The Challenge of Project Leadership
I believe the challenge of effective leadership in projects to be one of the most urgent the profession of project management has faced in recent times.
Today, we throw the word ‘leadership’ around as though it is expected, as though it is something all project managers can do without having to think about it or having to develop an understanding of the attributes needed in demonstrating leadership. Somehow, simply telling a project manager that they are also the project leader means they become all knowing on all things leadership; they are the project leader now after all!
You are probably all familiar with the statistics of failing projects as I am. A study by the Economist in 2014 stated that only 56% of all projects were successful in delivering their intended outputs and/or outcomes. If we were to take a positive view we would say 44% of all projects delivered their intended outputs and/or outcomes but somehow, that doesn’t seem to me to be too positive!
In the UK, the government’s major projects portfolio in 2014/15 was made up of 188 projects with a lifetime project value of £489 Billion; or to put it another way that’s twice the GDP of Greece and thirty times the GDP of Cyprus. And if you consider that a recent UK government House of Commons report, stated that only one in three of these projects are likely to be delivered on time and to budget, that is (admittedly on a linear basis and so not necessarily an accurate figure), £326 Billion of UK tax payers money ‘at risk’…..and whatever the ‘accurate figure’ actually is one thing is for sure; it will be big!!
The reasons for project failure are wide, varied and well documented.
Are project failures caused by unclear scope or a lack of clear goals? Are they caused by poor estimating, bad contract terms and conditions, neglected stakeholder management or misunderstood requirements? Or are failures caused by unexpected or unmanaged risks or by a lack of senior management buy-in or limited sponsor attention?
Is it because the environment in which projects are being managed has become more fluid, ambiguous and increasingly more challenging?
Could it be it’s because our projects are becoming more complicated and increasingly more complex whilst the tools, techniques, methods and capabilities we use to manage them have remained essentially the same over many years? Of course, the answer is all of the above, but there is also in my view another contributory factor.
The International Centre for Complex Project Management (ICCPM) said in its report “Hitting a Moving Target” – “It is clear that the situation has to be addressed radically and comprehensively; if we do what we’ve always done, we will get what we’ve always got – and there are too many examples that prove what we’ve got isn’t good enough”. But what was it that the ICCPM was referring to when they talked of ‘the situation’? The answer was project leadership.
Is it a surprise therefore that the UK government invested a large amount of tax payers money in initiating the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA) for those leading major government projects? The bad news is making the transition from project manager to project leader can be hard and uncomfortable. The good news is that we all as project managers have the ability to lead!
And that means in the world of our projects today, not only setting a vision for our teams, or to get the best from them by motivating and inspiring; it also means the ability for us as project managers to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, to be certain about the uncertain and to recognise that in the world of our projects today, fluidity is too rigid!
As project managers we have to be able navigate complexity and steer our projects through complication. We have to be open when learning from past mistakes and demonstrate the behaviours that lead to future successes and not only that, we need to encourage our teams to do the same as us, and do it better than us so that we can continue to learn and develop from them.
According to a recent study, eighty percent of high performing project organisations said that the most important skill required of their people when managing complex projects was leadership. They explained they needed leaders who could own the project vision; who could foster collaboration, who could make sense of uncertainty and inspire and motivate their teams to achieve the required project outcomes that allowed the intended benefits to be delivered and hoped for legacy to be realised.
I am convinced that developing project managers capable of strong, fair and effective project leadership which is able to address the challenges and complexities of our projects today will truly mean our profession will have come of age. That means developing leadership capability in our project managers that is able to balance the traditional ‘technical’ project management competencies (the good old iron triangle of time cost and quality) with new dimensions of social, commercial, organisational, relationship and emotional capabilities, or as I have coined it, developing ‘SCORE’ skills.
As a profession, we must make sure we do not constrain ourselves within the walls of the iron triangle (but must never forget what the walls of the iron triangle have taught us) and we must be willing to think and behave in different ways.
And if we are willing not to be constrained and to think and behave in different ways, I believe we will overcome the challenge the profession has placed before us and where we will be able to successfully SCORE all of our project’s goals.
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