Exceptional management support and project success

Ilkka Töyrylä and Marko Niskanen, Midagon Oy
Lähde: Midagon Oy

For a project to succeed, strong top management support and sponsorship is vital. This is not only our personal experience from various projects and programs, but it is also confirmed by scientific research. Professors Matti Rossi and Kari Smolander recently conducted two meta-analyses on success and failure factors in ERP programs and complex digital transformations at Midagon’s request.

The objective of these analyses was to identify the factors underlying the success and failure of complex ICT programs. Overall, the results were highly interesting. Top management’s support and sponsorship was the number one success factor in both studies. Similarly, lack of adequate management support was among the key factors explaining failures.

How does exceptional management support show in practice?

Over the past 20 years, we have seen outstanding examples of exceptional top management support in our projects and programs. We will next introduce some of these examples covering support from business owners, other top management or programs’ steering groups.

Exceptional management:

  • Takes personal accountability for the success of the program from the very beginning and openly communicates their accountability within the organization.

In one program with an unusually tight schedule and high importance, the CIO gave a speech and said that if the initiative failed, he would be the one accountable for the failure. This carried a message of the CIO’s commitment and the importance of the program. Naturally, this did not remove program manager’s responsibility.

  • Sets clear objectives and demands results, while maintaining a positive atmosphere. Having clear objectives set by the management, gives the program manager a mandate to demand actions from the organization and to justify deadlines.
  • Communicates the priority of the program to the organization in a way that leaves no ambiguity.

In a kick-off of one major program, the business owner communicated the priority as follows: “If our office catches fire, fighting the fire is the number one priority. In all other circumstances, the tasks related to this program are the number one priority.” After this message, the work of the program manager requiring contributions from a busy organization was much easier.

  • Empowers the program allowing it to operate with relative independence. To preserve its independence, the program manager must ensure that the management remains aware of the progress at any point of time. The management must be confident that the work will proceed as expected, unless otherwise stated, and they will hear about the problems, if they occur. When the program tasks are led punctually and communicated adequately, there is no need for micromanagement.

As program managers, we have used several different communication channels (one-to-one calls, memos, short catch-up meetings, shared links of dynamically updated documents) to keep the business owner and the steering group up to date with the progress. One advantage s is that when we have had the steering group meeting, everyone has been up-to date on program status, and we have been able to focus more intensively on key issues.

  • Respects the expertise of the program team members and allows the team to make decisions. The further the details of the implementation are from the management’s core competencies, the more important it is to trust the experts.

For example, a good sales director can tell exactly what she or he wants from his CRM system and what KPIs are needed to track sales. After setting the requirements, she or he understands that there are far more competitive persons on the team to do the actual design – e.g. architecture. It is the leader’s strength to understand this and to rely on the expertise of their team in these decisions. By delegating responsibility to the experts, management also improves the team members’ commitment to the program. In general, this has led to better quality results.

  • Enables quick and flexible decision-making. The speed is necessary to prevent decision-making from becoming a bottleneck in the program. We especially value decisions in the situations, where the owner has made clear decisions, even though there are strong differing opinions within one’s organization. This has allowed programs to proceed without delay.

When things go well, it is great to notice the trust building between us as program managers and the management team. Because of trust, we in the programs are authorized to make smaller decisions independently. This increases our efficiency and in the big picture, speeds up the progress of the program and reduces costs. This again builds up joint good-will, that is needed in difficult times.

  • Is present in the program. The management showing up at the key program events is often enough. The management presence indirectly indicates that the program continues to be a priority. If the management stops being visible in the program, it may lead to people making their own conclusions about reduced priority, after which they start focusing on other things and the momentum dries up.
  • Offers help when the program faces issues requiring management support. The best examples are the cases where the management reacts almost instantly, when problems arise.

In one program, we faced a problem with the interpretation of personal data regulations. There was a risk of a significant delay in the program. After the issue was escalated to the business owner, it took only a few hours, before a meeting with the Data Protection Ombudsman was scheduled. The problem was resolved, and the program schedule was saved.

In problem situations, it is the program manager’s responsibility to ensure that the management is not bothered with every small issue. Help should only be requested, when there is a real need for management support and advice.

  • Is available when there is a need for sparring and for ensuring that the work goes in the right direction.

Conclusions

Top management support is crucial for program success. At the same time, the program manager must know his / her role and responsibility as the subject and enabler of the support. Providing exceptional management support does not require huge time commitments. It instead shows up as commitment, clearly communicated priorities and trust.