I am really delighted to be talking to Dr Peter Parkes, MD of Peak Performance and a former director of the Association of Project Management, about how senior project sponsors will often find coaching tremendously beneficial.
(You can listen to the podcast from this link. Please allow 2 minutes to download: Peter Parkes Podcast )

MBPeter, firstly can I ask you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your experience in project management?
PPThank you Michael. As you said, up until a few months ago I just completed my three year term as Director of the Association for Project Management where I acted as champion for best practice groups.

I have in fact been a Fellow of the Association for Project Management for about fifteen years now, with about twenty-five years’ experience in projects at senior roles up to Programme Director in the public sector, private sector, public/private partnerships, and the Big Four practices.

I completed an MBA dissertation on best practice for project management back in about 1995, and co-author of Standard Guidance on Governance of Projects, Governance of Partnership Projects and the Role of the Sponsor and I have carried out many talks, invited lectures, on those topics in the UK and abroad.

MBNext question really top level, what is a project?
PPFundamentally Martin Barnes, back in the mid-seventies, then Professor of Project Management at Manchester University, described what we call the iron triangle of project management: time, cost, and quality.  Things have moved on somewhat from then and Martin actually stepped down from being President of the APM in the same time as I stepped off the Board, and at that time he was saying project management is actually about getting things done through others, which you will recognise as being a classical expression of management.

I actually prefer another definition of project management by Professor Rodney Turner of the University College London, and he says project management is all about attitude, and by that I take it as meaning it is about the behavioural competences and also a bias-to-action.

MBWhat is the senior project sponsor’s role in a project?
PPSome people have difficulty with this: Where the sponsor sits with regards to the project manager and the client and the delivery organisations.  The sponsor sits above the project manager and is the forefront of the governance around the project and the organisation.

Basically the project sponsor gives the project strategic direction and changes to it, manages the project context, what it is going on around him, the organisation, deals with the high level stakeholders in the project and across projects that have impact on the project, and approves changes and exceptions to the project as it was laid down initially.

Also for the Project Manager sometimes, although he or she has to manage what is happening on the ground, there will be the need to escalate and extrude the project sponsor that he gets approval of these escalations and changes.

MBOkay, what typically are the big challenges on a project? Really a two part question: what are typically the big challenges on the project and what are some of the implications if they are not addressed?
PPThe typical challenges of a project, if we think about – we sometimes talk about this hierarchy of projects, programmes, and portfolios – if we think about a project as being delivery of the asset; a programme about delivery of a number of projects; perhaps delivery of benefit, or an outcome; and a portfolio delivering some strategic outcome.

As we move through this range we increase in size and complexity where delivery is really being either made or broken by how we manage stakeholders, the interface across business units and interfaces with operations.  So these are challenges which can only be managed to some extent by the Project Manager and where the project sponsor needs to take a leading role.

MBWhat are some of the implications if these issues are not addressed?
PPIf these issues around stakeholders’ interface with the systems and operations are not addressed then we get resistance to the project and eventually these will force the project to grind to a halt.  We will have not only cost overruns, we will have loss of benefits, deferment of benefits and more important perhaps we have got those resources tied up, we have got the opportunity cost of that project capability tied up on a project or a programme that is being delayed.
MBThis is another two question set. How can the coach help the sponsor lead the project to success and the second question what are the personal benefits to the project sponsor of having a coach?
PPThe coach can help if we think about the analogy of learning to drive a car.  We read a Highway Code – the methods about project management and then we step in with an instructor.

For some of these high-risk projects I would liken it to trying to drive an F1 car having just read the Highway Code or just passed their test.  It could be quite a lonely place managing some of these projects and sponsoring the projects.  The Project Manager is using trained experience to do the job but quite often the sponsor has been appointed and does not have the training experience so I think it is essential that sponsors, when put into the post, should have somebody there that has driven that road before, driving instructor sitting next to them, helping them, navigating them, and basically being there as a comfort factor.

In terms of benefits to the organisation, the project and the sponsor, it helps the project stay on track rather than to go into some vacuum where nothing gets done pending a decision or working out what is to do.  The sponsor is there to guide people towards the right decision and keep things moving in a timely fashion.

Remember that definition of project management: a behaviour, a bias-to-action.  We have got to keep things moving.  From the organisational point of view, having a coach there supporting the sponsor or indeed the Project Manager, reduces the risk for that project dramatically.

MBAgain, the second part of that; personally from the project sponsor’s point of view if, for example, you were project sponsor how would having a coach help you?
PPAs a project sponsor it should give the project sponsor comfort.  This is unfamiliar territory for the sponsor. As I say usually they are appointed, they do not really put their hands up, it is not usually a career, it is quite often something they do to gain experience or because they have knowledge of the organisation.

So you can think of the coach to the sponsor here bridging the gap between the organisational context and the project sponsor’s domain and the domain of project managers. Kind of a translator or an arbitrator and when there are problems there, difficulties with stakeholders; for any of us in any of our jobs it is always useful to have someone to reflect the questions on, to work our own logic of what is the best course of action in the circumstances.

MBI think you have put that very well.  To sum up thinking about what you said, thinking about projects and the project sponsor’s role, is there anything you want to emphasise because it is really important or is there anything that you want to add because it is important and maybe we have not addressed it so far?
PPWe started off with the analogy around projects and the F1 driver.  I would like to give you another analogy.  We saw the wonderful spectacle of the Olympics this summer in London and that wonderful haul of gold medals, our best haul for many years. Now those people that stood on the podium were not there because they had ability, they were not there because they had ability and they practised a lot, they were there because they had ability, they practised a lot and they had the support of a dedicated coach.  To take a podium position for your project, for your personal career, you really need the benefit of a first class coach.
MBExcellent that is really good.  Would you give us your contact details so anybody that is particularly interested in this can contact you?
PPThank you Michael. You can contact me on my personal mobile number that is UK +44 7764 319600, or on my e-mail whichpeter.parkes@peakperformance.gb.com.

You can contact me through Linkedin and my profile is Peter Parkes MBA or Google me, I think you will find me on the first couple pages of Google.

Thank you Michael.

MBExcellent thank you very much indeed.

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