Project Failure = Leadership Failure
Projects are often complex undertakings filled with a series of interdependent people, parts, and processes. Envisioning and bringing them to fruition takes a significant amount of expertise and planning.
And with the amount of time and investment one project (or several) require for execution, it stands to reason that project management should be a strategic competency for any mid- to large-market company. Unfortunately, that isn’t often the case. But leaders who understand and embrace the influence they wield over the process have an opportunity to change that standard.
Just take a second to assess all the projects your company takes on each year, looking specifically at the unsuccessful ones:
Did your new app launch expand too far beyond the original scope? Was the creation of your new service line riddled with miscommunication and lack of transparency? Were all of them steeped in detailed planning, or were they played fast and loose?
Guess what: Every one of those reasons why projects fail stem from the same origin: leadership letdowns. The importance of leadership in project management cannot be understated or undervalued. As complex and fluid as projects can be, leadership needs to be a stabilizing force focused on providing project management teams with whatever they need to stay the course.
The Effects of Poor Leadership in Project Management
With any project, Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. Anything that can go wrong, will — and those failures inevitably fall on the shoulders of the project manager. After all, the definition of project management is re-syncing the plan to match reality, which often means standing up to stakeholders in denial. If project managers must routinely face refusals from the top to accept bad news, the project will continue trending downward.
Leadership must embolden and equip project managers to be pathfinders. PMs often must chart unique courses to push initiatives past the finish line. Even when employing the most effective project management methodologies, sometimes difficult trade-offs are necessary. It takes adept negotiation skills to ensure you’re compromising in the right way.
Make the wrong choice, and a failed project can lead to many woes down the line, including:
• Unintended Results: “Crashing the schedule,” for instance, could keep the project on budget, but if this trade-off delivers an ineffective product, then the entire project will have just been a waste of time and money.
• Future Project Resistance: If a certain approach fails, it could be forever seen as a boogeyman. Projects that share any characteristics may be avoided in the future, leading to missed opportunities and overcompensation.
• Falling Behind the Competition: A huge gap in the project portfolio means you lost an entire year to a failed initiative. One study estimated the cost of unsuccessful development projects at around $260 billion for 2020 alone.
• Heads Roll: If the failure is significant enough, everyone from the COO and CIO to the director and project manager can lose their jobs over a single project failure.
The effects of poor leadership in project management often cascade throughout an entire organization and can even spark questions about a business’s sustainability. It’s more critical than ever to have the right decision makers take the lead and put the right people and resources in the right place to ensure projects succeed.
More Than Theory:
Effective Project Management in the Real World
Effective project management can seem more theoretical than anything else, especially when you consider that 70% of all projects fail.
Here are some examples of project management done right:
A Case Study in Teamwork
A global education and training company was just beginning a digital transformation when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Immediately, the initiative went from a long-term goal to a do-or-die emergency.
At the outset, this project looked like it would primarily be under IT’s umbrella. But it quickly transcended that department to become a companywide affair, sparking conflicts of interest.
How did everyone get back to the same level? The team spent time establishing the project’s main objectives and distilled these goals into a realistic solution that everyone could get behind. This kept the leadership team on the same page and working together in the same direction. The company was able to salvage the program and develop a robust digital product, helping to maintain its status as a leader in the education arena.
A Case Study in Control
IBM had an initiative in the ‘90s called The Bridge Project that has come to be a textbook example of a project that was out of control from the outset. The specs were so generic that it was near impossible to meet every objective, forcing the project team to confront a list of issues at each team meeting.
Some may be surprised to learn that the key to getting back on track is controlling the project through everyday administrivia. First, regular meetings and check-ins were put on the books. Then, each side clearly documented what it was (and wasn’t) responsible for. Finally, the project team made absolutely sure its end was held up and that all the balls were in the client’s court.
This kept the project team on the offensive, and the client meetings began to take on a different tone. All that was necessary was to refer to the list to highlight who had which responsibility. When the client said something about an open item, the project team could tell them that it wasn’t possible to move forward until they cleared up the issue on their end.
Setting expectations with the client kept the project on the task at hand instead of devolving into finger-pointing and personal disputes.
A Case Study in Leadership Vacuums
When former President Ronald Reagan was shot back in 1981, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was on a plane without reliable communication. With the Cold War still raging on, people were justifiably concerned if anyone was actually in charge. When asked, the deputy press secretary made the mistake of saying, “I cannot answer that question at this time.”
Secretary of State Al Haig stepped to the podium and stated, “I am in control here.” Then went on to explain, “Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state, in that order.” While wrong, as the Speaker of the House would be next in line and then the Senate Pro Tempore after that, Haig demonstrated that leadership is taken, not given.
The same is true of leadership in project management, but leaders face a paradox. Yes, success falls squarely on their shoulders, yet what kind of hands-on contribution do they make to that potential success? They put people in the right places to succeed, but not usually by getting their hands dirty. And they usually don’t even have traditional levers of power, like hiring and firing.
So their true power comes in being supportive. Even if they’re a couple of steps removed from contributing to success, leaders need to step in, take control, and delegate support when project managers need it most.
Get the Right Leaders in the Right Places
When looking for project managers, it’s easy to find a candidate who has all the experience, certifications, and skills on paper to be technically qualified for the role. But PMs who end up coming up short down the line don’t fail because they aren’t experienced or insightful enough — it’s because they don’t have the leadership acumen to see the project through.
The problem is that these qualities are the hardest to glean in potential project managers during the selection process. Here are some strategies for finding out whether a candidate has the leadership skills that differentiate them from the field:
1) Create a skills-versus-results matrix.
Set up columns of necessary skills, breaking them out by required technical skills, leadership abilities, culture fit, and disposition. From there, fill in the rows of results. Use this matrix as a scoring model for objectively comparing candidates.
2) Conduct success-based, results-oriented interviews.
Drill into the candidate’s ability to deliver the results required. Make the exploration into the candidate’s abilities relevant to what will be needed within the new role.
3) Pose scenario-based questions.
Asking questions that elicit real-life experiences offers a glimpse into how candidates apply functional skills in compromising environments. It also takes the answers outside the sterile realm of theory.
For example, ask candidates how they specifically helped rescue projects in distress. Their answers can help demonstrate what personal skills they used to get project backs on the rails.
Set Your Leaders Up for Success
Once you’ve gathered all the necessary information during the selection process, you’ve got enough to build your project management team. Now, it’s time to set those managers up for success. Here are three ways you, as a leader, can best support your project managers:
1) Institute a project charter drafting process.
Don’t allow anyone to go through the motions. As the most critical component to project planning, the project charter deserves a formal process that all project leads follow. It ensures all the questions are asked and answered — particularly the five W’s of effective project management.
2) Build the proper project team.
The success of a project often hangs on six roles and responsibilities within a project team: solution architect, expertise, administrative, coordination, data analysis, and scheduling. Leaving even one role unfilled or unsupported could spell doom for the project and the project lead.
3) Invest in project management tools.
Without access to the right technology, the entire team will be hamstrung from making any progress. Project planning software, collaboration platforms, time management solutions, resource management dashboards, and so on can all help managers lead project teams to successful outcomes.
True leadership in project management involves putting the right people, processes, and technology in place to flourish. Get all that in order, and your project leaders will have what they need to take any project across the finish line.
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