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I am a contract PM, managing a small project within a much larger programme. My project is highly dependent on corporate decisions that come to me via the in-house Programme Manager. Unfortunately, the Programme Manager is involved in some very challenging aspects of the bigger programme, and consequently is unable or unwilling to devote sufficient time to answering my questions or directing me in line with (ever changing) corporate decisions. Because the corporate position is in constant flux, my project's goals are also subject to regular change, but I don't hear about them in good time. This is impacting on my ability to make progress.

The Programme Manager is also my line manager, and the organisation is highly hierarchical, and takes a very dim view of people (especially contractors) bypassing their managers to escalate issues.

What should I do to both make progress and protect my position?

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It sounds like your organization is immature from a capability standpoint as evidenced by the constant change in company direction or its goals, the lack of communication channels such that you do not receive company information timely, the lack of apparent governance, and non existent risk/issue/exception escalation processes. It sounds like you are working in a high degree of chaos.

While your company is out of control, it does not mean that you cannot maintain control within your project. Your communication plan should include a stakeholder analysis where you can direct your documented risks and exceptions for review. Your plan should include periodic meetings for both give and take with these stakeholders. And, perhaps you can identify a stakeholder or two that you can align as an ally who might be able to influence a degree of control within the company to help you. This should not be construed as going outside your chain of command but rather normal communication channels that all projects create (or should create).

Become more formal in your project, i.e., document everything. Not only is this generally good practice--if it is not documented it did not happen--but it can serve to sort of protect you if others start pointing fingers. As a contractor, you are only protected so much but, unless this company is completely off its rockers, if you can show you actively attempted to do the right thing by the project and company your risk is greatly diminished.

Regarding your boss, we tend to take the path of least resistance. His behavior with you is likely because he is coping with the same chaos. He needs you to make this project, and its risks and issues, easy for him. I would bet he wants you to make executive decisions above your pay grade such that it is off his plate. Dangerous proposition but he is likely doing the same for his boss.

Other than this, there is a degree of acceptance on your part. Your company is in chaos--if my assumption is true--and will likely remain there for some time. This will simply inhibit progress so your expectations need to align with that.

  • +1 for "become more formal" - this attitude will save you in many other problematic situations – yegor256 May 21 '11 at 15:02
  • Terrific answer David! – Trevor K. Nelson May 23 '11 at 15:46
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Try this: Ask your program manager (PM) what would it take, or what goals should your project have so that he could give a 100% commitment - note 100% commitment doesn't imply 100% time of work day.

Be attentive and receptive to these "win conditions" (WC) - i.e., these are the things if satisfied (or satisficed) will make him a winner and consequently encourage him to give his 100% It's very possible (fact of life) that his win conditions may conflict with yours and may not disclose some personal ones like (it'll help me get a promotion, bonus etc.,) Be receptive to even those if they are made explicit (or just be aware of their existence).

Now in case of conflicts you'll have to see how best to negotiate the expectation (or WCs) at the same time keeping him (and probably other success critical stakeholders - SCS) "satisficed"

The problem in such scenarios is that expectations of SCSs are not known even known to each other!! Once you understand them you'll be in a better position to see how best to gear your project or adapt to the larger goals of the company as well as satisfices those of the SCSs.

You are probably thinking that this is very people oriented, and in fact it is :) In my experience this works quite well! In fact just "knowing" the expectations (WCs) of your SCSs can (and DOES) make life easier for everyone!

(In case if you are wondering does this approach have a name - it's called Theory-W :) It grew from the software management field but is applicable everywhere nevertheless...

Hope this helps.

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I agree with Nupul. It's time to stop asking project questions and ask what it would take to get the attention you need.

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