Top-Down Execution

Your success will be defined by the execution of your IT strategy: It’s that simple. But to make sure that the execution is flawless, you can’t get trapped in traditional thinking.

Project Leadership Associates’ review of more than 75 large projects shows that the most successful projects had “top-down” milestone dates set for project managers by more senior leaders. This may seem counterintuitive at first, as traditional “bottom-up” execution principles suggest that project managers should roll task-level details up and develop a project master timeline based on that.

However, our experiences suggest that when you ask your project managers to follow the traditional bottom-up approach, they’ll significantly pad their sections of the master timeline. Project managers usually add time to avoid looking bad, and if that extension is applied across seven or eight workstreams (with their respective subteam leads), these projects end up with a considerable amount of unnecessary time-padding. It’s further amplified when each project workstream is dependent on results from another workstream.

Padding causes more harm than good. This is because a certain amount of complacency sets in within project team members when traditional bottom-up approaches are followed. Top-down milestones establish the criticality of a project and consequently help solidify a sense of urgency. Furthermore, time-padding typically prevents your organization from realizing the benefits of the project sooner.

When top-down milestone dates are employed, project team members are forced to focus on critical activities and ask themselves this crucial question, “What do I need to do to make this objective by this date?” The answer may be adding supplemental contract labor, pushing a vendor more aggressively, implementing a more effective process or something as simple as an executive sponsor calling a project stakeholder to tell them to “play ball.”

Some of the answers may require some additional capital to execute. However, this incremental capital is usually minor in relation to overall project costs and is effective in helping to achieve the overall project benefit faster.

Who on your teams should be responsible for setting these dates? The “core team.” Successful core teams include no more than four to six senior individuals who represent the business and IT. Some of the key activities that core teams are responsible for include making 80 percent of project decisions (for example, setting top-down milestone dates in the master timeline), soliciting input and buy-in from other stakeholders, aligning their respective team leads to the master project timeline, and escalating and resolving key project issues that may impede progress. This core team typically reports to a body of executive sponsors.

Successful core teams put forth top-down milestone dates, as they are close enough to the project that they can put forth timelines and interdependencies that make the most sense for the project–and, consequently, for the business.

Establishing top-down milestone dates does not mean that project charters and requirements analysis work are not conducted. In fact, successful core teams use these as key inputs for establishing top-down dates.

This “top-down” approach has proved to be very worthy. It requires the CIO and his deputies to care deeply about the success of their strategy execution. And the reality is that successful execution is critical to their success.

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