The views expressed in this article are strictly those of Max Wideman.
The contents of the book under review are the copyright property of the author.
Published here September 2020

Introduction | Book Structure | What We Liked - In General
What We Liked - In Particular | Downside | Summary

What We Liked - In General

What we liked about this book is that it records the collective wisdom of a large number of people who have given thought to why so many projects don't seem to work the way they should. In his acknowledgements, author Todd Williams observes:[3]

"There are hundreds of people who I want to thank for making this book possible. They were the people who took surveys or participated in interviews with a guy they did not know … They trusted me and I am eternally indebted. I would name them, there are over 300, but I promised anonymity. Their stories are here, their ideas are here, they changed my outlook, confirmed my beliefs, shot a few ideas out of the water, uncovered many surprising relationships, and sent me back to the drawing board."

As a consequence, this book is so full of ideas and organizational concepts, that it is not possible in this brief review to fairly represent its message. Filling Executive Gaps is focused on executing strategy — taking strategic goals and turning them into business value.[4] Everyone should know that project success is based on a larger system. The people on the project are only a small microcosm of those who solidify or threaten its success.[5]

So, as the author says, this book takes a wider view by looking at the entire "project stack" from the executive, through middle management to the project manager, and down to the project team.[6] To this, the author might have added: "And on to those who will engage the resulting asset to realize the intended benefits."

As you have noted from the previous section, and Figure 1 below showing the book's structure, there are five related gaps, i.e., Alignment, Sponsorship, Change Management, Governance and Leadership. These are all fairly well known to most project managers, even if not always well understood. However, the capstone, Common Understanding is clearly an over-arching communication problem, especially where responsibility is concerned.

Figure 1: Book Structure
Figure 1: Book Structure

To illustrate this point, the author opens Chapter 1 with a brief scenario in which a project manager is called to present her project's status to an executive audience. However, the audience is really only interested in the project's potential outcome. The meeting does not go well and both parties depart dissatisfied.[7]

Later, our author adds that there is another way to look at this hypothetical project status meeting. He says it could be depicted as a meeting between two disparate groups of people speaking different languages, almost as if from different countries. On one side of the conference room table are a bunch of risk averse, stay-the-course, profit driven executives. The other side has a group of thrill-seeking, detail obsessed, change mongers, who relentlessly spend money hoping to complete this project so they can move on to the next one.[8]

Well said!

By way of further illustrating the problem, author Todd describes, as a case study, a very personal experience with a state-operated personal health care system. The upshot was that more than one department claimed each had the answer to a particularly severe health problem. Apparently, each was not really willing to admit that the source may be elsewhere, nor willing to work as a team to solve the problem collectively. An unwillingness to communicate may well have been due to an inability to understand each other's professional language.[9]

Todd emphasizes that real project success depends on measuring value that, in some cases, may not be seen for years later, and describes this part of the Gap as follows.

"Big-box retailers, grocery store chains, and outlet stores want us to think that low price equates to value. However, other attributes fit into our internal calculation of value. Qualities such as durability, aesthetics, social status, comfort, and size all factor into the equation that determines value. These characteristics deal with the item's application. Projects must concern themselves with this larger systemic view to achieve a common understanding of success among stakeholders. This understanding must reach beyond scope, schedule, and budget to include value."[10]

He concludes that:

"Value — project success — comes from many areas. In fact, value could come from cancelling a project that is discovered to be too difficult before it wastes buckets of company money and people's time. Without shifting the focus of project success to a common understanding of its value, the struggle to succeed will continue."[11]

And under Executive Takeaway:

"People need to talk the same language and it is incumbent on the executives to ensure people have the business acumen and information to understand what is important and how to communicate it."[12]

Book Structure  Book Structure

3. Ibid, p iii
4. Ibid, p vii
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid, pp3-5
8. Ibid, p21
9. Ibid, p8-10
10. Ibid, p14
11. Ibid, p16
12. Ibid, p31
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