IPMA International Project Management Association
5 March 2018 / 8:04

How to engage top managers in projects and project management?

During the last couple of months I had the opportunity of talking to several top managers of multi-billion Euro companies. They certainly have a very different perspective and need to be approached in special way. However, it´s crucial for the success of projects and project management at large that we do so more often. Surveys repeatedly highlight the crucial role top management plays for the success of individual projects as well as for the overall project management system. Nevertheless, there is not much progress in too many organisations, at least from my point of view.

Some of the activities top management should do are listed below:

  • Advocate the importance of projects and project management for the organisation, internally as well as externally
  • Develop a vision, mission and strategy for the management of projects, programmes and portfolios aligned to the overall vision, mission and strategy
  • Be engaged in the early stages of a project and help  to validate the business case, the objectives and the priority of the project in view of the whole portfolio
  • Perform governance and leadership for the project and support the project manager and the team (but refrain from micromanagement!)
  • Make necessary resources available and balance needs of the line and the project organisation in view of the organisation´s strategic intentions
  • Accept the deliverables, appraise achievements and ensure the utilization of lessons learned for future projects

One of the challenges is that top managers are educated to deal with strategic issues, for example a new overall vision, mission and strategy. The topic of strategy implementation (through projects and programmes) is taught as an “operational technique”, which belongs to the responsibility of other people down the hierarchy. This is why top managers spend too little time for strategy implementation and thus projects and programmes. They often do not even see the connection between the one and the other, which is why many strategies fail or are not implemented thoroughly.

The other challenge is that project managers are people “out of the trenches”, they make their way up as (“accidental”) project managers and do not speak the language of top management, they do not know about the responsibilities and daily work of a top manager and thus the communication between both levels is “complicated”. There needs to be more opportunities talking to each other. But also the way of communication needs to change.

The following highlights aspects that might help you as project manager or Head of Project Management, to engage top managers:

  • Define the active role top management has throughout the project lifecycle (e.g. in a RASIC-Chart) and „keep them engaged“
  • Maintain close communication to top managers, mainly through questions and – if necessary – through red flags or an escalation
  • Demonstrate the importance of excellent leaders in the context of projects and project management
  • Exemplify the business impact (e.g. Return on Investment) of great individual and organisational competences in project management
  • Make clear that projects are a means to realize the organisation´s strategy and the top managers are the top project managers

To be successful in reaching out to the top managers we need to do things differently:

  • Use the language of top management instead of project management jargon
  • Reduce the level of details in communication and focus on business impact and strategic benefits
  • Demonstrate the benefits of what we do for the project AND the organisation at large
  • Establish a voice for project management on the board level („Chief Project Officer“ CPO) [http://blog.ipma.world/chief-project-officer-cpo-new-role-project-oriented-organisations/]
  • See our profession to be instrumental for the whole organisation and the strategic change for a sustainable development …

I know, it´s a difficult endeavour but it´s crucial for the success of project management on the long run. Just do it!


1 Comment

  • Brendon de Reuck says:

    Brilliant article Reinhard. This is such a valid topic in project management currently. There is often a very big disconnect between the permanent organization and the project office.

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.