How to Get Executives to Act for Project Success


By Michael O’Brochta

President, Zozer Inc.

Maryland, USA


Even world-class project managers will not succeed unless they get their executives to act for project success. The trap of applying best-practice project management only to have the project fail because of executive inaction or counteraction can be avoided. According to the latest PMI Pulse of the Profession report (PMI, 2017), “actively engaged executives continue to be the top driver of whether projects met their original goals and business intent.” Increasing numbers of project managers are trying to deal with this reality.

This is a how-to paper. It describes how project managers can get their executives to act, and it identifies executive actions most likely to contribute to project success. This paper explores why the evolving and expanding definition of project success and why the expanding complexity of projects have led to an environment in which the project manager is ever more dependent on the executive. It draws upon recent research about top-performing project managers, about why executives fail, and about why new products fail, to identify the basis for a strong mutual partnership between project managers and executives. A central theme is that project managers are empowered to extend their influence beyond the immediate project boundaries, not only to get their executives to act, but also to help implement the actions as well.


Project managers who continue doing what used to work by focusing within the bounds of the project are now finding success more difficult to achieve. The problem is that project success is dependent, to an increasing degree, not only on the efforts of the project manager, but also on the efforts of the executive, as depicted in Figure 1.

George, a project manager who is trying to apply some recently acquired knowledge, related how frustrated he was after learning about the best practice technique of writing a project charter. He spoke enthusiastically about how such a document could help him establish and maintain his authority, an aspect of his job with which he was consistently having trouble. Then, he lamented that he could never use such a document because the part of the organization he worked in had not, and surely would not, adopt such a technique.

Figure 1 – Problem

This explains why three-quarters of the employees surveyed by the Towers Perrin organization(Towers Perrin, 2008) in a large global study said, “their organizations or senior management don’t do enough to help them fully engage and contribute to their company’s success.” And, it explains why when U.S. federal government project managers were asked about executive support for a study conducted by the Council of Excellence in Government (COE, 2008) 80% responded that they were not getting what they needed. In addition, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC, 2012) conducted their 2012 global survey on the state of project management, they found that “lack of executive sponsorship was the second largest factor that contributed to poor project performance.” Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, is reported to have gone so far as to have said, “If you can’t get top management to support your program, don’t even try.”

For the purpose of conveying the concepts in this paper, I have adopted a broad definition for the executive as a person responsible for the administration of a business or department. This executive may be an individual or a function performed by more than one individual such as a board or committee. It could even be a Project Management Office. On an organization chart, the executive appears above other individuals and functions, including the project manager. The executive could be the project manager’s boss, a sponsor, a senior stakeholder, a business or department head, or a vice president. Ultimately, the executive is someone with more authority and power then the project manager.

This compelling need for executive actions for project success is being driven by changes in the project environment. Gone, for the most part, is the one-dimensional definition of project success; it worked. Gone too is the triple constraint definition where project managers focused on time, cost, and quality. These days, the definition of project success has expanded to the point where customer acceptance, organizational and cultural impact, and strategic business objectives must be included. For NASA, former President Bush used this type of success gauge in 2004 when he declared that America chooses to explore space because doing so “improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit.” The way I see it, lifting national spirit is a huge expansion in the definition of project success, one that I am certain cannot be achieved without getting executives to act for that project success.

Increases in project complexity are also changing the project environment. Projects are more interconnected, more interdependent, and more interrelated than ever before. So too are the businesses in which projects are being conducted; they now have complex alliances with strategic suppliers, networks of customers, and partnerships with allies and even with competitors. The result is that business systems are significantly more complex than in the past. Gone are the days where the typical project deliverable is a stand-alone product used by a single customer; instead, systems are being delivered for groups of stakeholders with diverging needs.


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About the Author

Michael O’Brochta, PMI-ACP, PMP

Virginia, USA


Michael O’Brochta
has worked in project management for over thirty years at the CIA where he led the development of highly complex top secret projects, programs and systems, and where he led the development of their project management and systems engineering training and certification program to mature practices agency-wide. As founder of Zozer inc., he helped develop and implement the new government-wide Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers; through his consulting engagements, he is helping organizations raise their level of project management maturity. Mike recently served at the PMI corporate level as Chair of the Ethics Member Advisory Group. He is a sought after speaker, and he has been featured in issues of PMI Today, PM Network, ProjectManagement.com, CIO Magazine, Information Week, and Government Executive Magazine. Mike writes and speaks extensively about project management, and since his climb of another of the world’s seven summits, he has been exploring the relationship between project management and mountain climbing.

Michael O’Brochta can be contacted at [email protected].

To view other works by Mr. O’Brochta, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/michael-obrochta/