Executives are asking the wrong questions

Context and perceptions

Reading the November 2013 issue of the Gazette as well as the great new book “Business Analysis – best practices for success” by Steve Blais, who is a colleague of mine, I couldn’t help feeling that we are looking under the lamppost: Project management is already a well understood and defined field of knowledge with accumulated experience and lessons learned. Business analysis is gaining more traction daily. In the business analysis workshops that I am leading, I witness a growing understanding of the text and context for the role of the business analyst. However, the pain we are experiencing with projects and products and specifically in the public sector, are not a result of poor project management or business analysis on the tactical level. Rather, it is portfolio and executive management that is at fault, asking the wrong questions concerning projects, programs and portfolios. Participating often in governance boards, I am surprised time and again that they are bothered with the trivial instead of the essence. Graphical displays, colorful reports, PowerPoint presentations of the ten highest risks, main issues and workarounds; they are interested in the ‘what’ and ‘how’ the projects are faring. Instead of asking ‘why’ governance boards betray their responsibility to question the further relevance of the projects. Indeed, the only time they do ask the ‘why’ question is during project initiation, this falls short of what governance is about. Asking: ‘why are we doing this project’ is the most important question that portfolio and executive management must ask.

Yes, I know it is a hard question to ask, but hey, that is what they get paid for. The prime benefit of governance is the capacity to cancel a project halfway through because it no longer provides value. According to the work of Eli Goldratt in Critical Chain Project Management and Professor Boaz Ronen’s research, among others, organizations can make more with less. Practically, when I am asked to help faltering project organizations (IT and others), my first perceptual cognitive exercise is to ask executive stakeholders to cancel 30% of the projects. The initial response is shock, followed by a long series of argument of why it is impossible. I explain that it is merely a theoretical exercise, which placates the participants and they follow to provide such a list. With it, we then assess the real strategic value of the projects. Surprisingly enough after three demanding days we do cancel approximately ~15% of the projects. In half a year we achieve much more, faster and cheaper.

Why can’t organizations perform this endeavor themselves? There are two causes to emphasizing the ‘what’ and ‘how’ instead of the ‘why’.

Political cause – asking the ‘why’ question is politically dangerous; it might lead others to question the original project approval. In addition, the budget and time which were already invested would become sunk costs – yet again, this will raise uneasy questions. In order to move from ‘what’ and ‘how’ to ‘why’, public sector and governmental organizations in particular need to change their mindset: stopping a project halfway through is a blessing – it demonstrates courage and forward thinking. In fact, we can define a KPI which tracks the number of projects that have been cancelled before completion as a method to promote this line of thinking.

Cognitive causes

Political causes are grounded in powerful cognitive bias and cognitive dissonance.

Decision commitment – as aptly described by Dr. Cialdini in the: Power of Persuasion, committing to a certain course of action promotes consistent support of it. People find it extremely difficult to revert on their formal public decisions, preferring to remain consistent rather than questioning those decisions. The project governance stakeholders have an underlying cognitive bias which leads them away from asking the tough question of ‘why are we doing this project’. Since they are the ones who approved the project, they are committed to following it through to completion.

Cognitive dissonance – recent studies in decision making show, that we are highly unlikely to question our initial decisions. We view newly gathered information, as supporting the original decision, even when new information contradicts it. In this case, since the portfolio and executive management approved the project initially, they find it extremely difficult to ask ‘why are we doing this project’ presented with new contradicting information. At time when information analysis suggests cancelling the project, people will pounce on it, disregard it or claim that it isn’t relevant to the situation.

From the causes detailed above we understand the challenges to cancelling an approved project. It is our mission as project and business experts to promote better results from project, program and portfolio execution. The best way to challenge a project is to be bold, asking the tough questions throughout the lifecycle of the project.

You can check: the Agile PMO – where I further discuss these concepts

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