The best leaders understand that change is essential for their organizations to survive, and the way we change organizations is through projects. Unfortunately, projects today are suffering from epidemic rates of failure — some that are even significant enough to threaten the very survival of a company. This represents a major obstacle to businesses working to execute their strategic visions.
So, who is to blame? It’s natural to point the finger at the project manager. However, experience suggests that often there is a mismatch between the most common causes of failure and the responsibilities typically associated with project management. Because people are focused on the wrong problem, they keep missing the obvious opportunity to implement an effective solution. The symptoms may appear to derive from poor management, but the root cause actually is a failure of leadership.
Most executives agree that leadership and management are related but not the same. To paraphrase management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker, management is about doing things right, while leadership is about doing the right things. Having an expert who is trained in the tools and techniques of project management certainly can have a positive impact on how a project performs. However, because project management is fundamentally just a set of technical skills, this expert won’t be the true determinant of success or failure. In other words, blaming a project failure on poor management should garner the same type of skepticism as blaming a business failure on poor accounting.
Like symptoms of a disease, common project leadership failure modes can be traced back to several causes:
- Lack of clarity: A project runs into trouble because people have different understandings of what the project is intended to do.
- Poor judgement: Teams launch into a project that deals with a symptom instead of addressing a problem or start working on a solution only to discover there is a better way to do it that was not considered.
- Poor planning: Teams begin working without making a plan. As a result, they run into a huge number of surprises and conflicts, and there is no meaningful way to track progress.
- Poor execution: Teams get distracted; have conflicting priorities; or, for other reasons, just don’t get the work done.
- Poor change: Team members underestimate the demands of startup or changeover, and otherwise successful projects fall into crisis because of this lack of preparation and planning.
- Poor transition: Organizations take a naïve, “If you build it, they will come” approach, failing to keep in mind that projects affect people’s work and lives and require them to alter routines and behaviors.
The good news is that there are proven leadership principles and specific actions that can be applied to avoid failure. The DIRECT project leadership framework translates the responsibilities of a project leader into practical actions. This tool is built around a set of six core principles. Each is equally important — missing any one of them can spell ruin. Users should leverage these principles in order to set the course, overcome barriers and see into blind spots. Excellent project leaders hold themselves accountable for these three key principles. That’s a big responsibility, and that’s why good leaders are so valuable.
To better understand these principles, imagine standing on a set watching the filming of a movie. It’s a complex and impressive process. Actors are delivering lines while camera operators and sound technicians work to capture the drama. Dozens of people are taking care of the lighting, the scenery and the special effects that must be perfectly arranged and timed. In order for all of these pieces to come together, there are armies of people supporting the process, from selecting the location to paying the bills and feeding the crew.
Filming even a single scene in a movie requires the coordination of myriad specialties and functions. This work is performed by many people in stages over a long period of time. Who among this group is the leader? If you asked, you’d probably discover that there are many leaders on this particular team, as each function has someone in charge of making sure that the puzzle pieces fit just right. But, of course, the person bringing together all the work and synchronizing it to create a successful movie is the director.
Interestingly, movie directors are rarely true experts in any of the individual functions. Directors don’t need to be good actors (although some are); directors probably shouldn’t handle pyrotechnics; and many are, no doubt, terrible cooks. But these things don’t matter. As long as the actors deliver their lines properly, the pyrotechnics deliver the proper effect and the food is good enough to keep the crew from walking off the set, the directors are doing their jobs.
Leading a project is like directing a movie. It can be a huge and complex responsibility, it relies on clear communication and efficiency, and leaders must choose team members who have the skills to help bring about successful results. The key takeaway from these lessons can be summed up in one word: direct. As luck would have it, the responsibilities of a project leader are easy to remember using DIRECT as an acronym:
- Define the vision. The leader must ensure that everyone understands what a project is intended to do and why it is important. This helps avoid issues resulting from confusion, complexity and competition. If the vision changes, the leader needs to ensure that the new plan is communicated effectively to the team and other stakeholders.
- Investigate the options. The leader must confirm that the team has done its due diligence and explored different ways of achieving the goal. This means thinking outside the box and considering creative options. It also means knowing when the investigation has gone deep enough. The leader may need to move the team past the stage of investigating options to prevent them from getting stuck.
- Resolve to take a course of action. Once the options have been chosen, it’s time to bring together team members around a useful plan that is just detailed enough to accurately capture the work that needs to be done and when it will occur. The plan also should identify the role that each team member will play. Assigning and accepting accountability for activities when the plan is developed is essential for managing performance once execution begins. In addition, the plan needs to show the linkages, or interdependencies, among various activities and teams. Remember that one of the biggest risks to any project is rework, and this comes from poor planning.
- Execute the plan. Both objective and subjective data must be used to make sure that the project is moving forward effectively and that issues are being identified and resolved in a timely manner. Executing effectively depends on identifying and resolving issues; maintaining communication among the project team; and tracking metrics on the budget, level of risk and the like.
- Change over to the new system. Projects always create some kind of change. The leader needs to confirm that the team is planning and managing that change effectively. Project teams often underestimate the difficulties involved, particularly with regard to startup. Project leaders must make sure they are doing an adequate amount of planning and preparation to ensure a smooth launch. This includes end-to-end user acceptance testing before the implementation and planning of how issues will be identified and resolved. Finally, it’s important to make sure there are ways to track performance and demonstrate when the new system is running at a level that is stable and acceptable.
- Transition the people. Changes affect people in different ways; likewise, people respond to changes in different ways. The project leader must ensure that these issues are addressed and the team is effectively transitioning people through the change. Think about the stakeholders, their needs and the impacts they will experience from the project. Help them let go of the old way of doing things, and build their enthusiasm and support for the new system. This might involve training, efforts to make sure they know they are an important part of the process and specific ways of honoring their contributions. The last step is celebrating accomplishments and maximizing the value of the experience for everyone by taking time to capture lessons learned from all team members.
Using the toolbox
It’s useful to think of this framework as a leadership toolbox that helps set up teams for success. It’s a simple, easy-to-use approach for detecting and responding to the gaps that most often lead to project failures. Again, the job of the project leader is to be a director. Leaders don’t need to be experts in all the various disciplines required to complete a project, but they must make sure the team has a solid foundation on which to build.
Good project leaders deliver tangible results, build effective teams and foster positive relationships. They also tend to be rewarded for their leadership skills, and the top players are able to work where they are treated well and have the best chance at being successful. Being recognized as a good project leader actually makes it easier to attract top talent to your team, which, in turn, increases the likelihood that projects will be successful. Of course, the reverse also is true: Poor project leaders tend to drive away top performers and disengage team members, leading to lower performance levels and higher probabilities of failure. Projects have a beginning and an end, but leadership is a journey. Every meeting, every email, every phone call is an opportunity to hone leadership skills, identify what works and what doesn’t, and understand the role a leader can play in helping others be successful. The fact is, excellent project leadership may be the single best investment of time and money an organization can make. It reduces risk, increases return on investment and becomes the key to linking strategy with execution.
Daniel Stanton, CSCP, PMP, is the president of SecureMarking and an associate professor of operations management at the Jack Welch Management Institute. He also is the author of two popular project management courses on LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com. Stanton may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Read a sidebar article about 21 common project leadership failure modes and tips about how the DIRECT project leadership framework can be used to avoid them.