“Project management is easy.” You have heard it before, hastily supported by, “We have been managing people for hundreds of years. Just take any manager, give them a project, and tell them to get it done.” Experienced project managers quickly foretell how this story ends—there is an overwhelming chance that failure is the fate of this project. Project leadership is about leading the project team throughout the project lifecycle and is crucial to success.
Projects need leaders. Successful projects deliver value—not scope, not schedule, not budget—value. Good project leaders paint the visions, inspire teams and deliver valuable results on time and within budget. Management is only one tool in the expanse of their toolbox.
Functional managers manage subordinates, while successful project managers lead extended project teams. The fundamental difference is that project managers rarely have any authority over the people that control the destiny of the project. This drastically increases the responsibility of the project manager, since the extended project team includes a disparate collection of individuals—the stakeholders.
The Project Manager’s Purview
Functional managers are primarily responsible for their direct reports—the classical organisation chart (see the figure to the right). On regular occasions, they coordinate with their peers or a boss, but their focus is on their staff. Project managers, on the other hand, have a much larger array of people to keep aligned.
Besides their project team and peers, they have an entire organisation chart above them consisting of the project’s stakeholders. In actuality, this loosely knit collection of people with varying, and often conflicting, goals are a significantly larger population than their well-organised subordinate project team.
Close to my residence outside Portland, Oregon, there has been a twenty-year-long effort to build a new bridge across the Columbia River. The two, currently steel, structures, one erected in 1917 and the other in 1958, were built long before seismic design and construction techniques entered into the mainstream and are the weakest link in the only interstate highway that connects Washington, Oregon, and California stretching from Canada to Mexico.
There is a legitimate concern about their ability to sustain a reasonably sized trembler. Without a doubt, it has been a massive undertaking attempting to build a new multimodal, dual-decked, mile-long bridge. It will take thousands of designers, managers, and construction workers. However, consider the stakeholders involved.
They include the federal transportation agencies, Federal Aviation Administration (it is in the flight plan of two public airports), the US military (a reserve air base is nearby), the Coast Guard, two-state and two city governments, two transit agencies, light-rail proponents, light-rail opponents, bicyclists, pedestrians, local toll-paying citizenry, state taxpayers (many hundreds of miles away wondering why they need to pay anything), boaters, businesses, truckers, commuters, environmentalists, and Native Americans, to name just a few. All have special interests; anyone can muck up your best project plan. Few of them know anything about project management; none care about the woes of the project manager. Undoubtedly, stakeholders have created, are creating, and will continue to create more pain than almost any project team could ever conjure.
Training Superiors and Stakeholders
The first rule is to never expect executives or sponsors to understand their role in a project. Your projects may be much smaller, but they still need good project leadership with project managers who can lead without authority and train leaders and stakeholders who are ignorant of their project management deficiencies. It is paramount that project leaders use these people as tools to successfully complete their projects.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon the Project Managers to train them on how to do their jobs. Just as with everyone else on the project, unapologetically assign them tasks. Simply put, executives and sponsors work for the project manager. The sooner the project manager convinces everyone of this, the better the project will run.
To underscore the point, think back on the last few sponsors you saw assigned to projects. Did they jump up and enthusiastically volunteer for the assignment? Had they ever been a sponsor before? Was their view of the assignment to ask for progress reports or did they avail themselves to address the real problems on the project? Too often, projects inherit project sponsors as an afterthought—likely assigned under duress. The project manager has the responsibility to delineate their tasks to make the project successful. This includes:
- Clarifying and constraining the project’s scope.
- Acquiring subject matter experts.
- Lobbying stakeholders.
- Finding the funding when it finally becomes obvious that the project is bigger than anyone thought.
- And, as all complete job descriptions include, other duties as assign by their boss—the project manager.
The executives? They should be mentoring project managers, helping with costs, and cutting through the politics. If they are not doing this, the project manager must teach them to do so. Most likely, the project team members understand their project roles; I doubt the leaders and stakeholders do.
Ultimately, the project managers’ job is to run the project; however, if they are confounded by a problem, it is better to ask for guidance than to flail and fail.
A few years ago, we were asked to provide one of our standard products for auditing a project that was projected to be 200% over budget and schedule. Yes, 200%. Three times the cost and three times the duration. Sad but true. The project’s deliverable would benefit two departments; however, only one was funding it. The investigation uncovered that nearly all of the problems were “above” the project in the management hierarchy. The project leadership was dysfunctional.
A Vice President for the non-funding department requested that one of the project’s team members blind-copy her on all emails and communications regarding scope. The VP would then use this information and her position to bias the requirements in her department’s favour. Upon discovering this, I bundled up the evidence and trudged into her boss’ office—an executive three layers above me in the organisation and second-in-command for the multi-billion dollar company.
I made my case in a logical and dispassionate manner asking him to stop the covert action. By the time I returned to my desk (three blocks from the executive’s office), the reverberations hit the project team, with a memo reprimanding the use of the blind copy feature. He took care of the situation as I left his office. He wanted to help, he was unaware of the problem, and when he became aware of it, he helped me regain command and control over my project by removing the meddling manager.
Less than a month later, I had to invoke the assistance of another executive, this time the VP of Information Technology, asking him to stop the drone of negativism from one of his managers aimed at the newly-recovered project’s team. The offender apologised for hindering our progress. Executives want to help; we simply need people to tell them what to do.
Success is Contagious
Step up and be a project leader. It helps you, your peers, and the entire organisation. Leadership begets success and success is contagious. Peers will mimic your victories because success is contagious. Your actions will change the company’s culture. It is a sticky change since everyone benefits. Change that helps does not meet the same dismal apathetic demise of other change efforts. It only takes you to focus on three directives that lead your leaders:
- I need you by doing…
- I need mentoring on …
- I need clarification on…
About Guest Contributor
Todd C. Williams is the founder and president of eCameron, Inc. (www.ecaminc.com), who helps companies turn vision into profit. He has over 25 years of experience preventing project failure, recovering those that go astray, and applying lessons learned to help other organizations fulfil their strategic goals. He has helped his clients through strategic planning facilitation, setting up and running operations, IT leadership, and as an expert witness. He is the author of Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure, he blogs for The CEO Magazine and The American Management Association, and his own Back From Red Blog. You can also find him on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/backfromred/), Twitter, Facebook, by phone: +1 (360) 834-7361, or email: [email protected]