One of the most useful habits that project leaders can develop is that of scanning the horizon, your project and those around you. Anticipating and tracking potential issues, whether internal or external; human, technical or commercial, will be key to keeping things on track. In this extract adapted from their book Project Leadership, Sarah Coleman and Donnie MacNicol give you a clear sense of exactly what this skill involves.

Looking inwards, outwards …

To provide the team with direction and a purpose it is critical that the project is articulated in the context of the organisation’s own strategy as well as that of the client. This helps to link and frame the external context with the internal project and to answer the typical questions: ‘Why should I put my energies into this?’ ‘Why is this important?’. The project leader will be expected to answer these questions and many more during the life of the project.

Communicating the organisation and client vision

The organisation, client and project can each have a vision. Ensuring people are aware of the organisation’s and client’s vision will help them understand the context and ways in which their decisions on the project could cascade upwards and impact these Visions.

Working with a bank carrying out a major refurbishment, which appeared to be tactical decisions had to be made regarding the IT infrastructure within the building. Only by realising that the organisation’s vision was to be highly networked and adaptable given the new markets it was planning to move into, was it possible to make an informed decision about what appeared to be an unjustified expense.

Understanding the strategy

If the vision is the ‘what’, the strategy is the ‘how’. All organizations have a strategy, articulated in different ways, to varying levels of detail and clarity. Taking time to understand how the organisation intends to achieve its vision and strategy, and the mechanisms it has in place to achieve it will help the project leader and the team to understand why certain decisions are being made that may impact the project.

Making change happen

Projects are about delivering change of some form and therefore the leader must identify how the changes will actually be made, delivering the benefits against which the project was originally justified. The field of change management is a growing area of knowledge and practice. As an example, on a major programme which we worked on within a bank, a large number of mainly property and IT projects were delivered but what had not been focused on was the unfortunate resulting reduction in staff against which the programme had been approved. This was complex and challenging, especially for those impacted, but should have been faced up earlier and more openly.

…forwards and backwards

The project leader needs to think like a footballer in possession of the ball, constantly aware of the opposition’s threats, of his own team’s support and of the need to maintain the initiative:


Project leaders need to be able to step back from the immediate pressures of the day and look at the whole situation. Disasters rarely occur out of the blue; there are nearly always early warning signs if you look for them. Find short periods of time to run through any worrying situations, preferably with somebody else off whom you can bounce ideas. Just think through implications and contingencies.

Continuous planning and reviewing

We still find many project leaders who think that planning is something that needs to be done just once, at the beginning! This approach assumes that everything can be predicted in advance. Continuous cycles of planning, doing and reviewing must take place throughout the project, and the greater the uncertainty and innovation, the more important this process is.

Keeping the whole team informed

Are you keeping your team, your sponsor and other key stakeholders up to date? Not everyone has the same understanding and grasp of current progress as the project leader. Project leaders need to maintain interest and enthusiasm for the project. A regular dialogue with key stakeholders should ensure that they are never taken by surprise.

Seeking feedback

Asking for feedback is so much more effective than waiting for it. It provides invaluable early warnings of any problems. The request itself, and any necessary follow-up action, build a project team’s credits within the organisation. You don’t need to have anything as structured as a questionnaire – there are several other ways, such as review meetings and informal conversations. Of course, it’s no good asking for feedback and then ignoring it when it comes. We know of a case in which clients were asked how they saw the company. The answer came back, ‘You are arrogant.’ The company’s response was, ‘Yes we know; that’s what they said last time we asked!’.

Adapted from Project Leadership, Second Edition by Sarah Coleman and Donnie MacNicol, Gower Publishing, Farnham, 2015.