Upper Management Support the Key to Success? No.

You have heard this one before.  They key to project success is “Upper Management Support”.  I hear the phrase so much it is pretty much a cliche, right up there with “be aligned with the business”.  It ranks right up there with “brush your teeth in the morning” and “exercise if you want to be healthy”.

So I have a humble request.  First of all, I think we can just start assuming that if you have a goal that requires more than, say, the amount of money you spend annually on copiers in a small office annually, you are going to need upper management support.  Especially if it is going to change the business.  If you are engaging on a “change the company for the better initiative”, getting upper management support is basically the first, and one of the easier, steps.

  • The real hard stuff isn’t upper management, it’s middle management.  Upper management does not usually have their empires or jobs threatened by a significant IT initiative.  Middle management, on the other hand, often does.
  • The day to day impact of a large programme on the lives of upper management is comparatively low.  Most of the time, they can get on with their normal duties and continue to operate at the “strategic” level rather than hands on.  Middle management, on the other hand, often has to expend significant time, energy, and political capital in the programme in order to make sure it works.
  • The numbers of people in upper management are lower, well, because they are upper management.  You can more easily get a small number of people on the same page.  Middle management numbers are much higher, and making the politics of middle management engagement much more difficult.
  • Various groups in middle management that are impacted unevenly create opportunities for internecine politics to enter the scene.  Even if you get middle management engagement, keeping it is a much more difficult chore.

There are all sorts of things you need in order to make a large programme of transformational work successful.  Upper management support is just the “table stakes” – the ante for getting to the table.  Getting support of middle management, and getting past the many roadblocks they can put in your way, is much harder, frequently underestimated, and frankly, in my experience, much more of a project success factor.

Upper Management Support the Key to Success? No.