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Execs are Poorly Served by PM Tools

The Needs of Programme Sponsors seem to be Very Poorly Served by Most Project Management Tools on the Market

In many ways project management has become like a religious cult with an unhealthy obsession with task-level planning, tracking and collaboration. All good things for sure. But what about the VIP’s of the project world – Programme Sponsors – the people who define what it is you do and give you what you need to succeed. In over 25 years leading complex programme turnarounds, I have never used project management tools, I have only ever used Excel or PowerPoint.  Task-focused PM tools just don’t seem to help me communicate with my Sponsors.

1. Sponsor Reporting

PM tools have all these fancy dashboards but nowhere is the essential information: headline progress, confidence in delivery of overall objectives, support required to address any issues. Sponsors want this information directly. They don’t want to have to work it out. However you roll up task completion data, it is always going to be backward looking (i.e. what have you done?), with no insight into ‘what it will take’.

2. Really Fast Deployment

Sponsors want updates immediately, not 3 months after you have started the programme. Sponsors don’t like to wait in the dark while PM tools are rolled out across all projects.

3. Consistent Reporting across all Projects

The quality of reporting is always determined by the ‘weakest link’. All project managers need to use the same tool, and all need to approach task level planning the same way, and reach an acceptable level of proficiency. This, as they say in football, is often ‘an impossible ask’.

Having said all of this – there are many excellent task-level project management tools on the market. We are spoiled for choice. But Sponsor reporting seems almost an afterthought and remains task driven.

A separate tool for reporting top level status?

I have now moved on now. I no longer use PowerPoint and Excel. I now use a cloud-hosted solution that sits over the top of the task level tools. This seems like duplication, but has some very clear advantages.

A focus only on the 3 to 10 milestones of exec interest – only the essential information – the board is not interested in your tasks. Being cloud-hosted, this essential information is delivered in real time direct to Sponsor iPads.

Very quick to deploy – Project owners can produce an initial milestone plan in less than 1 hour – before they have validated it with task level planning or even chosen what PM tool they will use.

Consistency of reporting across all workstreams – a top level tool allows workstream owners to choose and use their favourite PM tool.  They don’t have to change to something they are not comfortable with – and the learning curve to do this is avoided.

Creates the right reporting mindset – once a week or once a month it asks each project owner to take a step back from the tasks to make a statement on headline progress and how confident you are about your future commitments, and what help you need.  Having to understand of the ‘so what?’ helps project owners make better decisions – and also helps the programme director (me) understand the ‘red items’ for each project and which project owners need support. Or who needs to be replaced.

Most importantly it changes the Sponsor mindset – Focusing on key milestones improves programme reviews, the focus of reviews is transformed from ‘explain your task delivery performance’ to ‘what do we need to do together to deliver future milestones’.  This is much healthier and supportive.  Programme reviews are hated by Sponsors – nobody likes them. They take days.  So they only happen only monthly – which in a 9 month programme is inadequate to provide timely support for the issues that can arise. A milestone focus can shorten programme reviews to a few hours – meaning more frequent reviews and more timely support.

Will commercial PM tools get there?

They will – without doubt. Some probably already have. But until we stop being obsessed with task level management, Programme management will remain onerous work for Sponsors.

As I say to my project owners – “Nobody cares about your tasks, I don’t even care if your name is Harry Potter and you deliver everything by magic. Just tell me how that September milestone looks and what help you need!”

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