After several years we seem, at last, to be over our fixation with zombies. Again.
It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time that the zombie movie genre comes around, each time bringing a new generation into its cold, dead clutches.
I am reminded of the zombie movie each time I have a discussion about project management versus project leadership. I’m not referring to the mental state of those on either side of the argument, rather the way that just when you think the discussion has died down and the argument is resolved it comes lumbering back to life.
As you know, the way to kill a zombie is to hit it hard on the head. So, in the hope that I can do my bit to end the debate here’s my take on things.
Most of our problems with project management are not down to poor project management, but poor project leadership.
Let me explain why by looking at the difference between management and leadership, in a project setting, by looking at who takes the blame for failure to deliver projects and by looking at the critical gap that exists for many project teams.
Project Management vs. Project Leadership
Project Management is that branch of management devoted to the process of change; the orchestration of people and resources through a series of activities, tasks and processes to bring about a transformation from a state to another, different state:
- Irrespective of the industry, we’re always seeking to orchestrate a transition from one reality to a new reality
- Projects are temporary endeavours whether the timescale is measured in hours or decades
- People may come and go during the life of the project and while for each of them the project may seem like a permanent endeavour the project does not last forever; they are meant to come to an end.
Leadership is that branch of management concerning the development, nurturing and utilisation of influence as way of motivating others to some end or objective. There are many ways that you could describe leadership, but from a project management perspective it is associated with power, influence, persuasion, campaigning, direction and motivation:
- Where the leader outlines a vision, the manager works to take people towards that vision
- Where the leader describes a future state, the manager organises teams and resources to realise that future state
- Where the leader announces a change in direction, the manager works to ensure that the new direction is the one that people follow
- Where the leader outlines a strategy, the manager endeavours to ensure the successful delivery of that strategy.
Here are three reasons why the debate between project management and project leadership just won’t die.
Failure to execute strategy is seen as a project management issue
First, there’s a big problem in business concerning the execution of strategy. Business leaders see this as their number one challenge. It’s relatively easy for them to define a strategy, much harder to deliver it. Somewhere, something is going wrong between vision and execution and many see it as the failure of project management to successfully deliver strategy. I don’t agree: it’s not project management that is missing, it’s the environment in which projects are being run that needs improving.
The need to develop leadership potential instead of systems and tools
Second, there’s a real need to develop the leadership potential of project managers. If leadership is concerned with influencing and motivating people then project managers need to be skilled leaders, not just successful administrators.
Unfortunately too much of the discussion around project management skills is still rooted in hard skills and techniques: planning, scheduling, risk management, budgeting. Instead, it should be focused on those skills which are vital for leadership: envisioning, goal-setting, listening, speaking, collaborating, negotiating, supporting and reinforcing, coaching and mentoring.
The need for vision and direction, not just faster delivery
Thirdly, at an individual level members of project teams need to develop their own leadership potential, starting with the way that they lead themselves. Gone are the days when you could work in one company for the whole of your working life. As a result the structures and support that used to provide a lifelong career and career guidance are gone.
Developing a vision and direction is still important in order to develop your career and most people need help with this. Again, coaching and mentoring are important here, not just to pass on knowledge and skills but also to develop vision, purpose, self-motivation and accountability.
Death to project management, long live project leadership!
So, where do we go from here? In order to move forward as a discipline we need to stop talking about project management and start talking about project leadership. Here are three ways that you can do that:
- If you’re a member of your organisation’ leadership team, you create the conditions in which people work. This includes people working on projects. Create the conditions in which they can deliver great projects. In particular, forge a link between the projects that they work on and the business strategies that they underpin, in a way that is clear and compelling
- If you’re a project manager you should be developing your soft project management skills so that you become a better motivator, mentor and coach to the people on your projects
- If you’re a member of a project team, you need to remember that you need to develop a vision for the future just as much as your organisation does, otherwise you risk becoming a zombie, shuffling from one job to another without a vital, beating heart that brings them you to life.
No matter what level you currently work at, if you take action to develop project leadership you will reap rewards for yours to come.