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Project leadership: Looking for a hero? Think again!

It takes more than effective project management to ensure the success of today’s more complex and ambitious Strategic Initiatives. Project Leadership Is key.

Good project managers are hard to find!

‘Good project managers are hard to find’ – that is a complaint often heard within large organisations.  Yet, our data fails to show a strong link between either the scarcity or availability of good project managers and the success of strategic initiatives.  This may seem like a surprise finding but when you look closer it begins to make sense. 

The data reveals that it takes more than effective management to ensure the success of today’s more complex and ambitious Strategic Projects and Initiatives.  Leadership is essential to the Project BIG 4 – speed, agility, innovation and collaboration.

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Stages:

The Best Project Manager Wins?

Like so many other organizational resources – from manpower to cash – the pool of experienced project managers is limited.  With multiple competing projects and initiatives, there is often a scramble to get the best project managers

This competition is hardly surprising as the experience and reputation of the project manager has traditionally been seen as critical to project success.  Moreover, the caliber of the manager appointed to a project is often seen as a tangible indicator of organizational commitment. But as the level of complexity and innovation required by critical projects has grown, the requirements in terms of project leadership have changed too.

Re-thinking the Project Manager

There is growing evidence that the role and importance of the project manager may be over-estimated, especially in respect of those more complex and ambitious strategic initiatives. 

Even if every initiative had a qualified project manager at the helm there would still be a lot of struggling projects.  That is because complex and ambitious strategic initiatives don’t just need management to be successful, they need leadership too

A Word of Caution

Project Management may be at an all-time low in terms of its popularity.  However, the ‘project manager is not enough’ message in no way takes from the need for the application of project rigor around work-plans, timelines, budgets, risk management, etc.  These are as important, if not more important than ever. However, assuming you have got these there is still something else needed. In addition to effective management, you need leadership too. 

In most areas of business or indeed life leadership is valued ahead of management.  The success of ambitious strategies and the initiatives or projects that bring them to life demands vision, inspiration and innovation.  These are just some of the things that distinguish leadership from management – the rest are shown in the table below.

ManagementLeadership
Planning
Controlling
Monitoring
Forecasting
Budgeting
Reporting
Scheduling
Staffing, etc.
Vision & Inspiration
Energy & Motivation
Empowerment
Commitment
Passion
Direction
Change
Innovation

To gauge on the level of project management and leadership in respect of your strategic initiative use the table above. On a scale of 1-10, how would your project rate on those factors in the left column? How would it rate against those factors in the right column?

Ambitious strategic initiatives require change – a departure in some way from the status quo.  They often involve a journey into the new and unfamiliar – perhaps a new innovation or a new direction.  In these situations, leadership is essential to providing the confidence to move forward.

When Speed & Agility Are Required

There is more to a successful strategic initiative, than effective project management. This is doubly so in respect of traditional project management with its tendency towards bureaucratic control and rigidity

For projects that demand greater speed and agility, as well as collaboration and innovation, traditional project management could actually inhibit success.

Yet, when project risk or complexity goes up it is tempting to turn the dial on project management control. Hallmarks include:

  • A slavish adherence to the Gantt Chart / Project Plan (in spite of changed conditions and the need to adapt).
  • A bureaucratic approach to project reviews that leaves people drained and frustrated.
  • Micro-management, with those doing the work having little autonomy/control.

While such measures may make the project manager feel better – providing greater visibility and control – they often come at a price.  In particular, they can kill speed and agility, preventing people from taking ownership or even taking action.  Going too far down the ‘project management rabbit hole’ (as one of our colleagues describes it) can magnify rather than diminish project risk. 

Distributed Leadership

Now that we have discussed the importance of leadership to the success of projects and initiatives, you are probably thinking of who the leader could or should be and the qualities that they must have. While such an inspirational and visionary person may well be an asset to a project, the type of leadership most linked to success does not rest in one person

The leadership requirement for most projects is not a single person, but rather a more distributed form of leadership.  Rather than resting with an individual, leadership responsibilities and accountability are ideally shared by those who are directly involved in running the project and have the required skills and knowledge.  In this way the success of the project becomes a collective responsibility.

Too many projects already depend on a heroic solo run by one or a few people.  Rather than being something to be celebrated, this often indicates a lack of widespread ownership or effective collaboration within a project team.  

Distributed Leadership means distributed vision, inspiration, motivation, passion, innovation and so on – all those leadership factors in the table shown earlier.

“An organization has little to fear from the future, or its competitors, when it’s brimming with self-managing “micropreneurs.”
Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini1

Looking for Another Hero?

As organisations and their projects get more complex, attention has increasingly turned to a ‘post-heroic’ model of leadership2.  This recognizes that:

  • It is impossible for one person to have the requisite time, knowledge and skills to lead every aspect of an initiative.
  • No one person has all the ‘leadership’ skills that are needed – diplomat, strategist, tactician, evangelist, innovator, etc. 
  • Complex projects require multiple skills and perspectives, as well as a requisite level of diversity (LINK). 

Most projects don’t need another hero3  They need a dedicated team of people who can get the job done and whose passion, vision and innovation will inspire and engage others to contribute along the way.

  • Ambitious strategic initiatives need people to act like owners and entrepreneurs, not followers or employees.

If people are sitting around waiting to be told what to do, or need direction at every turn then the talent quotient on a project comes into question.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of project leadership is where all the key people working on a project are progressively realizing more and more of their potential and performing to the fullest of their abilities.

Filling Gaps In Leadership

Typically, it is easier to plug a gap in Project Management than in leadership. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Project management is technical (a set of learned techniques and skills) while leadership is more adaptive (involving changing attitudes and behaviours).
  • There is a consistent formula for project management – even a detailed manual to be followed. In respect of leadership the playbook is less well-defined with the approach varying greatly from situation to situation. That is because leadership is both an art and a science.
  • Managing projects is relatively straightforward, on the other hand leading people takes place in the context of the organization as a complex social system.
  • Distributed leadership has implications in terms of both culture and structure. It most challenges organizations with a top-down hierarchy and functional lines of reporting.
  • Distributed leadership necessitates a new more collaborative way of working – spanning organizational boundaries or working outside the traditional hierarchy.

Some say that great leaders create followers4 others that they create other leaders5. To distribute leadership the person(s) at the top must be prepared to let go. They must:

  • Believe in their people and trust in them to take the reins of a project.
  • See the potential of their people as a valuable business asset (waiting to be untapped).

However, it is hard for one leader in isolation to hold these views unless they are consistent with the culture of the organization. Moreover, if people are to rise to the challenge of distributed leadership they must feel that it will be rewarded and is safe.

Want to quickly assess the level of distributed leadership for any project?  Observe the number of people and perspectives that are heard at project meetings. If a few people do all the talking, while the rest stay silent then leadership is likely neither distributed or effective.

Subservient Project Leaders

Too many project managers must go ‘cap in hand’ to senior management when something is needed. It is as if they were a child going to a parent for approval – additional resources, a change to the project plan, a revision of the timeline, etc.

It suits many senior executives to keep their project managers subservient.  But by limiting autonomy they stifle ownership, agility and innovation. Going up the ‘chain of command’ to get the required sign-offs and approvals can tie people up in paperwork and really slow things down.

Teams must be set up for success. That means ensuring that the right people are in the right roles, etc. Nothing hinders the leadership quotient of a project team more than the absence of key people in key roles – it strips the team of self-sufficiency and means it must go outside for help, advice or direction. Often over-looked this is called design, or in recognition of its importance, performance design. It requires ensuring that the right people are in the right roles, doing the right work, with then right resources, etc.

Leadership is Execution, not just Strategy

There is another reason why we emphasize the word ‘leadership’ when it comes the execution of strategy.  It is the problems that arise because those who create the strategy typically delegate its execution to others.  But the vision, passion and inspiration are needed as much in execution as in strategizing.  Ensuring effective execution of the strategy is a key responsibility of leadership.

Leading & Inspiring Stakeholders

It is not just the project team that requires effective leadership, the project’s stakeholders need leadership too.  That includes internal and external stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, internal collaborators (other departments and functions), corporate management and so on.

The project management manual says you need a communications plan for stakeholders, but that may not be enough.  For example:

  • Stakeholders don’t just need to be listened to, they need to be educated and inspired too.  Sometimes they even need to be respectfully challenged.  Most important of all they need to be engaged.
  • Project Leadership involves not just eliciting or even understanding stakeholder needs, but shaping them too. After all, stakeholders may not know exactly what they want, or may have expectations that are unrealistic or even out-of-control.

All too often those working on the project can find that they are playing on a different team, battling other parts of the organization, in particular the corporate functions. The challenge for project leaders is to engage key internal stakeholders so that that a corporate ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation does not arise. 

To paraphrase the Spanish proverb: ‘Talking about bulls is not the same as facing them in the ring’.  This certainly applies to critical projects.  Yet, it is too easy for certain stakeholders to stay on the sidelines:

  • Highlighting problems but not offering solutions.
  • Holding the project team to the original budget or time lime, even when the scope of the project has expanded.
  • Wanting it all and not being prepared to make trade-offs or compromises.
  • Commenting on what could or should be, without any responsibility for making it happen.
  • Looking for written reports and slideshows on what is happening, rather than joining a project review meeting.

Moreover, internal stakeholders need to be engaged from the very start – if you don’t you cannot turn to them when the project is struggling and difficult decisions need to be made.

Corporate leadership may delegate responsibility for the execution of a strategic initiative, but it cannot be let abdicate responsibility for its success. Project leaders have to make sure that this does not happen.  They have to keep internal stakeholders inside the tent at all times, making them feel not just involved but responsible too. 

We often hear comments such as: ‘We are too busy working on the project to spend lots of time talking to the various stakeholders, preparing reports and presentations, etc. …We would rather stay focused on getting the work done’.  However, that is a mistaken view.  Any distinction between doing the work and engaging stakeholders is a false one. 

Engaging Stakeholders is a key part of the work on any project. This is particular true in respect of fast-moving agile projects, where there are frequent deliverables, outputs or iterations (e.g. mock-ups, prototypes, etc.) that stakeholders can be engaged with.

The process of engaging and communicating with stakeholder groups cannot be left to chance.  It must be planned and structured – it is a key part of the project plan.    Turning stakeholders into meaningful collaborators is a mark of effective project leadership. 

Engaging stakeholders is often a low bar.  The challenge of project leaders is to energize, ignite and inspire, rather than simply engage stakeholders.  How to do this?  The answer is through the tools of effective leadership – passion, inspiration, vision, innovation and so on.

Energizing stakeholders requires engaging not just with logic, but with the emotions too. Yes, the business case is important for any initiative, however but it only connects with the head and not the hearth.  Both are necessary. 

To energize and engage people requires a compelling vision of success (and a better future). That means helping stakeholders to envision the success of the initiative and the benefits that will result.  This is often most effectively told via stories (customer stories and use case scenarios) that present a compelling problem – solution or before – after narrative.

  1. Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini, “Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them”, HBR Press, 2020. []
  2. Richard Bolden, Distributed Leadership in Organizations: A Review of Theory and Research, International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 13, 251–269 (2011). []
  3. See Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., We Don’t Need Another Hero, Harvard Business Review (September 2001). []
  4. ‘One measure of leadership is the caliber of people who choose to follow you’, Dennis A. Peer. []
  5. ‘Leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders’, Tom Peters []

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