Project Approval Process
The project approval process varies from organization to organization. In some, it is a rational process of strategic and tactical planning. In others, it is a highly charged political game where project managers keep their backs to the wall to avoid a dagger from behind. Whatever the environment, there are two classic fantasies that executive sponsors play whenever the phrase “project approval” is mentioned. There is also a game project managers play to cope with the sponsors’ demands. Project Phases Main Page
Project Approval is Executive Fantasy Land
Project sponsors and high-level stakeholders think that if their organization has good project managers, the project approval process will go like this:
The project manager strides confidently to the front of the Board Room. The long table before them is filled with corporate big shots. The PM makes one rock solid commitment after another. There is no whining about contingencies or risks. The PM listens politely to a question about budget and the completion date and then says, “We WILL complete the project for $3,123,876.56 and the last of our 1,347 tasks will end on March 9th, 2016 at 3:42 PM.”
As the executives applaud, the PM holds up a hand for silence and says, “That’s Eastern Standard Time,” and flashes a shy smile as the executives go wild with excitement and awe.
Executive sponsors who live in this fantasyland think that projects have no risk. Budgets and completion dates can be set in stone and any failure to hit them means that someone goofed off and didn’t do their duty to the organization.
In this project approval fantasyland, a project is a machine. The executives push buttons and twirl some dials and the project machine spits out the result on time and within budget. Sponsors merely give project managers the budgets and completion dates and they all come true with a little hard work. If an executive wants a project result early, it is just a matter of twisting the “due date dial”.
This project approval fantasy triggers a lot of destructive executive behavior:
- They force change after change on a project and then feel personally betrayed when it is late or over budget.
- They treat a project manager as a fool and a liar when the PM won’t give them a finish date commitment during the first planning meeting.
- They sneer at requests for budget and duration extensions, considering them a sign of weakness and sloth.
Project Approval is a Used Car Lot
In other organizations, the roles and actions surrounding the project approval process resemble transactions on a sleazy used car lot. The executives are the innocent customers and the PM is a slick shyster in fancy clothes. Here the approval process goes like this:
The executives stroll onto the used car lot, looking for simple but effective transportation. No high-powered hot rods, no fancy wheel covers or custom interiors. Just a basic car to carry the executives where they want to go. The PM slithers out from under a rock and wraps an arm around all the executives. “I’ve got just the thing for sports like you,” the PM says in an oily voice.
“We are not ‘sports’,” the executives say. “We just want a basic car; something simple and cheap.”
“That’s what I was saying,” the PM says with a snicker. “Let me show you this beauty. I’ve been saving it for just the right customer.” The PM leads the executives toward a far corner of the lot.
On the way, one of the executives spots a simple economy model and says, “Wait, that’s what we want!”
The PM sneers, “Everyone will laugh at you if you drive that wreck. It’s outdated, antiquated and uses ’80s technology. You’ll be laughing-stocks.”
Scared at making a mistake, they follow the PM to a dark corner of the car lot. The PM pulls an enormous drop cloth off a vehicle, saying, “Here’s what you want!”
The executives peer into the gloom and see an enormous vehicle that will carry too many people. The interior is plush leather, there are 3 stereo systems, 12 speakers, a TV and a wet bar.
The executives protest, “This is too much, too big, too expensive. We want the little car back there!”
The PM starts to talk, waving complex charts and graphs and saying, “This is the latest technology, the best economy and the. . .”
The PM’s pitch mesmerizes and hypnotizes the executives. A few minutes later, they drive off in the big expensive monster.
This project approval approach also triggers a lot of destructive executive behavior:
- Sponsors review project plans with a fine-toothed comb, searching for unwanted and unneeded features, options and fixtures.
- They think every number a project manager presents is a lie. Cutting their duration and cost estimates is just getting rid of all the padding.
- Project managers hide tasks in their projects to give their friends an easy time at work. They believe 33% of all the project tasks fall into this category and they can eliminate them with no consequences.
Project Approval by a Rookie PM: The Eager Puppy Dog
Too many PMs play the eager puppy dog in project approval presentations to stay out of trouble. The approval discussion goes like this:
The sponsor says, “I think this budget looks just a tad fat. You can get it done for 20% less, can’t you?”
The PM nods like an eager puppy and hurries off to slash the budget by 20%. The easiest way to do that is to reduce the work and time in each task by 20%. The PM is able to return with the lower budget and, as a bonus, a shorter duration. This convinces the sponsor that the PM is not a slick shyster and that the project will run like a machine.
When the project approval session ends, both the sponsor and the PM have learned a lesson. The sponsor has learned that the PM’s plans have a lot of fat built in. So next time the cut will be 30%, not just 20%. The lesson the PM has learned is that next time he’ll pad the plan by 25%. Then arbitrary changes won’t cripple the effort before it even starts.
Project Approval by a Rebel Without a Clue
Still other project managers prepare to go into project approval meetings ready for battle. Holding a clenched fist into the air, these rebel PMs tell the team members, “I will fight for our plan! Those nitwits in suits will not change one bit of the brilliant plan we have put together.”
The rebel then heads for the meeting room for the planning session with his boss, his boss’s boss and the executive whose signature is on his paycheck. The discussion goes like this:
The executive asks, “What will it take to finish a month earlier? We have two other competitive initiatives and I would like all three to hit the market at the same time.”
The PM says, “Finishing earlier is impossible! There is no way we can finish any earlier than June 30th. Even that date will require so much overtime that the team members’ family lives will be horribly disrupted. There’s no way. We can’t do it!”
The controller says, “I’d like to see a little less use of consultants and lower fees. Don’t we have internal people who could do some of this work? Maybe they can work with the consultants.”
The rebel PM answers, “Impossible, we need their expertise and I have negotiated their fees down to a fraction of what they charge other companies.”
These executives huddle for moment as the PM waits behind the podium.
Then the most senior executive says, “We approve the project with a completion date of April 30th and a budget that is $25,000 less than your plan. We’re also more than willing to find another PM if you can’t hit those targets.”
The rebel explains the executives’ treachery to the team members and no one learns any project approval lessons.
The key to successful project approval meetings is for PMs to be ready with options and alternatives for finishing earlier, spending less money and using alternative resources. Good project managers are eager to change the plan to fit the executives’ requirements if the scope, budget and duration are feasible.
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