Thursday, July 03, 2014

Does project escalation help?

You've been there, seen the issues, suffered the consequences and lived through the remedial plans. Does escalating the issues on a risky project really benefit the project? Does engaging the executive team help or hinder? Controversial maybe, but the whole point of different roles in a successful business is to ensure the
best people are involved in the most relevant positions. Where they add the most value.

Getting a CXO involved on what is likely to be a day-to-day issue is highly unlikely to benefit anyone. The decisions they make are important but not necessary on anything more than high level direction and possibly business focus. Lower level resource decisions and tactical selections need to reflect the overall business vision set at the highest level and organisations need to trust the abilities of the team selected to make these decisions.

Does the senior management team really help fix broken projects? How do we decide what breaks a project? Is a RED project in need of senior executive attention? If the project manager needs something, why don't we just let them have it? The only CXO decision here is where there are conflicting priorities. How does 'sitting' on the progress and getting a daily update really help?

My CEO is great at generating excitement in a growing start-up business, he demonstrates great vision and leadership. He is not employed for his ability to manage, or  fix, challenging projects. Escalating to his level does not add much value to any part of a project. Making important decisions is helpful, especially if impacting other business priorities, but where does he get his key input? Others that are probably better placed to make the decision in the first place.

So what help do executive stakeholders offer? Are they simply consumers of the results of their leadership?

It is ironic that once a project reaches a RED status, the main focus of the PM is to report on a more frequent basis to the senior team. When their efforts are far more useful and beneficial focused on the team that is actually doing the work (and hopefully fixing the problems). The senior executives are often keen to offer helpful advice during the many status update meetings, but this is often based on the canned case-studies from their MBA rather than real experience. What the books tell you is often irrelevant when face-to-face with the actual problems, in most cases a solid dose of reality is necessary to help achieve the goals.

Well prepared and documented procedures are designed to prevent projects failing, they rarely offer benefit once a project has failed and is in need of attention. Here you need hands-on, focused support to overcome specific problems not covered in the 'business-as-usual' rules. This is where the experienced 'hands-on' project manager differentiates from the qualified 'professional' project manager with a portfolio of successful deliveries. There is a need to do what will work, not necessarily what the procedure says. Rules are indeed often broken.

I wonder if most successful projects are those that avoid executive support and help entirely (high-level vision and direction excepted). Certainly those that stay below the radar attract less stress and concern for all involved. Then again, in my experience I have rarely been complimented or rewarded for successfully delivering a project that went by-the-book and no-one noticed. The plaudits and rewards have been for rescuing the projects everyone thought were unrecoverable. Not a great example for following good project management practice in the first place.

My usual goal is to prevent and avoid escalation at all costs, even on a challenging project that has already gone wrong. The chance of failure once the CXOs get involved probably increases 10-fold. If the executives could manage the project better than a good project manager then the organisation probably needs to seriously review its recruitment and resourcing policies. All I generally need is the resource or time necessary to turn things around.

I wonder if I'll remember this advice if  I ever get to be one of these executives?