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Spring 2015
Volume 56, Issue # 3

Access the full Table of Contents below.
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Special Report: Keeping Complex Projects on Track

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How Executive Sponsors Influence Project Success

The role of project sponsors is often overlooked, but actively engaged executives are crucial to a project’s success.

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Accelerating Projects by Encouraging Help

Making it safe to be honest about when projects are getting off track can promote cooperative behavior.

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What Successful Project Managers Do

Successful project managers often combine elements of traditional and agile approaches to project management.

Image courtesy of British Airways

Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management

A project’s “unknown unknowns” can be reduced through both product design approaches and behavioral approaches.

From the Editor: Expecting the Unexpected in Project Management

If there’s one thing that’s certain about undertaking complex projects, it’s that not everything will work out exactly the way you planned. The Spring 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review highlights project management, in “Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management,” “How Executive Sponsors Influence Project Success,” “What Successful Project Managers Do” and “Accelerating Projects by Encouraging Help.” In a nutshell, managers must expect the unexpected in projects.

Features

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Minding the Analytics Gap

Increased access to data can be turned into better decision making by focusing on both the production and consumption of analytics.

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Competing With Ordinary Resources

Not every company needs to be built around a strong brand, exceptional talent or exclusive technology.

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Assembling Your Personal Board of Advisors

Six types of personal advisors can provide an important combination of psychosocial support and career support.

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The New World of Work

Advanced digital technologies are swiftly changing the kinds of skills that jobs require.

Intelligence

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Revamping Your Business Through Digital Transformation

By using mobile devices, social media, analytics and the cloud, savvy companies are transforming the way they do business.

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The Other Talent War: Competing Through Alumni

It’s smart to be on good terms with former employees. Recent research highlights the upside to following competitors’ former employees, too.

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When Consensus Hurts the Company

Research offers insights into when trying to reach consensus is the right course, and when it isn’t.

Image courtesy of Wal-Mart.

Sustaining an Analytics Advantage

Companies that are experienced in using analytics successfully offer five lessons for corporate leaders.

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From the Editor: Expecting the Unexpected in Project Management

  • Opinion & Analysis
  • Read Time: 2 min 

If there’s one thing that’s certain about undertaking complex projects, it’s that not everything will work out exactly the way you planned. The Spring 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review highlights project management, in “Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management,” “How Executive Sponsors Influence Project Success,” “What Successful Project Managers Do” and “Accelerating Projects by Encouraging Help.” In a nutshell, managers must expect the unexpected in projects.

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How Executive Sponsors Influence Project Success

  • Research Feature
  • Read Time: 10 min 

In each stage of a project’s life cycle, two or three behaviors have significant impact on the project’s likelihood for success. These behaviors, by the executive who is sponsoring the project, ensure effective partnerships with project managers and require a great deal of informal dialogue. They include setting performance goals, establishing priorities, ensuring quality and capturing lessons learned.

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What Successful Project Managers Do

  • Research Feature
  • Read Time: 22 min 

Successful project managers often combine elements of traditional and agile approaches to project management. They cope with uncertainty, for instance, by developing detailed short-term plans along with firm commitments and tentative longer term plans. The authors draw from experiential data from more than 150 successful project managers affiliated with over 20 organizations, and provide a detailed look at the success factors behind NASA’s Mars Pathfinder project.

Image courtesy of British Airways

Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management

  • Research Feature
  • Read Time: 22 min 

How can managers reduce the number of “unknown unknowns” a project faces? Even projects that employ sophisticated techniques for risk management can encounter surprising derailments. But new research shows that modeling a project’s subsystems helps expose risk areas. So, too, can scenario analysis, the use of checklists and data mining. “Directed recognition, which can entail both project design and behavioral approaches, can convert knowable unk-unks [unknown unknowns] to known unknowns,” write the authors.

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Minding the Analytics Gap

  • Research Feature
  • Read Time: 15 min 

While analytical skills are improving among managers, the increasing sophistication of analyses is outpacing the development of those skills. The resulting gap creates a need for managers to become comfortable applying analytical results they do not fully understand. A 2014 survey by MIT Sloan Management Review, in partnership with SAS Institute Inc., highlights the ways that companies can address this problem by focusing on both the production and consumption sides of analytics.

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Competing With Ordinary Resources

  • Research Feature
  • Read Time: 22 min 

Not every company can be built around exceptional talent or exclusive technology. Instead, companies also can thrive by the innovative use of ordinary resources, such as well-managed staffs and competent websites. As management scholars Sumantra Ghoshal and Christopher Bartlett once wrote: “The key function of management is to help ordinary people produce extraordinary results.” The authors examine how business models leveraging regular resources will take different approaches than those focused on scarce strategic resources.

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Assembling Your Personal Board of Advisors

  • Research Feature
  • Read Time: 23 min 

The notion that one mentor can meet all of an individual’s developmental needs is increasingly outdated. Instead, many people now draw from a “personal board of advisors,” which can encompass a range of individuals, from friends or family who provide emotional support to role models the person may not personally know. The authors identify six types of personal advisors who, together, provide a broad combination of psychosocial support and career support.

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The New World of Work

  • Opinion & Analysis
  • Read Time: 2 min 

Advanced digital technologies are swiftly changing the kinds of skills that jobs require. Researchers Frank MacCrory, George Westerman and Erik Brynjolfsson from the MIT Sloan School of Management and Yousef Alhammadi of the Masdar Institute studied the changes in skill requirements over the 2006-2014 time period. While demand has clearly grown for computer skills, it has grown for interpersonal skills, too. The authors advise people in all lines of work to be flexible about acquiring new talents.

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When Consensus Hurts the Company

  • Research Highlight
  • Read Time: 10 min 

How do managers “decide how to decide”? Boards and management teams often try to gain consensus, but that’s not always the best course. Research offers insights into when consensus building is the right way to go and when it isn’t — and how leaders can determine the best form of decision making for a given situation. “By prompting a rule on how the decision will be made — by unanimity, majority or delegation — you can significantly influence what will be decided,” note the authors.

Image courtesy of Wal-Mart.

Sustaining an Analytics Advantage

  • Research Highlight
  • Read Time: 11 min 

Many companies have maintained a competitive advantage through analytics for many years — even decades. Those companies include Wal-Mart, ABB Electric, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Amazon. Peter C. Bell (Ivey Business School) writes that “research over a 30-year period suggests that there have been five basic ways in which companies have sustained an advantage generated through analytics.” Tactics include keeping your company’s analytics secret and applying analytics to the right problems.

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Accelerating Projects by Encouraging Help

  • Research Feature
  • Read Time: 23 min 

How can companies get employees to pull together to meet project deadlines? It turns out that establishing psychological safety and promoting cooperative behavior can be just as important as good planning. This case study of management innovation at Roto Frank, a German company that produces hardware for industrial and residential windows and doors, highlights the difficulties of project planning and execution — and the benefits of building a positive feedback cycle.

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Revamping Your Business Through Digital Transformation

  • Research Highlight
  • Read Time: 11 min 

Large companies in traditional industries might think that digital transformation can wait — that a follower strategy is a safer route than trying to be a pioneer. “That kind of thinking, while tempting, is wrong,” write George Westerman and Didier Bonnet. “In every industry we studied, companies are doing exciting things with digital technology and getting impressive business benefits.”

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The Other Talent War: Competing Through Alumni

  • Research Highlight
  • Read Time: 10 min 

Companies increasingly recognize the value of maintaining good relationships with former employees. Recent research, however, reveals a new insight: It’s also wise to pay attention to what your competitors’ former employees are up to. “Many managers don’t typically think of previous employees in competitive terms (if at all), and have virtually no tools or frameworks to help them wage this talent war,” write the authors.