happy?  Have we done an adequate review before we ship? What risks do we face?"  and "What do you need from us to get this done?"  I've had astute executives ask me, after their employees took the workshop on the new way, "What are the key words they've heard and what should they hear from us in the halls and meetings, so that we are consistent with the  new way and are helping reinforce?"   These executives want to show their commitment through consistent action and language.

Investing in a rich collection of education and support.  Training. Quick reference guides. Templates for project deliverables.  Directories with best practice examples. informal PM know-how sharing lunch budgets.  Executives showing up to the PM lunches every time to take hard questions and talk about what's going on in the business!  When such things are present and clearly being invested in, everyone certainly gets a strong picture of executive commitment to the new way. 

Continuing to ask what's needed and respond: And note, all these things don't have to be done right at the introduction of the new way.  New support can roll out over time as PMs and teams get to speak up on what they need.  In fact it helps amplify the message of commitment when people find themselves being regularly asked "what else would help you and your teams?" and then seeing those requests acted on.

The executive actions above demonstrate incredibly strong commitment to whatever new way they've introduced -- new product development process, portfolio management, project/program management.  Those strong demonstrations of commitment help avoid "the new way" falling by the wayside early from the kinds of inevitable "violations" I depicted earlier.   If we can keep the new process from getting rejected, ignored, put aside, and instead have it be understood, embraced, adopted, and adapted -- then it will truly be able to fulfill its original intent -- simply a better way to do things that will help us meet our ultimate customer and business goals.

One important note, on everything above:  In no instance do all executives consistently demonstrate absolute "violation-free" commitment from day 1 or even 2 or more years on!  Again - they are human. We are all busy. Customers press hard.  Business imperatives drive reactions. 

But overall the companies or groups that get "new ways" truly established and working, and the executive team overall, recognize that CHANGE will be required over time. So they take strong action to work through the attitude changes, behavior changes, decision-making changes required.  They build and reinforce the right culture, top to bottom, through their investments of time, money, and personal attention.  That's what true executive commitment looks like!

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