We Need Project Leadership, Not Management

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Too often, we hear: “Project management is easy. We have been managing people for hundreds of years. Just take any manager, give him a project, and tell him to get it done.”

Experienced project managers will accurately predict the end of this story—there is a disproportionate chance this project will fail. Rather than “manager” being the key noun, a leader is required to deliver project value on time and within budget. To distinguish the project manager further—functional managers need only manage subordinates, while successful project managers lead extended project teams. This fundamental difference drastically increases the project manager's scope of the responsibility, since the project team includes an entire flock of stakeholders.

The Project Manager’s Purview
Functional managers are primarily responsible for their direct reports—the classical organization chart. On regular occasions, they coordinate with their peers or a boss, but their focus is on their staff. Project managers, on the other hand, must align a much larger array of people. Besides their project team and peers, they have an entire organization chart above them consisting of the project's stakeholders. In actuality, this loosely knit collection could be a significantly larger population than their well-organized subordinate project team.

Where I currently live, near Portland, Oregon, there has been a 25-year long effort to build a new bridge across the Columbia River. The two, currently steel, structures, one constructed in 1917 and the other in 1958, were built long before seismic design and construction techniques entered into the mainstream. They are arguably the weakest link in the 1,400-mile long freeway and only draw-bridges in the interstate highway that traverses Washington, Oregon, and California. There is a legitimate concern about their ability to sustain a reasonably sized trembler. Without a doubt, it will be a massive project building this 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, the US military (a reserve airbase is nearby), the Coast Guard, two state and two city governments, two transit agencies, light-rail proponents and opponents, bicyclists, pedestrians, local toll-paying citizenry, state tax payers (many hundreds of miles away wondering why they need to pay anything), boaters, businesses, truckers, commuters, environmentalists, and Native Americans, just to name a few. All have special interests; all can muck up the best project plan. Few of them know anything about project management; none of them cares about the woes of the project manager. Without a doubt, the project manager will need to navigate more obstacles from the stakeholders than from the team actually building the bridge.

Training Superiors and Stakeholders
Your projects may be much smaller, but they still need project managers that can lead without authority and can train leaders and stakeholders who are ignorant of their project management deficiencies. Never expect executives and sponsors to know what project managers need to properly execute their jobs. It is paramount that project managers use these people as tools to get the project completed, which means training them on their jobs. Project managers must unapologetically assign them tasks just like everyone else on the project. They work for the project manager. The sooner everyone realizes 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 want to be in that role? Had they done the job before? Did they ask for reports on progress or did they request assignments to help the project? Too often, projects inherit project sponsors as an afterthought—assigned under duress. Sponsors need the project manager's help in delineating what is required of them to make the project successful. This includes clarifying and constraining the project's scope, acquiring subject matter experts, finding the extra money when it is obvious that the project is bigger than anyone thought.

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.

Delegating Up
Of course, a project manager’s' job is to run the project. However, if he or she is confounded by a problem, it is better to ask for guidance than to flail and fail.

A few years ago, I was called in to fix a project that was going to be 200% over budget and schedule. Yes, 200%. That means three times the cost and three times as long. The product would benefit two departments; only one was funding it.

My investigation showed that nearly all of problems were “above” the project in the management hierarchy. The leadership was dysfunctional. A vice president for the nonfunding 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 to have her team bias the requirements in her department's favor. Upon discovering this, I bundled up the evidence and trudged into her boss's office—an executive three layers above me in the organization and second-in-command for the multibillion 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 had hit the project team, with a memo reprimanding the use of the blind-copy feature. The boss 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, 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 manager regarding my recovered project's team. The offender apologized for hindering our progress.

Executives want to help; they simply need us to tell them what to do.

Success is Contagious

Stepping up and being a leader helps you, your peers, and the entire organization. Leadership begets success and success is contagious. Peers mimic the victories. Your actions will improve the company's culture and the change will stick because everyone benefits.

Beneficial change requires that you focus on three directives that lead your leaders:

  • I need you to help me by...
  • I need mentoring on...
  • I need you to clarify...

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