Monday, 17 October 2011

Blackberry failures teach us how to manage project sponsors

The crisis at Research In Motion (RIM) reminded me how important it is to fully involve the sponsor when projects are going wrong. I speak from some experience about what the teams are going through at the data centre in Slough as in a different life I was global head of crisis management for a large bank (definition of crisis: anything which made the senior management team shout!)

One of the most important lessons I learnt was that to manage the crisis you (in your role as project or programme manager or head of the PMO) have to create enough space between the sponsors and executives and those with the technical skills who can fix the problem.

When things go wrong the executives are the people who are ultimately going to have to take responsibility for the failure (and possibly issue the apologies to affected customers) want to know what's going on, how long the fix is going to take, how it went wrong in the first place and they want answers to all these questions at a time when the specialists are still defining the problem and identifying possible solutions.

Senior managers find it very hard to act as by standers, twiddling their thumbs waiting for information which is why they keep jumping in demanding answers. My technique relied on distraction - give the sponsors and senior executives something to work on over there so that the specialists can fix the problem over here. Senior managers do have skills and experience that can be used effectively in a crisis. Define your desired communications and get them out there delivering your message. It keeps them busy and it adds value as they can manage the repetitional risk aspects better than anyone and gives you the time to manage and support your team when they need it most.

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