Is this Program Leadership in your world?

The boss’s door is closed as usual. There is the sound of raised voices inside. Your heart sinks as you are reminded that it was you on the receiving end yesterday. You dared to challenge the estimates of the value of the benefits in the program business case. Your attempt to introduce realism and suggestions for techniques to address optimism bias were shot down in flames. You were told in no uncertain terms that this was what was needed to get the funding.

Pointy haired boss?

If this describes your boss, they’re not a good leader.  And the chances are your program is doomed to failure! Evidence has shown that ‘Up to 70% of change initiatives fail to deliver on the benefits that they set out to achieve’ (John Kotter, Harvard Business School).

The attitude of the boss in the scenario above is rather like that of the pointy haired boss in the Dilbert cartoons whose plan to address dropping sales requires ‘some sort of doohickey that everyone wants to buy’. He then says to Dilbert, ‘The visionary leadership is done. How long will your part take?’

So, what kind of leadership is needed to save your program?

Your program needs strong leaders whom people can trust and respect.  They need to have clear roles and responsibilities so that everyone can answer the question “what is expected of me?”    Program leaders should be approachable, they should get to know the people they work with, and be available when you need them.

Successful program leaders listen to what people have to say. They explain the reasons for the changes being made in the organization and the decisions that have been taken, in a way that is relevant and makes sense to the people they are talking to. They are also experiencing and having to deal with the effects of the change on their own working lives, even though they may be some way ahead of you.  They understand and can help people as they go through a range of changing emotions and behaviours, such as elation and excitement through to fear and even destructive opposition. Explanations are given for why things can’t stay the same and stories are told about how things will be in the future. Everyone is helped to understand what the effects will be on them, or if they’re lucky what’s in it for them.

These program leaders believe in openness, honesty and transparency. They don’t dismiss your concerns and issues without giving them due consideration. The culture is one where people are not afraid to raise their heads above the parapet especially when there is bad news or things are going wrong. Often in our programs we must ‘try it and see’, construct prototypes, or pilot something new. For this trial and error approach to work well for us we need to be able to work together in a supportive environment where we can discuss risks openly and not always be pointing the finger of blame.

We need program leadership which demonstrates the behaviours and attitudes that they want to be taken up by us, and which reflect the desired values and culture of the organization, especially when culture change is part of the program. These leaders ‘walk the talk’; they’re not of the type ‘do as I say, not do as I do’. They’re not in the habit of leaving early to go to the golf course and expect others always to work late, but nor do they regularly work over-extended days with the expectation that everyone else must do the same.

How can MSP help?

MSP recognizes that leadership is critical to program success in 2 ways

The Leading Change principle

One of the 7 principles which apply to all programs, Leading Change describes and gives examples of the kind of program leadership which is need to deliver change successfully.  A successful program leader will:

  • Give clear direction
  • Build trust with consistent and transparent behaviour
  • Engage program stakeholders
  • Appoint the right people at the right time
  • Live with a measure of uncertainty
  • Solve problems
  • Support the transition to the new ways of working

The Stakeholder and Leadership Engagement governance theme

This provides clear “how to” steps based on best practice in program management.  This theme provides process models, engagement diagrams and stakeholder maps to ensure that program leaders:

  • Use the program Vision to influence and persuade stakeholders
  • Lead stakeholders through the uncertainty of transition to new ways of working
  • Focus on benefits

In these 2 elements MSP explains the need for the style of leadership described above. It helps us to understand the qualities and skills required in our leaders, at all levels in the program organizational structure, to take an organization successfully through a transformational business change. It draws our attention to the varying combinations of leadership and management skills required at different times in a program life cycle.

MSP makes clear that the program management framework for enabling complex change should be integrated and aligned with a change management framework adopted for managing the people side of change. Not only do we need leaders to support the development and implementation of the outputs and outcomes of our projects and program – we also need leaders who can take the people with them and successfully establish the culture required to deliver the benefits and business improvements we had set out to achieve.

What could your world be like?

You have a new leader – just back from their MSP Foundation and Practitioner certification class.  They are still overwhelmed with work but their door is open and you are welcome to enter.  They stop typing when you come in and give you their full attention for the five minutes that they can spare at this time. You explain your concern about the over-estimation of the benefits and under-estimation of the costs in the program business case which is due to go to the Management Board for approval next month. Your leader asks for your reasons and how you might deal with this. You suggest that you could revisit the figures, check on the validity of them, and using widely adopted best practice techniques – such as Managing Benefits.  You suggest that you could make some adjustments for the over-optimism of the benefits and increase the costs by an amount based on experience from other similar types of program. Your proposal is accepted and your boss asks you to make the amendments and to present them at the next meeting of the program team later in the week.

How refreshing is that?