What to Do When Leadership Isn't Aligned on a Software Project

Whenever a company starts a business project—software related or not—some amount of conflict is inevitable. But because software development projects often require collaboration from different departments with different goals, the potential for conflict is particularly high.

And no conflict puts a project’s success more in jeopardy than that among a company’s leadership, because priorities are set from the top down. If a leadership team can't agree on project priorities, employees or vendors working on the project can't be expected to know what they are either. That can cause huge problems when it comes to allocation of time, commitment, scope, direction, and funding.

In addition to a lack of leadership support, some of the most common causes of project failure also include:
* A breakdown in effective communication among those involved
* Key decisions being made by people who lack the subject mater expertise to make such decisions
* A failure to establish a governance structure appropriate to the project’s needs

Fortunately, companies can take steps to help mitigate some of these risks and get their leadership on the same page when it comes to software development. By cultivating a combination of good project management and conflict-resolution skills, a company can create a culture that leads to greater overall efficiency.

So, if your company is having a hard time getting all its leaders aligned on a software project, consider the following strategies.

1. Invest in strong project management

According to a 2012 study by McKinsey & Co. and the University of Oxford, large IT projects ($15 million or more) run on average 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted.

One way to improve a project’s success is through strong project management, with a focus on good communication and risk management.

Another study revealed that project managers spend 42 percent of their time on reaching agreement with others when conflicts occur. Therefore, it’s important that they possess not only organizational and technical skills, but also skills in good communication and conflict management.

And apparently, it makes a difference. According to Project Management Institute’s 2012 Pulse of the Profession report, companies with a project management office saw 65 percent of their projects meet their original business goals and intent. Likewise, 72 percent of high-performing organizations use project portfolio management, compared to only 39 percent of low-performing organizations.

2. Bring on project sponsors

Project sponsors are more than just figureheads. They fight for resources, keep up morale, and ensure a project stays aligned with the company’s overall strategy. Or, as one executive put it, “The role of the executive sponsor is to ensure the vision of the company and the vision of the project remain in lock-step as the project is in execution.” (Chris Tyler, Conifer Health Solutions, Frisco, Texas)

However, because disagreement is still inevitable even with the best sponsors, sponsors will likely occasionally need to exercise negotiation skills.

Lynn Crawford, managing director at Human Systems International Ltd. in Sydney, Australia, explains, “You have to work out what’s in it for those people. You have to decide whether the project needs to be changed to make it more acceptable.”

Sometimes, being a champion of a project may even mean killing it—if, for example, changes to the market or the company’s strategy make it redundant or outdated.

3. Take time to listen

When project managers feel senior management isn’t dedicating enough attention to their project, too often they’ll throw their hands up in frustration instead of working harder to capture management’s attention.

Yet, taking the time to determine what matters most to leaders about a particular project can be critical to the overall value that project brings to an organization.

As explained in an article from Business.com: “It’s important to spend time digging deep with these senior leaders to truly understand what their pain points are and how they are affected by them. Then, they can begin to quantify how resolving the problems presented will benefit both them and the company.”

4. Consider the company culture

If lack of agreement seems to be a recurring theme among your company’s leadership, the root of the problem may lie in the culture. What role is leadership attempting to fill?

When it comes to software development projects, it’s not realistic for senior leaders to have a complete understanding of every front-line detail. Instead, the most critical focus for leaders is maintaining the overall vision of the project.

This is particularly important in complex projects, because when requirements change and evolve, it’s easier to lose sight of the overall project vision. That’s when leaders should stop in, to reinforce the overarching goal of a project. Likewise, when issues arise, leaders should act promptly to remove roadblocks and resolve issues.8

Still, one study showed that 80 percent of business leaders reported they aren’t doing their best to communicate strategy across the enterprise, let alone execute against it.

So if leaders aren’t fulfilling that role in a software project, it may be an issue with the company’s leadership culture – and not one of the project itself. It’s also where project managers can be helpful, as they free executives to think strategically, instead of being bogged down in project details.

In Conclusion

No matter the root of the reason for disagreement on a software project, it’s essential that issues are resolved in a timely manner so as to not hinder the project’s success. Therefore, escalation paths should be clearly identifiable and freely accessible to use as needed. Clear, frequent communication on all levels is also vital to ensuring everyone knows what is going on, changes required, progress achieved and decisions made. And it’s up to the leadership team to facilitate such communication.

If you do, even the most complex software project can succeed.

But if you don’t—well, don’t say we didn’t warn you about the danger of becoming a statistic.

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