Thought Leadership

Managing Up: Making Your Project Controls Organization Trusted and Agile

Category: Thought Leadership
N. Ryan Smith • January 8, 2018

Nobody in project organizations likes surprises.

Dislike of “bad surprises” is obvious, but even “good surprises” that result in changing the approved project plan can have cascading impacts that will probably make you question how good that “good surprise” really was. If you finish a task three weeks earlier than planned, you have now put the heat on the next teams in the chain to advance their work at a cost and risk exposure that may not be completely understood.

The best approach for everyone involved? Take the time to develop a robust project plan that everyone buys in to, and then stick to it. Consistent, predictable, reliable project performance: easier said than done, but rarely are things that yield major organizational benefits easy.

Intolerance of project surprises is amplified in companies that are undertaking big projects and have made big commitments to their shareholders and boards of directors. There is a lot at stake in terms of personal and corporate reputations (and, obviously, business outcomes).

Project teams that can’t impart confidence through predictable and reliable performance will be micromanaged by those above them. It’s human nature and, as restricted as you might be today, you can be sure that the thumbscrews will tighten with each new surprise. Your authority and agility as a project team to change-manage, contract-manage, and project-manage will be impaired and your stress levels and effectiveness will be at all-time highs and lows, respectively.

Do executives, board members, and oversight organizations want to be involved in the nitty gritty of projects to this degree? Absolutely not! Their behaviour revolves entirely around trust and if you are trusted you will be left to plan and execute on your terms.

This puts huge pressure on project execution organizations to deliver on time and on budget, but it puts even more pressure on the project controls organization. If life in project execution teams can seem a lot like firefighting, project controls must be the smoke detector – the early indicator of smoldering trouble.

Trusted and agile project controls organizations value prevention over correction and, in doing so, give their executives and board members confidence that they will be able to effectively identify risks and potential issues that arise. There are no longer “good or bad surprises,” but rather predicted events that the business has skilfully identified and reacted to in time to avoid or minimize negative impacts, so reputations and business outcomes remain intact.

Here are the measures a project controls organization should put in place to start the process of fostering trust that will yield increased authority and agility benefits to the project team.

  1. Implement a Robust Gated Process That Sets a Relentlessly High Standard for Project Products
    Having a gated approval process is not enough; the key word here is “robust.” While scalability and a bit of flexibility are hallmarks of any good gated process, conditional approvals must be avoided to ensure integrity is maintained.

    If you regularly conditionally approve poor plans because of production pressures, you will reap what you sow during execution. You will be chasing that bad plan and bad data for the entirety of the project, and your trust will be degraded.

    The gated process is the only true authority a project controls organization has – stand up for it and accept nothing less than quality project products that meet or exceed expectations. Trust ensues.

  2. Produce Simple, Clear Reports with Quality Data
    Give your executives simple rollup reports based on the solid data you validated and loaded into your tools upon your robust gate approval. If they choose to drill down into the details in the source systems, the data stands up and holds true. Trust ensues.

    Less is more – pick at most two or three meaningful things you are going to use to communicate and manage up. Base them on what your superiors are concerned about, not what you think is interesting.

  3. Practice Risk Management Zealotry
    If you have a good plan developed and approved through a robust gated process, the project team’s entire focus during execution should be risk management and looking ahead. This includes management of financial, commercial and, of course, health and safety risks.

    Most project teams I’ve been exposed to lose this discipline in the fog of war. It is tough for the execution team to stay on top of, so the project controls organization must augment their efforts to ensure risk management stays at the fore. Early identification of well-characterized risks will be appreciated by your leadership and will give them opportunity to react and adjust course. Trust ensues.

  4. Be the Communication Channel
    Surfacing project performance information and risks and issues in a transparent, balanced, and managed way gives the impression of control. In the absence of information, data, and communications, your leaders will fill the void with assumptions and perceptions (which become their reality).

    Most have the discipline to avoid rumour and get facts, but many don’t, and the unintended consequences of their well-intended questions and concerns can have catastrophic effects on a project organization’s sanity and effectiveness. You will be forced to chase that wild goose to satisfy the query at the detriment of real project priorities.

    Manage the message with facts and transparency. Trust ensues.

These four key strategies will help create the environment of trust that will allow project organizations more latitude, agility, and authority in project decision-making and approvals.