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When it comes to information systems many executives still feel uncomfortable: they were uncomfortable in the 90s dealing with the complex ERP projects and the related "reengineering" processes, today facing the "digitalization" and the risk of "uberization" they certainly do not feel that much better.

In a post on HBR Joe Peppard gives a perspective on how "Executives Get the IT They Deserve": obviously if Executives do not spend any time on aligning the Information System strategy with the overall business, they should not complain the Information System is only a cost and does not bring value. Many executives still consider IT as a black box that can only be understood by "techies". Most of them are not used to conceptualize their organization as a sum of processes. Yet most information systems rely specifically on that type of model: by many aspects they inherit from cybernetics concepts. Basically it requires to understand the organization as a complex automated system that has hundreds of feedback loops that maintain it stable and/or evolutive, and capable to interact with a challenging environment.

The late Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, had developed a very interesting view of cybernetics in organizations through his simple- and double-loop organizational learning model. Such a view can easily be extended to Information System projects but is also very useful to better understand change management issues arising in this kind of context. It requires team members to be able to conceptualize, rephrase and simplify models: such resources are rare and not easily recruited. But when the process model is changed, most of the employees are also impacted and the organization as a whole needs to embrace the change. These circumstances require strong sponsorship from the executives: Not surprisingly the Standish Group lists "User involvement" and "Executive Management Support" among the top success criteria for projects in its well-known 'Chaos Ten'. Yet many executives fail to recognize their responsibility as top-level leaders or at least are unable to adopt the right behaviors in such circumstances.

So how can we define what an efficient executive sponsorship is?

There is certainly no easy answer to such a question. It might take many forms depending of the circumstances but as project sponsors executives have to carry three key messages:

  • The criticality of the project for the organization and its strategy;
  • Their support to the core project team;
  • The accountability of the organization as a whole for supporting the project (which means the accountability of each employee and manager).

To ensure proper communication, executives have to display leadership beyond the words. It is critical to make the organization understand project success is not simply the responsibility of the project team. For sure, project managers have to be accountable for the project execution and the team has to lead the transformation but it can only happen if the whole business follows and supports the change.  Here are a few typical actions successful sponsors take during a project:

  • Project kick-off meetings to share the vision;
  • Milestones meetings to recognize everyone's contribution;
  • Involvement in key decisions;
  • Decisive decisions regarding scope, costs and deadlines;
  • Visible support to the project team and the project manager;
  • Holding operational managers accountable for key project deliverables;
  • Requiring managers to commit their time to follow and solve issues;
  • Etc.

The key here is to ensure clarity and visibility in the communication. It's not so much what the leader does but rather how he/she does it. There is no single action that is determinant. Rather it is a state of mind that translates into every day behaviors: when a project is properly sponsored, you can feel it will be delivered... even if the project has to battle tough conditions.