Published in Project Times on June 19, 2013
There’s no need to be concerned with your project’s leadership UNLESS you want to ensure success! It seems to be more challenging than ever to find excellent project leaders yet it is one of the most critical periods of time for delivering bottom line business results. Since the recession, competition has been fierce; thus, standing out in the crowd in terms of service, products, margins etc. is tough. Project results can deliver the difference between success and failure. What type of leader do you want in charge of your project?
Although unemployment remains higher than pre-recession levels, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find high-skilled resources such as project managers. Should we “make” or “buy” project leaders? Both – since project leaders can deliver results outside of the norm, it makes sense to pursue as many paths as possible. What are we searching for as the top qualities of a project leader? What do the best leaders do differently than the rest? 1) Clarify objectives. 2) Translate into plans. 3) Focus on results.
- Clarify Objectives: In my experience in working on hundreds of projects across multiple industries internationally, I find that clarifying objectives is the most overlooked yet incredibly simple secret to success in achieving project objectives. Without a doubt, those projects with clear objectives have an 80% greater chance of success than those without them. So, why in the world don’t project leaders clarify objectives more frequently? Organizational conflicts can be unpleasant.
For example, on a recent integration project, the objectives seemed clear. As usual, project teams start off on the right foot. However, at the first sign of trouble, the objectives become less clear. Politics entered the scene. If the project leader stood by what he viewed as the clear objectives, there would be ripple effects throughout the organization as it went against the prior organizational process.
Thus, he had two choices: 1) Go back to the source (CEO and executive team) to re-clarify what he heard to gain alignment and support for the significant change. In this case, he would likely be unpopular as change can be uncomfortable. 2) Since the CEO and executive team didn’t stay involved and address recent derailments from their strategy, he could assume that he should stick to the organizational process as it existed. In this case, he chose #2. Although it seemed like a successful path forward with the particular project, it led to the failure of the overall objective – unfortunately, even though the executives were not present in the change, it was critical for profitable growth.
- Translate into plans: This is not nearly as simple as just repeating the objectives, stating support and threatening if required. A project leader has to be able to translate the objectives for the team in a clear and insightful manner. It doesn’t require that the project leader understand the entire subject matter; however, he/she must be able to ask effective questions and be respected by the team. Otherwise, it’s likely to result in immediate failure. And, last but not least, it requires translating the objectives into action plans and milestones – with the team’s commitment.
For example, I’ve participated in two projects where the project leader wasn’t too familiar with the details of the subject matter. In one case, the project leader asked effective questions and was able to lead the project to an early delivery with better than anticipated results. In the other case, the leader was in over his head and resorted to threats. Worse yet, the project leader didn’t support his team’s plans and tried to develop action plans that didn’t “add up” for his team. This project team (composed of top employees with the exception of the leader) not only made lacklustre progress but was also extremely frustrated.
- Focus on Results: Last but not least, the project leader must focus on results. One of the most common mistakes I see with my clients is getting distracted with thousands of non-essential details. Instead, those who are successful maintain a rigorous focus on the critical path – in essence, just those tasks required to achieve the project objectives.
For example, I’ve often seen project teams distracted with the optimal way to use project tracking software, or what format to use for tracking progress yet little to no time is spent proactively communicating with project team members. Instead, a steadfast focus on the project objectives can achieve wonders.
As businesses struggle to stand out in the crowd today’s post-recession new normal business environment, there’s no doubt project success is vital to maintaining and improving profitability. Although there are several keys to achieving success, there is nothing more important than leadership. I’ve yet to see a project succeed without an effective leader. Have you?