Too often, these project reviews are unnecessarily painful for all participants. Help is on the way.
Bill Hoberecht -
Few Project Managers look forward to presenting the status of their project to Senior or Executive Management. Senior Management may have little interest in the specifics of a project or they may be interested in probing every last detail. Frequent are the reviews with marathon preparation sessions, relentless questioning, and embarrassing silences when requested information is unavailable, management frustration and disappointment, and a feeling of trepidation following the review. The lives of Executives, Senior Management and Project Managers need not be so difficult. Utilizing best practices can improve the effectiveness of status reviews and contribute to success of your projects.
Status Reviews for Senior Management - Simple in Concept, Complex in Reality
Theoretically, project status reviews for Senior or Executive Management (we'll call them Senior Management Reviews in this article) are a valuable forum for exchanging information that can help projects proceed successfully. The concept is disarmingly simple:
- Project leaders present key information that accurately represents past progress and anticipated future performance, along with requests for guidance and escalations for assistance in resolving issues.
- Senior Management obtains current information about the project, identifies strengths and gaps in project performance and project leadership's abilities, and offers guidance and insight into actions required for project success.
Unfortunately, implementing Senior Management Reviews effectively is anything but simple. Many factors can complicate the process of reporting status to senior management, eroding the potential benefits of status reporting activities. Yet, these reviews are important for all project organizations.
Why Hold Senior Management Reviews?
Countless times, I've encountered organizations with ineffective status reporting mechanisms. One such organization had about a dozen projects underway, but there was no mechanism in place to inform any Senior Management about project activities. In fact, the Director would learn of project status and significant issues primarily through informal hallway discussions. Miscommunication was pervasive, resulting in Senior Management's frequent disappoint in project performance. Lost was the opportunity to leverage Senior Management's expertise. Without any structured support, Project Managers were alone in their quest to prevent project failure.
The use of an excellent project plan does not eliminate the need for conducting status reviews. In a static, unchanging work place, this plan could probably be used without change for the life of the project. However, in the real world projects are subjected to an unending set of forces that that work to invalidate elements of the project plan - a project might see people leave or join the team, the project scope may have increased, the project team may be making slower progress than anticipated, budgets could be reduced, etc. These factors and the need to recover from their effects are primary reasons for holding status reviews with project team members and with Senior Management.
Best practices from the Software Engineering Institute advocate the use of Senior Management Reviews. The Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) offers excellent guidance on holding status reviews with Senior Management: "Review the activities, status, and results of the process with higher level management," for the purpose of providing senior management with appropriate visibility into the project's operations. Senior Management Reviews provide a forum for examining objective data from project activities and results, openly addressing complex issues, and disseminating key project information.
The benefits of Senior Management Reviews, and of status reporting in general, are significant for all stakeholders.
- Project leaders have a forum for sharing progress and their accomplishments. As well, they can engage with others, including Senior Management, to recognize and resolve impediments to project success - often these issues require active involvement by Senior Management.
- Senior Management's review of the project affords them the opportunity to probe into the project's operation and provide direction to the team. The most significant benefit for the project is that the very people that care about project success are coming together to get a common understanding of the project's status and then working together to understand and resolve issues.
A Roadmap for Introducing Senior Management Reviews
Focusing attention on the structrure and effectiveness of project status reviews is often brought about by a recognition that there are problems that must be addressed. By establishing a foundation for project status discussions with Senior Management, useful reviews can become a longlasting component of the organizational fabric. Here is a straightforward approach for introducing (or improving existing) Senior Management Reviews in your project organization:
- Understanding the requisite information that all Project Managers should be using to plan, track and manage their projects. Included are methods of obtaining this information and guidance on how it could be effectively used.
- Selecting, from the core project information, the data to be presented in Senior Management Reviews. These are essentially the requirements for reporting status to Senior and Executive Management. Consistency in project reporting is a goal, enabling effective use of Senior Management's time. Each project also needs the flexibility to present additional data that is germane to that project.
- Establishing a reasonable schedule for presenting status. More complex, risky or critical projects will need more visibility to Senior Management, and their formal face-to-face reviews should be more frequent. Projects that present status less frequently should submit interim written status materials to Senior Management for review and comment.
- Training for all: Senior Management and Project Managers will be best equipped for success if they understand the goals, approach, details and protocol of Senior Management Reviews.
- Committing to the discipline. Senior Managers must make it a priority to attend and actively participate with a positive approach. Project Managers have a responsibility approach reviews with accurate information and a positive attitude.
Obstacles to Implementation
Unfortunately, the expected benefits of Senior Management Reviews can elude those organizations that lack a structure for managing and monitoring team projects. I've seen two major categories of obstacles that act to prevent a successful implementation of Senior Management Reviews - do either of these look familiar?
- Senior Management Focus: Senior Managers' attention is not on projects, but elsewhere (e.g., strategy, personnel). Project reviews with management are rare, and it is unusual for Senior Managers to spend time with project teams. Senior management may not have sufficient interest or experience to probe a project's information and provide guidance. With no requirement from senior leadership to hold reviews, there is little chance of making reviews a "way of life" for the organization.
- Project Management Expertise: Project Managers who are unfamiliar with executive reporting have difficulties and quickly form entirely negative opinions about Senior Management Reviews. They find themselves devoting large amounts of time to prepare for reviews, assembling volumes of information that management wants to see (even if it is not actually used by the Project Manager to direct the project). The meetings rarely are pleasant, more often than not they feel that they are unmercifully asked difficult project management questions that they are unable to answer.
Introducing Senior Management Reviews to an organization can be fraught with pitfalls that will derail even the most earnest attempts. Here's a checklist of behaviors to avoid:
- Excessive information Requirements. Demanding too much coverage and detail in presentation materials creates an unnecessary burden on Project Managers prior to the review, and will likely result in far too many materials than can possibly be covered in a reasonable length of time. I've seen one extreme case in which a small, almost secondary project had to prepare nearly fifty slides of status material for review with Senior Management each month! Be judicious in setting the requirements for materials that will be presented and discussed with Senior Management.
- Requiring information that is not actually used by Project Managers as they lead the project. There is a problem if Senior Management is requiring the presentation of information or data that is not used within the project team. The gap may be on the part of the Project Manager - perhaps that information should be used in managing the project. Or, it could be that Senior Management is asking for information that is not relevant for the project.
- Hostile reviews, with Project Managers feeling "beat up." The occasional difficult review meeting is probably to be expected. However, if a Project Manager has trouble with every status review, this is indicative of a more serious issue for the organization. If that issue is not addressed satisfactorily, this situation could foster a broader dissatisfaction in the organization.
- Too many missed reviews due to Senior Management unavailability. Project Managers will take notice if Senior Management is repeatedly absent for review meetings. At some threshold, the organization will recognize that Senior Management Reviews really aren't important and may even cynically conclude that management has little interest in helping projects succeed.
- Abrupt changes in reporting requirements. Continually improving the content and effectiveness of status reporting is positive for the organization. However, sudden and significant changes without explanation can introduce doubt in management's leadership abilities.
Are Senior Management Reviews Worth the Effort?
There is no question that Senior Management Reviews are essential for every project organization. Organizations that rely entirely on informal (and probably inconsistent) methods of keeping Senior Management informed are a breeding ground for poor project performance. By committing to Senior Management Reviews, Senior Management can have immeasurably more influence in guiding projects towards successful completion and helping the organization improve.
How effective are your Project Status Reviews for Senior and Executive Management? With a critical, yet fair, appraisal of your current methods, make a determination if improvement is would be beneficial to your projects; if so, the steps outlined here can guide your journey.