Putting your neck on the line

Next time you're put in charge of a project, you might want to think about why most of them go pear-shaped...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

With news that Network Rail is running late again with its track upgrade scheme, here at MT we were minded to wonder why it is that so many big corporate projects go wrong. One reason, according to City Consultancy, is that most of them don’t have a decent sponsor – that is, the person with overall responsibility for making a project happen, from managing finances to keeping an eye on staff. City argues that your only hope of making a success of this is to throw yourself into it – take the wimpish, laissez-faire approach, and you could end up with a disaster of ‘NHS IT programme’ proportions…

The consultant’s how-to bible, ‘Sponsoring for Success’, gives various best practice suggestions for wannabe sponsors. Some make a lot of sense: creating a well thought-out programme with clear milestones, deliverables, and delivery dates; planning in early success, to make everyone feel good about themselves; avoiding the perils of micro-management; praising and rewarding your team when things go well (in other words, the drinks should be on you once the first milestone is hit).

Others might seem a bit New Age for your liking; for instance, it urges managers to close their eyes and to imagine success and then share it with their team. When we tried this in the office, everyone just thought we were taking an afternoon nap. Then there’s the insistence on honesty: City advises sponsors to run an internal MOT of their skills, influence, and motivation – and if they’re not the right person for the project, to say so. All very admirable – but we can’t help wondering how realistic that is if you want to avoid losing face in a competitive workplace. How many people are going to turn around to their boss and admit: ‘Sorry, I’m just not competent enough for this’?

Nor were we wholly convinced by the idea of sending out weekly ‘flash reports’ to your colleagues and superiors as an email attachment, so everyone knows what a great job you’re doing – chances are you’ll just annoy people by clogging up their inboxes with unnecessary information. Although communication with the world outside your team is important, there are less intrusive options (like an internal blog, perhaps). And the advice that ‘a feel-good factor should always be promoted’ when giving bad news reminds us a bit of Comical Ali, Saddam’s former information minister…
 
Still, these days you’ll probably end up as a project sponsor eventually – and if you get most of the above right, you’ve at least got a good chance of coming out with some credit. The rest is down to good luck, hard graft, and knowing when to duck...

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