June 25, 2018

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Top Management Support

A ubiquitous gem of wisdom says that you need top management support for your projects. I have no doubt that this is sound advice, but it makes me worry. If all the significant HR projects, along with all the significant finance projects, IT projects, supply chain projects, procurement projects, audit projects, social responsibility projects, marketing projects, sales projects, research projects and public relations projects need top management support, how many things are going to get done?

I'm tempted to offer some kind of vision where middle managers drive ambitious programs forward on their own, however I don't think it would work. There is a reason the mantra of "get top management support" is endlessly recited, we have all seen projects fail when that support is absent.

So perhaps the problem lies elsewhere. Perhaps the problem is that too many managers are proposing too many projects that are too big to succeed without top management involvement. Perhaps the solution lies in smaller projects.

For example, if you want to convert your entire HR system to a paradigm based on competency definitions, then you definitely need top management support (see Walter Blonski's report on the skill competence paradigm). However, if you decide to base the training for programmers in your Boise office around a competency paradigm then the CEO likely does not need to be involved.

Small beginnings can evolve into big things over time. This is one of the lessons of Jim Collins' book Good to Great.The problem with small projects is not that they are ineffective in introducing significant changes; it's simply that they lack the glory of big, enterprise-wide, interventions.

I propose that we encourage our staff to take on small projects that they can roll out themselves rather than trying to launch glory projects that will disrupt the whole firm. We'd get a lot more done, and save the pain of constantly begging for the favor of the CEO.

Is this the right thing to do? Is the problem of everything relying on top management support as serious as I make out? Let me know what you think.

-David Creelman