January 26, 2016
Have you ever experienced any of these situations when presented with a problem to solve and been asked to produce a plan to address it? We develop a plan, and create an action list with the plan of achieving a certain outcome.
- You start gathering data – the more data the better – because there is always more to find out, and you invest more and more time in gathering more and more data. Every time you think you fully understand the problem, a new small piece of data comes to light. You are so focused on collecting all of the available data that by the time you come to develop your plan to solve the problem, you discover that you have invested a disproportionate amount of time in this phase, and you are now pressed for time to deliver…
- You are given a team to help you address the problem. However, despite repeatedly telling them that your project is important, they don’t seem to understand. They are still working on other issues of lesser priority and, despite giving them a plan to action, they don’t follow up on their actions and instead work on other activity. As a result, you produce more and more detailed schedules and action lists. However, they still don’t follow them, meaning you need to keep re-planning your milestones. Before you know it, you are locked in a cycle of re-scheduling due to the failure of your team, and you are now pressed for time to deliver…
- You develop an understanding of the problem and you build an action plan. You execute the actions and wait for the positive output. However, despite the effort you put into planning, your actions don’t deliver the results you expected. The problem still exists! You go back to the beginning and start gathering more data. You re-plan the programme and you re-brief the team. Before you know it, you are right back at the beginning and are now pressed for time to deliver…
What we see here are three fundamental challenges that always face us as project leaders.
- We are working with complex systems involving people. As a result, there is always a gap between what we would like to know and what we actually know.
- We are leading people who have their own pressures and agendas, both inside and outside of the workplace. As a result, their desires are never perfectly aligned with ours.
- We are solving complex problems in complex systems that interact dynamically with other complex systems. As a result, the actions we take never have the exact results we wished for.
Our measure as leaders is defined by how we address these challenges: fighting against the challenges or recognising and working with them. This is, to me, the essential difference between Project Management and Project Leadership:
- Project Managers put more and more controls in place and try to force the gaps closed. This is manifested in more review meetings, more KPI reporting, more detailed task lists and more progress reporting. PMOs have a strong tendency to create this culture. From my own experience of running a 5 year, £150m+ programme, I recall the central PMO originally wanted a detailed progress report by work stream every week. We soon aligned expectations!
- Project Leaders recognise the inevitability of the gaps and allow their teams to identify and bridge the gaps as soon as they become apparent.
The essence of leading projects effectively is to bridge the gaps identified above. Applying recognised project management techniques such as those in the Association of Project Management Body of Knowledge will greatly assist this. However, without strong leadership, you run the risk of trying to control the uncontrollable.
The alignment gap – the gap between what we want people to do and what they actually do:
- A manager addresses this gap through more and more detailed instructions, reducing the free will of the project team as much as possible. A leader focusses on ensuring that every member of the project team understands the overall objective of the project, its role in the programme and portfolio, and its link to the business strategy. By giving the team as much context as possible, you give them the information and the motivation to make the right decisions dynamically as challenges arise. How you communicate this is a reflection of your leadership style. I have always favoured conversations with the team in their own environment rather than arranging formal briefs – but all means of communication play a part. This is then reinforced by getting the team to brief back to you as leader how they plan to address the challenges in their areas.
The knowledge gap – the gap between what you want to know and what you actually know:
- A manager addresses this gap through demanding ever more and more information. A leader focuses on reducing their directives to an absolute minimum and keeping the detailed planning bounds as short as possible. You develop a high level holistic plan for the whole project or programme, then restrict your detailed planning and particularly scheduling to the next milestone, or sub-milestone. My mantra has always been to give all, but only those instructions that an informed team member cannot work out for themselves.
The effects gap – the gap between what we expected our actions to achieve and what they actually achieved:
- A manager addresses this gap through closer and closer control of the team. A leader focuses on ensuring that the team understand their freedom of action, and allows them to change the plan within these boundaries. Only when their changes impact over their boundary, do they need to refer decisions up to the next level of the project team. Dialogue between work streams is focused on the boundaries, and detailed plans and schedules are built at the lowest (not the highest) level of the project hierarchy.
Projects are complex and dynamic situations. Any attempt to manage and control them top down will be ultimately less successful than leading them. By leading you ensure that every member of the team understands:
- The overall aim of the project and how it fits into the wider business strategy and other projects in the portfolio
- Their boundaries and the areas in which they have freedom of action
- The need to communicate up, down and horizontally on anything that potentially crosses these boundaries
I am indebted to all of the material that has been written about this style of leadership over the years. This approach appears under a number of taglines, most often Auftragstaktik or mission command. For a more detailed understanding of the topic take a look at “The Art of Action” by Stephen Bungay, an excellent publication which traces the origins of this thinking from nineteen century German military and leads you into a modern business context.
For additional information on Coriolis’s Programme Management Capability and how to use it to enhance your business please get in touch.
Written by Richard Jeffers, Coriolis Ltd