Temporary Management, the difference between success and failure.

Abstract

This is an overview of the major problems, issues and risks temporary managers  face in their assignments. Mitigation strategies and tactics are presented from the perspective of our experience as temporary managers on real life projects.

Introduction

Often the Temporary Manager  is  faced with problems and situations in which only their ability to manage clients expectations, identify risks or maintain clear communication can protect him/her from project failure.

Temporary management  is a people-centred profession, where the the  ability to help others will determine the effectiveness in establishing a win/win relationship built on a foundation of trustworthiness and impartiality. Regardless of the specifics of the business, you will pass from a problem identification, a gap analysis and you will develop an action  plan. After this initial consulting phase  the temporary manager takes responsibility for the project and with the appropriate mandate  manages the client’s resources to reach  the planned objectives. This “ responsibility for company results” is what differentiates the temporary manager from the consultant.

The Hazards of Temporary Management

In this section we focus on the issues, problems and risks that are frequently found on assignments in an organizational environment. As a result of being a temporary managers for several years, we have helped hundreds of people resolve problems in many different industrial  sectors and specific projects ranging from optimizing supply chains to defining and implementing a marketing strategy.

Despite the different technical backgrounds of these and other projects, we have observed that  frequently you will face one or more of the following challenges in most temporary management projects.

#   Managing client expectations

#   Controlling the scope of  work

#   Struggling with limited resources

#   Communicating effectively

#   Overcoming  resistance and politics

#   Harnessing management support

These challenges can be found in many projects, therefore, let's briefly explained them from the perspective of a temporary management assignment.

1. Managing client expectations

In any project, the ultimate goal is to satisfy the client wishes and desires (assuming these are aligned with the project objectives). By the very nature of our work, quite often some of the results of a temporary management project are not tangible as when we are pushing the capability of the organization to the limits. Not to mention another difficulty of identifying who is the actual “client” or user of the results.

The key to prevent or overcome this situation is to properly identify the client and other relevant stakeholders, define the project's goals and results, clearly stating which ones will be directly obtained as a result of your project and which ones will need other actions from the client to be fulfilled, and get the consent and approval of all relevant stakeholders.

It is also important to estimate and plan your time effectively this avoids  the client misunderstanding that your time as a temporary manager is infinite and that you are always available.

2. Controlling the scope of  work

As frequently said, the only constant in modern life is change. Temporary management projects are no exception, they are quite volatile and often vulnerable to direct changes in the project or changing conditions in the project environment and in the performing organisation.

In fact, defining and controlling the scope of the project is very much related to managing the expectations of the relevant stakeholders. You will need to specify as clearly as possible what work will be performed by you and which activities are performed by the client's own people.

3. Struggling with limited resources

The involvement of client resources will often be required and, as you might expect, these are people who are not sitting there waiting for you to come to them and ask them what they did last year or to provide you with information they might consider theirs. Rather, they are quite “busy” with “important” stuff and not happy with external disruptions. In some cases, these people are essential to project success, not only because of their direct contribution, but also because, frequently, they are key persons in the organization whose support can help overcome resistance and other difficulties. These resources, although not full-time assigned to your project, are essential and if their participation is not achieved timely, you might find your project slipping or only providing insufficient partial results.

The trick to overcome these problems is planning resources well ahead and the more you can anticipate your project needs the better. Another asset you will certainly need is good negotiation skills to establish agreements with functional managers and other project managers to get access to these key resources.

Having being there, we  strongly recommend you closely monitor and control the involvement of people who are partially assigned to your project. It is human nature to worry about your most “important” problem, and if you are not so lucky as to have your project among the top priorities of your collaborator, he will do his best to get rid of your project as soon as possible and go back to his “comfort-zone”. And that doesn't guarantee you good results.

As a temporary manager you may have the direct responsibility for a group of collaborators, a function or the whole company,  in which case the deployment of the resources to the project from  the day to day activity is more under your control. However, most of the principles already discussed are still valid. The available resources for the project are still scarce but the politics can change in your favour.

4. Communicating effectively

If you are not a good communicator you will probably have a hard time as a temporary manager, a great deal of their time managing a project goes to communication.  Not only content and format matters, but also reaching the relevant recipients with the right information.

One potential obstacle to effective communication can be a lack of knowledge of the organizational structure, hierarchy or bureaucracy present in the client organization. To prevent this pitfall from affecting your project, you must do communication planning, which involves identifying all your project stakeholders and their information needs. Additionally, identifying the relationships and dependencies among different stakeholders in the organization can help with understanding the internal politics and improve your chance to deal with resistance.

5. Overcoming resistance and politics

Resistance is a natural, logical and predictable reaction people express in response to change in an organization. Most people have a difficult time acknowledging and accepting problems that are within their responsibility areas, and this is a frequent and natural response. They resist your directives because they must face some difficult organizational problems or take some uncomfortable actions.

The steps to successfully deal with resistance involve understanding the different forms resistance might take, identifying  the root cause and trying to take some mitigation actions to overcome it. And very important: don't take resistance as a personal attack on you.

Although in most projects resulting in organizational change, resistance is predictable, the way resistance appears and your best actions to combat it are unpredictable in that they are very dependent on the specifics of the organization, the culture and the situation at hand.

Nevertheless, when you know that you must first identify that resistance is happening, to be able to do something about it, you can handle resistance as an ongoing risk for the project and monitor for resistance triggering events, and then plan to deal with it accordingly.

In most organizations, politics is influencing the way people behave and can become a major obstacle in your way to solve their problems. Proper stakeholder analysis and your soft-skills are the key to successfully dealing with politics. Many medium sized  companies have friends and members of the owner’s family within it, this adds yet another dimension to the organization. Any organizational change may be resisted not only for its impact on the company but also on the sometimes delicate work/life equilibrium of the extended family.  Bear in mind that the “official” organizational chart rarely represents the real division of responsibility and the decision process may take place during a family dinner rather than the boardroom.

6. Harnessing management support

In most temporary management projects we hear a constant claim, “we need management support”. Though asking for it is an important step, getting it is more difficult. Especially when we are actually surfacing problems or issues with management itself, then you can only hope and pray for their support.

The importance of management support to project success can never be overemphasized.  To get appropriate management support, the first step is to ask for it, and the sooner the better because you'll find earlier rather than later, if this is problem area in your project. On the other hand, getting management on board early is a good way to start winning the battle against resistance.  

When entering a project it is important to evaluate the consequences of failure because the degree of management support is usually greater when  risks of failure are serious or catastrophic to the company. 

Conclusions

There might be more than just six critical issues potentially affecting a project. Nevertheless, the previous six are often enough to represent major risks to project success that  require aggressive management actions.

Soft-skills are key to successfully dealing with resistance, stake holders expectations and politics. Some basic knowledge of coaching, organizational behaviour and business psychology can  also be useful and in some cases essential.

Many specifics exist when it comes to applying the concepts and techniques of project management in the temporary management profession. As mentioned before, defining scope, estimating and controlling temporary management projects can be specially challenging. Identifying and managing stakeholders and their expectations are particularly important and, if left unattended, can become your worst nightmare. If you aim for success as a temporary manager you need project management skills.