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January 2019
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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!”

Tell Your Story

You need investors.  You need a buyer.  You need customers.  
You need management and staff engagement.  You need to get the word out. 

But can you tell your story?  
Most people can verbally at least.  But writing it down is a different matter.  Something seems to happen on the journey to ‘print’ that destroys the passion and simplicity.  Entrepreneurs and CEO’s are fabulous visionaries and great leaders but can be less gifted in front of a keyboard.

Is it joined up?
Also hard to convey is how everything fits together.  Narrative, lists and data are all very well, but nothing beats a picture to show complex inter-relationships.  Visual presentation is also quicker to understand, more impactful and more memorable for the reader.  But requires additional keyboard skills.

Does it say what you want it to say?
Narrative and data arranged under the traditional business planning headings (product, market, competition etc) makes it hard to see if anything has been missed and to understand the stronger and weaker parts of the story (no matter how good you are – there are always stronger and weaker parts).   Using a story-telling approach can deliver more clarity to both the writer and the reader.

Are the big messages clear?
It always surprises me how many people write business plans without actually stating the ‘big messages’ they want to get across.  If we treat these big messages as the headings, and the rest of the page (slide) as the available space to provide justification, then we impose upon the writer the discipline of providing a set of important and joined up ‘big messages’, and concise and convincing justifications for each.

Does the data support what you are saying?
A visual approach allows all the important information to be presented on a single page with the big message.  Visual is an easier to understand, multi-level, more impactful and memorable format.   Putting everything on 1 page forces the reader to have an opinion on both the story we are trying to tell (the big messages) and whether they have enough information to believe those big messages (does the page content deliver or not?).

Are you interesting and exciting?
People don’t want data from business plans – they want to know who you are, what you have built, what the opportunity is, why you will win.   So make the ‘big messages’ into meaningful, impactful, interesting and exciting assertions or commitments.  This is your business.  It is exciting.  And ‘the big messages’ is how you deliver this excitement to your audience.

Getting your story straight needs time!
Even if they have the skills, most entrepreneurs and CEO’s are too busy around funding or exit events to consider taking days out to craft such a communication of their business plan – or the value and potential of their business.  They need support.  And the reality is that without writing it down – nobody truly has their story straight.  It takes a number of iterations to find the right language, to join up the components of the story, and, importantly to reconcile with the financials.  Also the story is always evolving.  Nothing is standing still.

Doing this well requires the right level of support.    
Writing business plans is not an admin task.  Or a marketing task.  This is not a pitch.  The voice needs to be that of a CEO.  It needs to focus on the opportunity, the principal value drivers, the risks and what it will take to deliver.  Not the detail but the big stories in each area.  Investors, the board, customers, and employees know the marketplace usually and want only the headlines and the context.  They can usually work out the rest.

Enabling not advising.
Ownership needs to stay with the CEO.   This process is about getting the CEO’s story down so the CEO can tell it well.  This has to be the CEO’s plan and and the CEO’s voice.   My opinion does not count.  It is for the board to question the CEO.

The process itself has built-in external challenge.
But it does help entrepreneurs and CEO’s a great deal to have someone external challenging them to tell their story well enough so it can be documented.  In addition, the format exposes how well the story they are trying to tell hangs together.  There is no hiding place for gaps, inconsistencies and weak areas.   What works well and what needs more thought or better communication is clear.  My positioning is always that I am there to help them communicate to investors.  That gives me the ‘right to challenge’ – as I am the poor soul who has to write this up.   And “if you can’t make me understand then we will never get that high quality board or investor presentation that you want”.

I provide a low-risk communication challenge before the real challenges of communication to the board, customers, investors, employees or potential buyers.
And people seem to enjoy it!  They rant.  I write.  It works for everyone.

Everybody Hates Plans

Why do people hate plans?   Surely they are essential?  Alignment gets things done.   Or rather …. non-alignment prevents things from getting done.  Achieving the tough stuff requires full participation, everyone pulling in the same direction.  People pulling in different directions wastes energy and puts outcomes at risk.

Plans are boring !    The word ‘plan’ is uninspiring.  Plans are often too long, too complex, too boring and it can seem too difficult to reconcile everyone’s functional needs.  Getting to alignment around a single plan can seem like an impossible task.

So businesses often give up.  Or call a consultant.  Unfortunately many consultants then see this as an opportunity to gather ‘data’ and ‘advise’ clients on their business plan.  This can be a lengthy process, it can lead to loss of ownership (outsourcing of planning) and it can involve considerable expense.

My approach is different.  A business plan is a story.  This story has to be clear, concise and compelling – and understandable by real people (customers, investors).  If we have a story then we can use data (‘put the flesh on the bones’).  Without the story we have no way of evaluating the data.

A story is quick to build.  Most of the knowledge required is already in the business.  There are often also plenty of documents around – websites, collateral, spreadsheets, functional plans – there may even be a (complex, wordy, dull) business plan.   What isn’t written is available verbally – with much of the narrative.  Individuals are able to articulate very clearly many different aspects of business plans.

My job is to get this down to “20 pages” that can quickly and clearly sum up the complete business - its value, the opportunity and what it will take to deliver.

Have a look at the link:    HQI Strategy Delivery Support      And who I have supported:   HQI Strategy Delivery Clients

Digital Strategy

Sure I can help with your digital strategy – but firstly ask yourself what you mean by this. ‘Digital’ is simply one of the means to an end – together with people, products, service, marketing….

The real challenge for businesses is the articulation of that ‘end’. Technology can deliver what you want – but do you know what you want? If you can’t describe it then your chances of getting there are slim.

Reimagining the digital enabled business is what I can help with. Bringing internal leaders together to look at how things get done now – identifying areas of pain and potential gain – and then reimagining how things could get done to deliver a more integrated business and real competitive advantage. Only then is it time to look at technology as the means of enabling this.

Or you could get the technology sales reps in to advise you … I am sure that they will tell you what you need.


The book by Simon Sinek “Start with Why – How Great leaders Inspire Everyone to take Action” is a good read.  For me it is all about authenticity.  This has recently come to life for me.  I was asked to help articulate the value and strategy for two VC backed businesses.  They were in quite unglamorous sectors (manufacturing and transportation) and their perceived value was impacted as a result.  But they were very very successful.  We found the answers when we asked why …

WHY did their customers do business with them?  

The answers went beyond product and services differentiation – price, product, service content were all a given and readily available from the competition.  The value was in the way these were delivered …  pre-sales support, reliability, professionalism, responsiveness, commitment, attitude, transparency, relationships, service issue response … were what really set these businesses apart and underpinned their value – i.e. enabled them to win and retain new customers and maintain high quality earnings.   They were also what set them apart from the competition.  

Culture is a differentiator   

This is not something everyone is comfortable with.  It sounds too wishy washy and intangible.  In fact there were very tangible components in the WHAT and the HOW of product and service delivery …

  • e.g. service add-ons – taking worries or onerous tasks away from the customer
  • e.g. attention to detail – evidenced by a spotless factory floor
  • e.g. being a challenging partner – right first time commitment from service design to delivery
  • e.g. agile – flat structure, good communication, quick decisions, flexible and tight knit workforce
  • e.g. ‘going the extra mile’ for customers – when needed

Authenticity is a Prerequisite

You can list these items, put things in place to help them happen, and manage them.  But unless the leadership team is aligned and totally committed it is but a facade which customers see through.  The story fails at the weakest link in the chain.  All must play.  Authentic businesses – care about what they do and the people they do it for.  Sure – you have to be competent and have the right business model – but these don’t win the game.  It is the emotional investment that customers buy into and creates success.  It is no coincidence that these businesses are run by authentic leaders.

I have been lucky enough to meet a fair number and work with them.  I have also been lucky enough NOT to work for a number of businesses that were not authentic.  They don’t like my approach and I certainly have no time for them.



My recent strategy jobs have given me a few insights.  The first was that successful strategy delivery requires focus.   If you want significant improvement in 18 months – then as a business you need to decide what ‘4 big things’  you need to deliver in the next 9 months.   Why 4?   Because it is not 10, or 18, or 25 !   Unlike other consultancies who are paid for reports, I am usually paid for delivery.  Delivery requires focus.

  • Businesses do not have the management bandwidth to deliver a larger number of initiatives.
  • Focus turns attention to ‘game changers’, nice to have’s are dropped.  
  • Selection forces better definition of initiatives – joined up, end-customer outcomes focused
  • Focus ‘ups the ante’ for delivery; this helps kill other projects freeing up resources & investment

Finally – strategy definition becomes easier and quicker (weeks not months).  

The game changers are usually well known within a business.  Exhaustive market analysis takes time and usually only confirms actions to be taken rather than revealing others.  What I delivered was a clear articulation of, and shared commitment to, the game changers within the board and the leadership team – i.e. a Strategy-on-a-Page.

My clients have both benefited from being able to clearly and simply describe their business and their plans.   The best businesses have a very uncomplicated story to tell.  The trick is being able to articulate the essentials and using this to get everyone on board – customers, staff and shareholders.


The Right Leadership is not Optional

My assertions are:

  • the trusted lieutenants in the business are the right people to lead change
  • if these people are the right people and can be helped to lead change you will succeed
  • if these people do not lead change you will fail

Simple and most people agree with these statements.  So why in so many cases do the most important people in the business end up NOT leading transformation – which by definition is big and is probably the most important thing going on in the business.  How many of the mistakes below is your organisation making?


Of course they are.  They are the most important people in the business.  It is your choice.  Is it easier to free these people up enough to participate in transformation leadership; or to risk almost certain failure of a programme they feel they do not own?  Your choice.  Backfilling key lieutenants is easier than delivering a programme with no credible internal leadership.


Programme management can easily be added to a programme.   Leadership and support from the key people in the business cannot.  It doesn’t matter how many Gantt charts you produce if you do not have the support of the key players then you are just an efficient reporter of failure.  By the way – I have news – nobody reads Gantt charts !


Most companies split business transformation into distinct functional initiatives.  But what about the end-to-end?   A business has to work “joined up”.  Your customers sort of expect it.  And your profitability sort of depends on it.   Who is in charge of making sure the business is joined up end-to-end?  If the answer is nobody (or worse “the senior team”) then there is a high risk (certainty) of battles over priorities and resources; poor co-ordination of change; and sub-optimisation (or non-achievement) of overall outcomes.


If you build a separate entity called “transformation” this tends to have a higher profile than the individual components.  Large cross functional transformation often has a systems change at its core so is run by I.T. or, worse, an external contractor or consultant.  Either way the most important people in the business feel like they don’t own the transformation and like it is optional to commit.  But they will still be expected to do the majority of the leading of change.   It only takes 1 to not play ball.

As easy as ABC

How to succeed at transformation:

A = alignment

B = belief

C = commitment

Identify the change leaders in the business (trusted lieutenants); give them the time to participate; then as a group do the ABC.

ALIGNMENT:  shared vision of

  • what – we are trying to build
  • why – compelling reason for action, return on investment
  • how – roadmap from where we are now all the way to deployment and benefits

BELIEF:   removal of perceived barriers to success.  Nobody wants to board a train that they think is going to crash.  Address issues and concerns up front.  Bear in mind that most of these (if not all) are cross-functional differences in priorities or inter-dependencies.  Not dealing with these in enough detail up front with an experienced enough person is where traditional consultancies fall down.  It is not enough to flag these issues.  They must be actively hunted down and killed.   I keep a list of these and make sure that the senior team knows what stands between success and failure.  Also – being self employed – and a bit of a stubborn northerner – I do not let people off the hook.  Other people might be OK with risking failure – I certainly am not.

COLLABORATION:   making sure that once alignment is achieved, it is sustained.  And also recognising that unanticipated issues will arise through the life of a programme that will require a mechanism in place to identify and resolve them.  Collaboration is often called governance.  But I find that that word is boring and has negative connotations.   Collaboration (or governance) also has to be well designed to be effective.  Poor design equals poor participation.  Which is worse than no process at all.   The participants are Exec and senior manager level.  The reporting and interactions need to be concise and to the point.  This does not happen by itself.

Would you buy a car that nobody else owned?

If you are a multi-millionaire or car nut – MAYBE.

If you are a normal person.  NO.

It is the same with systems.

If no other serious business is using the system already, successfully, with smiles on their faces.  Then do not touch it with a barge pole. Whatever they say.  Sales people are like consultants.  Everything is possible right up until the moment that it isn’t!  And then they want more money to fix it.

And it was your fault.  Actually I agree with them on the last bit.  It is your fault.  Seeing is believing.

Who are the true leaders of change?

Establishing the right leadership for change is the difference between success and failure.  Lets examine the candidates for ‘key people’ who should own or lead change in the business.

External Consultants:   NO

No explanation required.  If you need one. See me after school.

Senior Management:  NO

Senior management don’t actually do stuff.  The defer on the detail to their “trusted lieutenants”.  Then sanction decisions and provide support.  It is a myth that senior management are the leaders of change (at least in large companies).  It is WW1.  They are not in the trenches.   They don’t lead the charges.

The ‘Trusted Lieutenants':  YES

Depending on the size of the business and the scope of the change – there are between 8 – 18 people who actually will have to do stuff to make transformation happen.  These people take (or make recommendations on) decisions, lead the key activities, and be the guarantors of operational success in the end game.  Anything less than wholehearted support from these people is a serious problem.  Their active participation and leadership is the best.  Trusted lieutenants have “credibility up” and “credibility down”.  That is the definition of a trusted lieutenant.  If these people are the right people then you are one step closer to guaranteed success.

Everyone Else:   NO

If you have the active support of the key lieutenants – then you have the active support of everyone else.  It is very popular for consultants to bleat on about getting the 100’s of others “on-side” with the change.  But really this is only a money making exercise for them.  Getting others on-side is what the key lieutenants do.  The leaders lead.  They will need support to do this well but this does not require armies of consultants.

Why am I right?

I do programme rescue.  There is no time.  I have to get straight to the people who have the biggest influence in the business.  The Trusted Lieutenants.