Project Planning, Scheduling & Control–Chapter 19: Working with Senior Managers

In this chapter of his book Project Planning, Scheduling & Control, Dr. James Lewis tackles the political sensitive issue of working with senior managers.

He starts off with the observation that many project managers get promoted from positions of being a technical specialist.   Not only does the technical specialist need need new skills to be a manager, but he or she needs to speak a new language in order to communicate with senior managers.

Many technical specialists when they become managers are more passionate about the technical work they are managing than the managing itself.    If you end up hating the “management” part of being a project manager, getting really good at it won’t make you like it better, but it will help you do make the best of your job.


Project managers are evaluated on how well they meet the goals and objectives given to them by the managers to whom they report.   Most commonly, you are expected to achieve the performance, cost, time and scope (PCTS) targets for your projects.

Way back in Chapter 1 Dr. Lewis describes how only three of the four project targets can be dictated.  The fourth constraint or target will be a function of the nature of the job.    As a visual picture, think of a triangle written on the surface of a balloon.   As the balloon is pumped with air, the area covered by the three vertices of the triangle will change.   Those three vertices are analogous to the three project targets that can be dictated.   But the fourth constraint, the area contained by the triangle, will depend on how much air is pumped into the balloon.

Senior managers CANNOT dictate all four targets.   If the functional relationship is given by the formula

C = f(P, T, S)

then the value of C, or the cost of the project, will be a function of

  • P = performance requirements (technical and functional)
  • T = time required for the project
  • S = scope or magnitude of the work.

If the senior manager dictates what P, T, S are, and then says the project has to be done for a cost of C, then that manager may end up being unreasonable.   To bring in the cost of the project for a cost of C, you may have to reduce the scope, the requirements, or extend the time of the project.    Something may have to give.   If the senior manager is constitutionally incapable of understanding this fundamental point, then you are being set up for failure.

Let’s assume that the P, T, and S targets have been dictated because of organizational needs.  It is your job as project manager to determine what it will cost to meet those targets, within some sort of tolerance such as 5% of the estimate.    It is the senior manager’s job to either

  • authorize the costs to meet those targets, or if only a lesser amount of funds are available given the organization’s budget, to
  • authorize the adjustment in the P, T, or S targets that would allow the project to be realistic brought in for the amount of costs that are feasible.


Many managers will not understand the more structured approach you are taking.   Dr. Lewis relates a story of a project manager who showed his boss a proposed schedule for the project, and the boss asked what the thin trailing line was at the top of the bar chart representing the schedule.  The project manager explained that it indicated the earliest and latest finish times for the task.  If the task were completed later than the latest time shown by the float line, then the end date for the project would slip.

The boss came back and hour later with a revised schedule, saying “I’ve taken all that float out of the critical path–you should be able to finish earlier.”   The boss didn’t understand that, by definition, there is no float in the critical path, but only in non-critical paths.   By removing the float from the non-critical paths, he did nothing to make the project itself finish earlier.   Make sure your manager has a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish, so that they do not get unrealistic expectations.


Chapter 5 of Dr. Lewis’ book was on “Whole-Brain Project Management.”  This went into the various thinking styles that people have.    There are four thinking styles which are represented in quadrants starting with A in the NW corner and going around counterclockwise.

  • A quadrant–prefers thinking in terms of “action”
  • B quadrant–prefers thinking in terms of “process”
  • C quadrant–prefers thinking in terms of “people”
  • D quadrant–prefers thinking in terms of “ideas”

Make sure you identify the thinking style of your senior manager, and try to communicate with them and make presentations to them using the type of thinking style that manager prefers.

NOTE:   I was at a District Executive Committee meeting for District 30 of Toastmasters, when an exercise was presented to all of the Area Governors to identify their thinking style.   It turned out that my preferential style was D–I’m an “idea” person, it looks like.   Following in terms of strength, were B (“process”), C (“people”), and A (“action”). The purpose of the exercise was two-fold.   First of all, in our speeches and in our interactions with other club officers, we needed to have greater awareness of the different thinking styles of others.   We needed to start incorporating elements that spoke to each “constituency” or quadrant, and not just stick to the familiar style we are strongest in.   But the second reason for introducing this exercise came in the next segment.   We were told to break into divisions, and have each Area Governor write down in a square which quadrants were our first and second preferences.    At the end of this, each Division Governor noted that, as a team, ALL four quadrants were covered by at least one Area Governor for whom it was their first or second preference.


You need to identify what criteria your boss will be evaluating you on, and on how the manager will be able to know whether those criteria have been achieved.   You will be focusing on your project, but the manager will be focusing on all of the projects, especially on the business case which gives the justification for the project’s very existence.   If there is a proposal for a change in the project that will affect the return on investment, for example, reducing it because the project will take longer than expected, then you should bring this issue to the senior manager right away. If the ROI of your project suddenly becomes less than it was originally, to the point that it is less than another project that had been considered, then that project may become more viable than yours.


One way to understand the manager’s point of view is to have one of them be your mentor.   What is in the senior manager’s background or experiences that led them to be in their position?   Don’t be afraid to ask your senior manager to coach you in areas they think you need to improve in.   Another form of mentorship is through reading popular books on managing.   You can combine these two approaches, mentoring and reading, by asking what business books your senior manager is reading.     Read those books yourself, and discuss them with your senior manager!   You’ll learn more not just about the subject matter, but about the way your senior manager thinks and approaches his or her job!




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