Problems All Project Managers Face in Communicating With Senior Management

problems all project managers face

Today's average project manager is tasked with a heavy workload -- from inbound requests in varying shapes and sizes to projects that are in all stages of completion. Yet, not only are project managers required to continue the tasks of running projects, new project managers inherit more responsibility and exposure when collaborating closely with senior management. Just as Gartner predicted at the Gartner PPM & IT Governance Summit 2012, project managers will be asked to be project leaders.

Communicating with senior management has never been more critical. Fifty-five percent of surveyed project managers agree that effective communication, especially to project stakeholders and senior management, is the number one factor in a project's success. This effective communication starts with project managers interacting with senior management to understand what information and materials they need to be successful. Poor communication is attributed as the main reason for any IT project failure in a national survey of IT professionals. And, for every $1 billion that is spent on a project, more than half is immediately at risk because of poor communication.

Overall, for many companies, their biggest priority is to improve visibility and awareness of projects. This becomes the project leaders' responsibility -- delivering the information to keep senior management informed.

With the growing problem of poor communication in mind, all of these communication breakdowns can be boiled down to three distinct problems. Let's explore the list of "don'ts" when trying to communicate effectively with senior management, in addition to recommended solutions:

1. Don't Deliver the Wrong Metrics

This issue can stem from project managers spending an atrocious 30 percent of their workday searching for metrics and status updates to deliver to senior management rather than managing deadlines and communicating with respective team members. In a survey of middle managers at large U.S. companies, 59 percent agreed that they miss important information on a daily basis because data is simply too hard to locate.6

Project managers spend too much time searching for data because that data is housed in disjointed tools, on workers' desks or simply not available. Executives can waste up to six weeks per year hunting down lost documents.

Often, when data is actually available, it doesn't provide a complete view of all types of work. Both planned and unplanned (ad hoc requests) work take up time in a worker's day, and without reporting on both types of work, data sent to senior management is incomplete. Truly effective communication must start with all of the facts, and reports today don't deliver the visibility senior management requires.

How to avoid this problem:

Ensure that project requests (both planned and ad hoc) are submitted in a central location. Whether that's a project management tool, a spreadsheet, an in/out box on a desk, or a designated employee, a single location will help you cut down on the time it takes to find the data your boss wants to see.

Establish the right system and you'll deliver the right metrics (and, as a bonus, if your solution lives online, you can also deliver real-time reports to senior management that can facilitate better, more productive conversations).

2. Don't Overlook Your Resources

A reported 43 percent of American employees describe themselves as disorganized and a disheartening 21 percent suffer from missed deadlines. This disorganization causes many managers to work late hours and miss key deadlines because they're underutilizing the resources available to them. In fact, only five percent of organizations optimally use resource and capacity planning.9

Many project managers are flying blind. They don't understand the current capacity of their team and therefore can't appropriately assign projects to teams or employees that have more availability. Most often, project managers end up sending work to teams or employees that they've worked with in the past, not the teams or employees that have the availability to assume new work. This myopic approach to project assignments throws off the workload balance and undermines senior management's visibility.

An effective conversation about available resources simply can't happen if a project manager doesn't know what everyone is working on, what the progress is on each project and task, and what employees are available for more work.

How to avoid this problem:

Take inventory of what your team can accomplish at full capacity. Get a real understanding of what your team is capable of and what you may need to hire out to an outside vendor. The next step is tracking new work requests and how much time each will require.

Many project management software solutions include resource planning tools to track your team's capacity for easier resource planning. Again, whatever tool works for your team, whether that's a cloud-based software tool, an Excel document or simply a single employee responsible for understanding the current workload of each team member, implement it and you'll find your conversations with senior management are effective and productive. Giving senior management complete visibility into available resources will prevent them from committing resources to other projects without understanding the subsequent workload implications. Capacity information will enable you to demonstrate your team's value, take on more work if possible and justify outside help if needed.

3. Don't Enable Siloed Methodologies

Working with multiple methodologies is becoming more common, and usage will only continue to rise. The success rates of Agile projects are nearly 10 percent higher than traditional Waterfall project management, and many project leaders will be asked to lead these new Agile teams. It's important to understand the similarities, differences and proper translations to effectively communicate what the executives need to know.

Separating these teams and the metrics each produces, however, can create a disjointed conversation with senior management. For one team (Agile), you'll be talking about sprint planning, while for another team (Waterfall), you'll be discussing task predecessors. Aside from differences in terminology, the metrics collected might be different enough that they can't be compared apples-to-apples. Without proper translation, both project managers and executives will be missing true visibility into each team's value and workload.

Remember, Agile and Waterfall speak different languages. The terms and theories are different, and most executives need information and data in traditional project manager jargon. Sending updates about sprint planning, burndown charts and story points won't do you any favors in the communication department with your boss.

How to avoid this problem:

Translate the data. How many story points equal a traditional eight-hour workday? Start first with the key points: what is your team working on, what is the progress on each project/task and what other work can you complete? These data points always transcend methodologies.

Many tools translate Agile jargon to Waterfall metrics automatically. Choosing a tool like this can roll up an Agile backlog into a traditional Waterfall project, eliminating the need for manual metric conversion and the hassle of flagging down status updates from members of the Agile team.

The Stakes Are High

Overall, it's estimated that 14 percent of every workweek is wasted because of poor communication,11 and 80 percent of all IT projects are late, under-delivered or over budget.12 Companies employing project managers that understand proper communication are 50 percent more likely to have a low turnover rate13 and report 47 percent higher total returns to shareholders.14

In today's fast-paced world that offers endless tools to facilitate conversations, it's important to share the right project management metrics, the right availability, and right methodology translations with senior management.

6 Accenture, Wall Street Journal, 5/14/2007.

9 "Resource Management and Capacity Planning Benchmark Study 2013." Commissioned by Planview® Conducted by Appleseed Partners and OpenSky Research.

11 Easen, Nick. "Promoting Plain Workplace English.", 6 May 2004.

12 Sheffert, Mark W. "Ventures for Growing Twin Cities Companies." April 2001.

13 "Connecting Organizational Communication to Financial Performance – 2003/2004 Communication ROI Study." Watson Wyatt & Company, 3 Nov. 2003.

14 "Capitalizing on Effective Communication – How Courage, Innovation and Discipline Drive Business Results in Challenging Times." (2010). Towers Watson, originally published by Watson Wyatt Worldwide.