On a small project, we are usually in direct contact with the customer, most of stakeholders, the members of the project team and most of the IT supplier’s team. However, many projects are just too large to establish and maintain a level of personal contact. Their project success depends on having leaders, who share the project vision, in the centres of expertise that are spread across the business functions, the IT supplier and partners outside the organisation.
When I start working with a client, they often ask me to have a look around and tell them how I think their project is doing. I like to start this task informally, without looking at any paperwork, by having off the record chats with key members of the various teams. Although this does, of course, include people in formal management roles, I really like to talk to are those below that level – the key doers and influencers with specific skills and knowledge.
What I often find is that people who are keen to be part of a successful project feel frustrated and stifled: not listened to and undervalued. These are often experienced people whose particular expertise is well respected by their peers. They usually have a long list of things that are being done wrong or could go wrong. These are the leaders in waiting and the challenge is to harness them.
The All Blacks are New Zealand’s national Rugby Union team. They are arguably the most successful national sports team of all time. They have won 75 per cent of all the matches that they have ever played and have a winning record over every other side that they have played.
The All Blacks are the current world champions, the acknowledged thought leaders in the game and the standard against which all other nations measure themselves. It is always a shock when they lose and is a source of great jubilation for those who manage to defeat them. The population of New Zealand is just under 5.5 million, just over half that of London. The All Blacks are doing something right and a large part of their success is what they refer to as ‘leaders all over the park’.
Rugby Union is a complicated game, played by two teams of 15 players, comprised of eight ‘forwards’ and seven ‘backs’. Each ‘phase’ of the game has its own rules and requires a different set of skills. Unlike American Football, the same sets of players do the attacking, defending and kicking. A rugby team has only one formal leader – the designated captain.
But the All Blacks, always the innovators, were the first to take this a step further. Guided by a shared vision of how they wanted to play the game, they encouraged their more experienced, highly regarded players to take leadership roles during different phases and situations of the game. Younger or less experienced players would look to those informal leaders to learn and seek to emulate their particular skills.
More importantly, these multiple leaders are the cool heads that take charge when the going gets tough, making crucial decisions on behalf of the team. Nowadays, each top rugby team talks about the need to develop leaders ‘all over the park’.
The analogy between a game of Rugby Union and an IT project is that each goes through different stages and complex situations, where different skills and experience are needed. And just like rugby, the formal leader is either not present to make a decision or doesn’t possess the right skills and experience to make that decision. Project decisions may not need to be made as quickly as in a game of rugby but brisk and confident decision making builds and maintains a project’s momentum.
Think about who might be the natural leaders on your project. Who are the influencers and subject matter experts that others look to for guidance? Who do you need to wield influence at certain stages and in particular topics?
When you have identified these leaders, ensure that you chat to them on a regular basis as individuals or as a group. Let them know how much you value their contribution and leadership. But go a step further and follow the example of the All Blacks: tell them that you see them as important leaders on the project, with a reciprocal expectation that they will lead on your behalf.
If you can develop a network of informal leaders all over the project, they will act as the glue that keeps a project on track when things go wrong and processes fail for reasons beyond your control. Even if you lose a crucial ‘player’, you will have a strong team of leaders to guide you home.
Gary Lloyd is a programme and project management specialist who helps organisations and individuals to deliver value from their projects and programmes through: consultancy, mentoring, coaching, training and project assurance. His aim is to work with clients to both lower project risk and to develop organisational and individual delivery capability. He has been helping businesses to deliver IT enabled change for over 20 years. His roles have ranged from being the business leader who drives the change, through to being a trusted advisor to CEO’s and COO’s, helping them to get value from their projects, programmes and ventures. Gary has worked across a variety of countries and cultures that include various European countries, Japan, India, Hong Kong and the USA. He is the author of Business Leadership for IT Projects published by Gower.