Project Leadership: The Latent Power of Success

Increased complexity in contemporary projects puts a heavy burden on the project management profession. Project Managers do no longer have the luxury to be task-oriented only; they need to evolve into Project Leaders in order to bring success to their projects. Accelerating business, environmental, economic, and political changes necessitate the invisible force of running projects, namely leadership, to emerge and save organizations.

A cook lacking the skill to mix the right amounts of ingredients will produce distasteful food even if she has all needed ingredients and cooking tools. And a football team’s couch will drive his team out of a tournament if he does not integrate players’ skills to create the harmony required in the field. Not far from that is the failure project manager whose sole job is to complete project deliverables within given time, scope, cost, and resources without envisioning the project, communicating vision to the team, integrating efforts and removing roadblocks to accomplish the vision.

Effective project leadership has two main concerns; team needs, and project requirements. A successful project leader is one who creates the balance between both concerns and moves forward in achieving project vision. Concern about team needs encompasses understanding each member’s personal and professional aspirations and helping him/her achieve them in line with the project vision. Starting with clear assignment of roles and responsibilities, to assessing member’s abilities and providing required training to accomplish the job, to fully comprehending team evolution dynamics comprise the road map a project leader should adopt to develop the ‘team side’ of her leadership skill. On the other hand, managing project requirements is what brings deliverables to existence. Analyzing stakeholders’ needs, scoping project, managing cost and time constraints, foreseeing risks, creating key performance indicators and monitoring them are the primary tasks a project manager is hired to perform.

Balancing people side and task side is essential to implement a successful project. Excessive concern about team’s needs will not produce deliverables within given constraints by stakeholders, and, on the other hand, neglecting people’s needs while focusing on tasks will demoralize members, tear team apart, and result in a failure project. The right mixture of people and task orientation is what effective leadership brings to project management.

Effective communication remains number one skill a project leader should possess to influence her team and project tasks towards vision fulfillment. Creating a project vision is the beginning of a story that concludes only when vision is clearly communicated, understood, adopted, and accomplished by project team. Although not all team members are required to agree with the vision since it might be impossible, each member must understand the vision and commit to it. Continuous monitoring and controlling to the vision is critical to success. Project leader should keep any eye on vision completion progress and its alignment with stakeholders’ needs and organizational strategy. She should act proactively to adjust vision when strategy and circumstances necessitate that. This can only be achieved by an effective communication plan.

Creating a sense of team accountability is another vital aspect of project leadership. A leader should clearly communicate expectations of members, develop a practical measurement system to evaluate performance, give the team the ability to assess themselves against expectations, and finally develop awards and sanctions limits. Establishing accountability is a hard job to perform by the leader as it requires assessing the current abilities of the team and raising them to perform up to expectations then rewarding or sanctioning members upon evaluation. This all should be done rightly otherwise accountability will incur harmful consequences. If low performers are sanctioned for out of-control factors, resentment will develop and commitment will fall. Similarly, if high-performers are rewarded for out-of-control factors, favoritism will develop and negative conflicts will surface.

Understanding team dynamics and developing the team from individualism to team spirit is the first and foremost priority on the people side of project leadership. Most often team is comprised of members with diverse backgrounds, attitudes, and hidden agendas which make up the recipe of conflicts in projects. Hence, conflicts are inevitable, and project leader should exploit such conflicts to the betterment of the project. Naturally, members cannot evolve to the performing stage immediately. A leader should understand and help the team pass from Forming to Storming to Norming until it reaches the Performing stage in which the team experiences real cohesion and start focusing its efforts to complete project tasks.

By this every project manager needs to explore this invisible critical success factor and assess oneself against various leadership aspects whose absence could doom the project to fail. So, are you people-oriented, task-oriented, or do you create a balance between both? Bring this hidden power to surface and move forward to accomplish your vision.

The Tightrope Walker in Your Organization

tightrope-walkerMost of us enjoy watching a tightrope walker in circuses trying to walk along a rope to reach to the other end without falling down. Skillfully, he uses a balancing pole to make it to the other end while being secured with a safety net. Sometimes this walker takes your breath away when he slips off the rope and falls in the safety net, yet, you know that he is not hurt. When it comes to real life and you look around you will see a real tightrope walker in your organization whose slip may cause a disaster not only to him but also to the entire organization. Guess who! He is the Project Manager (PM).

All what a PM does is trying to reach from one end of a project (Initiating), to the other end (Closing) safely by keeping all of the project’s competing demands balanced. What is funny about this, and at the same time challenging, is that most of project stakeholders (SH) know what competing demands are, and they are even skilled at stretching them. All of them know that a PM has to deliver within scope, time, budget, quality, and available resources. However, none of these SH knows what ‘Balancing Pole’ is to use to keep these demands balanced. Even if they know it, they don’t know how to use it. Here comes the role of our Tightrope Walker; the PM.

I will touch on three key management areas a PM uses as Balancing Pole to maintain the balance in his project’s competing demands which are Integration, Communication, and Conflict management areas.

A PM needs to keep his project balanced by keeping it integrated both on technical side and human side. For example, maintaining an effective Change Management procedure enables the project manager to incorporate any requested changes into all project baselines; i.e. if an implemented change affects scope, it has to be reflected to cost and time as applicable. The feedback loop of continuous update to project management plan as he executes the project is another way of integration that maintains a balanced project throughout lifecycle.

Regarding human integration I emphasize the skill of integrating the project team members together to work as one cohesive unit towards one objective. Just like football team players whose coach harmonizes their performance to score goals. For example, building the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is an activity that helps the PM integrate his team members as it involves collaborative effort from all of them.

It is said that 80% of projects failure is due to poor communications. A successful PM is the one who continuously maintains links with all stakeholders to satisfy their information needs and to best manage their expectations about the project. Whether it is through effective meetings, presentations, emailing, or conference calling the PM is kept updated with any requested changes that SH need at the right time. Besides, by building an open communications environment a positive constructive atmosphere amongst team members is created where ideas are shared and team work is fostered. All that gives a heavy mass to PM to keep him balanced in the project journey.

Conflict management is directly related to communications skills. A proficient communicator is most probably an effective conflict-solver. It is worth mentioning that mastering the strategies of conflict resolution is a key to maintain harmonized performance in project team. Unhealthy conflicts are disruptive and detrimental to the project. On the other hand, a PM should realize that conflict is sometimes healthy and needed in projects; a project with no conflicts is actually an ‘unbalanced project’.

At the end of the day it is the PM’s challenge to keep the project balanced. The more skillfully a PM performs ‘tightrope walking’, the more he ‘entertains’ his stakeholders and the more likely he makes it to the other end of the rope without falling.