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By Josh Hayman, associate, Legitimate Leadership.

When you ask the average Project Manager what he or she is accountable for, the answer is usually: successful project results! In project-speak this means managing and controlling the constraints of time, cost and quality in delivering the scope of the project required by the customer.

The problem is that in any standard list of what a project manager should do well, all of the items on the list are about “management” – none of them are about “leadership”.

Typically, such a list would look something like this:

  • Manage and control project budgets.
  • Create and control project schedules.
  • Monitor and control change to the project’s scope
  • Manage and monitor project risk, and put contingencies in place.
  • Apply corrective actions to bring performance in line with expectations.
  • Control and resolve problems.
  • Keep accurate project records.
  • Report on project progress regularly.
  • Make optimal use of project resources.
  • Communicate regularly with project stakeholders.
  • Put in place sound project governance practices.

Anyone with experience in managing projects would agree with the above list, and probably would give it no more than a second’s thought other than that “all the items on the list are a given”.

That we as project managers take the above list for granted is precisely the problem, and indicative of a critical ingredient missing in making more projects successful, more of the time. As said, all of the items on the list are about “management”; none are about “leadership”!

The emphasis in the project world is on control. The accepted view is that poorly controlled projects cost more money than budgeted, take more time than needed and often don’t meet the customer’s performance expectations. The evidence to support this view abounds – study after study has been done to account for project failure, and the fix that is usually recommended relates to creating increasingly sophisticated project controls, and to developing project managers’ ability to implement and work with these controls effectively. So much so, that effective project “control” tends to become an end in itself (the famed Prince2 Methodology stands for “Project in Controlled Environments”!).

All of this focuses the motive of the project manager squarely on what he or she needs to do to get results out of the project team and to deliver those results to the customer. In many project environments, the people who are allocated to work on projects are referred to as the “project resources” – the implication being that, like material resources, they are used as a means to an end – namely, a successful project result.

All of the items on the aforementioned list are activities concerned with managing and controlling people in order to get the best out of them in the interests of a successful project.

Unfortunately, project controls, tools and techniques do not deliver successful projects. Only people are able to do that (a common jest among project managers is that projects would indeed be simple if not for the people!).

It is therefore clear that the commitment of people to contribute willingly toward the project is a critical component of project success. Unfortunately, creating an experience for project participants in which they feel taken from causes them to withdraw their trust, loyalty and willingness to work for the project manager – they only work because they have to. In the absence of real willingness, the only option left to the project manager to get more out of his or her project team is to use more control.

The Legitimate Leadership Model argues that in order to solicit a willing contribution from people, those in authority need to shift their intent from being concerned with what they can get from their people, to what they can give to them. This is the only way to cultivate loyalty, trust and ultimately willingness in people.

For project “managers”, this means shifting focus from what they need to do in order to get the best out of a project team, to what they can give the project team in order to enable them to give their best. A step further, is to shift the project “manager’s” attention from how he can use the project team to deliver successful projects, to how he can use the project to pursue excellence in each of the project team members.

This is a subtle but fundamental shift in the intent of the project manager – it requires her not to focus on trying to control the project outcome, and instead to focus on how she can empower the team to achieve the outcome – the team will take care of the outcome. By pursuing excellence in people, excellent results cannot help but be produced.

So, a list of things an effective project “leader” does well, would look something like this:

  • Knows every project team member as a human being, not a project resource. Relationships are characterized by mutual trust and respect.
  • Develops relationships with all project stakeholders and is trusted by them.
  • Creates a shared purpose for the project team.
  • Ensures each participant in the project is clear on what they need to contribute toward desired project results, and how the project fits into the organization’s objectives.
  • Works to resolve issues and remove obstacles in front of the project team they cannot remove themselves.
  • Hands over decision-making authority to project team members commensurate with their maturity and capability – does so with each team member’s growth needs in mind.
  • Regularly reviews and gives feedback on team members’ contribution such that they are able to improve.
  • Holds team members accountable for their contribution to the project, both positive and negative.

Comparing the two lists, which would you work for willingly – a project “manager” or a project “leader”?