How to Keep Projects From Spinning Out Of Control

Are you involved in projects that seem to go nowhere in a hurry?

Change usually happens in an organization through projects, which can take many forms, and may not always be called projects. The easiest to recognize is the traditional type, with a beginning, middle and end, such as the launch of a new product or the implementation of a system. Other projects involve developing people and are ongoing, without easily identified phases.

The key to keeping projects from spinning out of control is to know the roles that you and others play. Although individuals can play more than one role, it is critical that they clearly understand which role they are occupying at any one time, and that they work within the appropriate boundaries of that role.

Often projects fail because these roles are not aligned with each other. The consequences range from:

· underutilization of some people while others burn out

· resentment

· people working inefficiently

· work stagnating

· all of the above

In other words, the status quo reigns.


Carolyn is the VP of Sales in a software development organization, with a number of department heads reporting to her. One of the department heads hired Mike, a technical salesperson, to provide as much sales coverage as possible for the launch of a new software product. Sales for this new product were proving difficult.

Mike had been a successful salesperson in another software company and, it was hoped, would have very little trouble opening doors. However, he had been struggling since he joined the organization, and Carolyn decided to directly intervene to bring him up to speed

All of her efforts were either ineffective, annoyed the department heads who report to her, led to confusion, or infringed on someone else's territory. For instance, she approached Mike directly about getting him sales training without involving his boss. She also reassigned some of his work to others sales staff, hoping to relieve him of some of the more complicated work. The strategy backfired ? Mike was unsure to whom he was reporting and felt paralyzed; the salespeople who got more work became resentful, and sales in general started to tank.

Carolyn then hatched a new idea that, upon reflection, was headed for disaster. She even considered moving him to another department without the department head's consent. That would have taken him off the launch and had him selling core products.

Carolyn needed to define the roles of each person involved in Mike's situation, and to clarify the boundaries for everyone. When she figured out which role each individual was playing in trying to bring Mike up to speed, and in launching the product, she was able to defuse the situation, go through the proper channels to get him help, and clarify what constituted stepping-on-toes. Her change in behaviour had very positive results. Mike is learning quickly, and Carolyn's relationships with her department heads are stronger. Sales projections for the launch are on target.

Below are the five key roles people play when working on project teams, and the do's and don'ts of each role.


The sponsor has the authority to make the change happen. Good sponsors clearly articulate the vision, champion the change, and identify measurable goals. They control the resources and have direct line authority over the people who will implement the change. Carolyn decided that this was her role in both the development of the employee and in the launch of the product.

When she figured out the boundaries of her role, and behaved within those boundaries, the project flourished.


? Create a compelling future. Remember to tell people the benefits of change for them and for the organization. For example, during the launch Carolyn let each member know how he or she fit into the larger picture, and how their work mattered. To develop sales people, she created a vision for continuous learning and support, and painted an exciting picture of possibilities.

? Champion, champion, champion. Carolyn backed away from directly working with Mike, and she involved her department heads in decisions about the project. She also recognized their contributions publicly during meetings and later in writing.

? Set clear goals, time frames, and measurements of success. Carolyn created clear SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time frame) with each department head, including the expectations for developing staff.

? Be a problem solver. In the sponsor-role, she allowed the doers (implementers) to accomplish tasks and stopped taking them over herself. She eased up on micromanaging, and helped untangle issues when they were brought to her. Carolyn also began to work more closely with other departments to troubleshoot potential problems.

? Be as generous as possible with resources. Carolyn increased the training and coaching budget, hired part-timers to help during the crunch, and proactively looked for creative ways to help remove obstacles for the implementers.

? Find a coach to help you stay within the boundaries of your role. Carolyn found an external coach to help her align her behaviour with the organizational goals. It took time for her to clearly define the role boundaries, and her coach helped her to stay within them.


? Don't do the doers' (implementers') work. Carolyn frequently took over others' work, particularly when the launch was faltering. However, with the help of a coach, she was able to see that she was undermining the project by constantly re-doing and/or reassigning work.

? Don't undervalue implementers' feedback. Carolyn started to actively seek information from the sales teams' about their experience with customers. In previous launches, she hadn't asked for their observations, relying instead on second-hand information from department heads. Implementers are closest to the impact of the change and can keep you from being surprised.

? Don't drop the ball on openly promoting the change. Carolyn openly promoted the legitimacy and necessity of developing sales people. She worked cross-functionally to help salespeople get the training, mentoring, and coaching they needed. Without the sponsor's continued, visible support, change becomes the "flavour of the month".


Departmental sponsors only focus on the change in their own departments. They commit to understanding the depth, breadth and implications of the change. In this example, the departmental sponsors were the Directors of Sales and Branch Managers.


? Ask the sponsor lots of questions so you fully understand the need for the project/change and can back the decision.

? Remove obstacles for the implementers.

? Keep the sponsor informed of successes and challenges.


? Don't panic if there is resistance from your team.

? Don't weakly comply with the sponsor's vision if you do not agree with it. Keep challenging the vision for change until you can fully accept and promote it.

? Follow the don'ts of the sponsor (above).


These people accomplish the tasks of the project. Mike is one of the implementers on the launch of the new software. He is responsible for sales and reporting.

In the sponsor role, Carolyn asked Mike's boss to design a developmental plan for him (departmental sponsor-role). As part of the plan, Mike's boss accompanied him on sales calls to observe his selling skills (coach role). To stay in the coach role, his boss didn't take over when Mike struggled. By quietly watching, his boss got a good idea of Mike's strengths and areas for improvement.


? Listen, inquire, and clarify your questions and concerns at the beginning of a project.

? Regularly give feedback on what you are experiencing.

? Tell the sponsor when he or she is overstepping a boundary (i.e. taking over your work; telling you what to do rather than coaching you).

? Ask for help when you get stuck.


? Don't withhold bad news.

? Don't withhold good news.

? Don't undervalue your opinion and experiences.


Advocates have ideas for projects/change, but need a sponsor to help make these ideas a reality. In this case study, a salesperson had the original product idea based on a conversation he had with a client. This salesperson found a sponsor in his manager, who took the idea to the president. The president saw opportunities, and sponsored the project.


? Find a sponsor for your idea. Otherwise, projects go nowhere.

? Show how your idea is compatible with issues near and dear to the sponsor's goals.


? Don't give up if your idea is going nowhere. Ask around to find the appropriate sponsor.

? Don't forget to clearly articulate the benefits for the organization, customers, and employees.


A coach can be anyone who helps to facilitate the project/change, and keeps sponsors and implementers working together within the boundaries of their roles. The two main tasks of this role are:

1. To help the sponsor and the implementers stay within the boundaries of their roles.

2. To help people reach the goals set by the sponsor by giving people support, encouragement, and information in order to raise their awareness so they can: · Solve problems on their own · Take risks · Make decisions · Tackle new challenges

Coaches can be from inside an organization, perhaps a representative from HR, or brought in from outside. Since an objective perspective is useful, coaches ideally do not have direct-line authority over the sponsors or implementers.

Carolyn chose to work with an external coach, who helped her clarify her different roles in the project.

Mike's boss had the dual role of sponsoring Mike's development, and then coaching him to achieve the goals. By talking through the development plan with his boss, Mike also saw opportunities to seek out other people to coach him. He role-played potentially difficult customer situations with other sales people; he worked with marketing and engineering to improve his product knowledge; and he actively sought out customer feedback. He took ownership for his development.


How do you contribute to the effectiveness or the ineffectiveness of projects in which you are involved?

Make a list of all your projects and initiatives, and then identify the role that is most appropriate for you to play in each one.

Next, assess whether you are playing that role. For example, if you are a vice president of sales, and your role is to develop your sales staff (coach role), are you continuously solving other people's problems (sponsor role) or doing the sales work yourself because you think you are more effective (implementer's role)?

Have fun with it! You'll be taking steps towards becoming more effective, and keeping projects from spinning out of control.


This article may be reprinted in its entirety with written permission from Nicki Weiss. The reprint must include the section "About the Author".

About the Author

Nicki Weiss is an internationally recognized Certified Professional Sales Management Coach, Master Trainer, and workshop leader. Since 1992, Nicki has trained, certified, and/or coached more than 6,000 business executives, sales managers and salespeople.

Nicki guarantees increased sales performance when sales managers become better sales coaches. Sign up for her FREE monthly e-zine, Something for NothingTM, which has powerful tips and techniques for sales managers who are ready to make this transformation. Sign up at You can email her at [email protected] or call 416-778-4145.

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