Top Management ‘Commitment’ versus ‘Engagement’

Top Management commitment is a perennial contributor to troubled projects. However, I have always questioned the wording of this issue as I could not understand how you could not be committed to major multi-million dollar project. After all, the executives are usually the people who initiate the project, are responsible for the funds invested in the project and ultimately the business improvements promised through the project. Don’t get me wrong, in instances where an executive inherits a bad project, takes over a strategy that he or she does not agree with or is trying to distance them self from the project, they may not be committed to the project, but in general, the discussion should be expanded to include top management ‘engagement.’

I have seen many instances where top management was committed to the project, but for one reason or another not engaged. These reasons can include: distraction with other issues that may be of a higher organizational priority (merger, major reorganization, etc), delegation of authority to another party, false sense of security due to lack of realistic status from project management or unrealistic expectations or oversimplification of project complexities. In these cases, project warning bells should be ringing as most significant fixes to projects require top management involvement. However, if the executives are not engaged on a periodic basis, these issues can fester and grow.

The first step to keeping executives engaged in the project is making sure that they are provided with objective project status. If they are unable to attend steering committee meetings, then project status should be reviewed with them in another forum such as their team meetings or quick briefings that fit their schedule (either early in the morning or late in the afternoon if necessary). Although the project manager may not be involved in these meetings, it is his or her responsibility to make sure that team members follow through on these commitments to keep executives updated.

When providing status, put things in context and be concise. Since you only may only have a limited time and attention span, make sure that you cover your key points. If there are problems that need to be addressed, make sure that you offer solutions with pros, cons, costs and industry reference (if possible). Make recommendations and don’t expect an immediate answer as they may want to think it over. If this is the case, explain when you would need a decision and establish how the follow-up will occur.

Although it is uncommon these days not to have a project governance structure or steering committee to keep executives involved, it is still a reality that key executives can be committed to a project but not engaged. It is also a reality that executives may be dealing with issues of a higher priority, but it is foolish to think that they may not care about significant project issues that require their involvement. These are tricky waters to navigate as personalities, temperaments and fear play into project team’s assumptions of how to deal with project sponsors who also evaluate their performance. However, in order to keep your project on-track, executive engagement is critical to success and if executives are becoming distracted – you will need a strategy to keep them engaged. Be prepared as most distractions cannot be predicted and are influenced by external events.


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