A Critical Look At Executive Decision Making
We have all seen the statistics regarding project failures — by even conservative estimates, the majority of projects to date either fail to meet their objectives or are never delivered at all. Moreover, we have all sat through innumerable presentations dissecting the causes of project failure and prescribing the necessary and appropriate solutions. The reality, however, is that for many projects failure is dialed in from the beginning. The greatest challenge that organizations face is not how the project is managed, or who manages it — but simply how the choice is made.
This simple truth was reinforced for me through a number of recent corporate presentations, in which project managers were being introduced to a new framework for managing projects. While the process that the framework outlines is straightforward, easily understood and readily adapted and scaled to a variety of projects, there was a huge amount of overall resistance to its initial use and adoption. A certain amount of resistance can readily be attributed to any organizational change effort, but the reaction of participants seemed inordinately negative.
It goes without saying that any change will have its negative influences, and certainly this engagement was no different. Given the amount of effort that had gone in to ensuring buy-in, acceptance and validity of the proposed solution, however, the reactions were surprising. There was strong executive support and commitment, extensive consultation from project managers that would use the process, and a comprehensive training and education process had been developed to support staff in understanding the process, their role within it and the commitments and expectations of the organization.
In pursuing the source of this resistance, what became clear was that its source had little to do with the validity of the project management framework itself. In fact, there was almost universal acknowledgment that the framework made sense, provided a great deal of value and was readily adaptable to the wide array of projects the organization undertook. The problem was rooted in the fact that the organization expected improvement in project performance as a result of implementing the framework.
Arguably, it was as desire for improvement in project performance that led the organization to adopt a new project management framework in the first place, so this objective should not on the face of it seem unreasonable. What was of concern was the attainability of this objective given how projects were evaluated, prioritized and selected within the organization. The operating belief in the organization was that by hiring better project managers and establishing better project processes, improved project results were attainable. At the same time, senior management within the organization clearly believed that whatever choices they made regarding the projects that they chose to initiate were fair game — that the decision-making process was separate and distinct from what was required to successfully deliver them.
The concerns expressed by the project managers was a reaction to the fact that a significant number of project problems begin with how projects are dependent upon they are initiated. Decisions made at the outset can have the impact of effectively handicapping a project, short-circuiting the impact of any attempts to apply proper project management. From imposing a solution without a full appreciation of the requirements to fixing the cost budget without any clear appreciation of the actual underlying work that funding must pay for, these constraints — if accepted — can railroad the project team into a situation that is almost certainly destined for failure. While a good project management process, for example, recognizes that progressive refinement of the estimates is appropriate as more information becomes known about the project, imposing a budget can have the net effect of turning the project into an exercise of how much project can be done for a defined amount of money.
While the fact that these decisions get made is certainly important, of more significance is an understanding of why sponsors and executives make them. Possibly the simplest explanation is 'because they can', but that doesn't really speak to the underlying motives that actually leads them to make the decisions they do. All too often, it is for the same optimistic reasons that have plagued projects in the past — the belief that a project should only cost that much, and if only the team tries really hard they can pull it off. In other instances, it may be a consequence of the age-old practice of accommodating the express or perceived wishes of their bosses. It can be a results of believing that creating artificial boundaries is a way of motivating teams to 'think outside of the box'. Sometimes, it comes down to the simple and sadistic pleasure of watching someone squirm — the corporate equivalent of frying ants with a magnifying glass.
What is clear from all of this is that while project management itself continues to mature and improve, the results that projects deliver won't significantly improve unless the full lifecycle of decision making — from initiation at the beginning through to the process of value realization at the end — align to create a consistent, logical and related process of decision making. This article begins a new series that will explore these issues in details. Through it, I hope to be able to inject some much-need rationality into a process that many view as overly irrational. Stay tuned.