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The project management balancing act

Colin Ellis | Jan. 19, 2016
Project management is a delicate balancing act, and needs more than leadership to see it through.

During a recent project management training course that I was running, I was asked whether being a great leader was good enough to help a project to succeed. I'd just spent 30 minutes working with the group on defining the behaviours required to be a successful project leader and given the emphasis we'd placed on the importance of this, it was a fair question.

My answer was that it's not enough. That project management is a delicate balancing act, and that leadership alone cannot see you through. Having said that, neither is creating a culture good enough on its own or applying a method carte blanche.

The project management triumvirate of leadership, culture and methods, must be applied in equal amounts across the life of a project, for it to be a success. Here's why.

Too much leadership, not enough method

'The leader is good, the leader is great, we surrender our will, as of this date' - The Simpsons: The Joy of Sect, 1998

Leadership when done well, is a great thing to behold. It's like poetry in motion. It's like Simon with Garfunkel, Morecambe with Wise, Hall with Oates and, er, Turner with Hooch. It picks us up, it's energetic, it gets us involved, it tells us we're great, it tells us we need to improve. It's honest forthright and inspiring.

But here's the thing.

If that charisma isn't backed up with a know-how of how to get things done, you'll soon hear 'Graeme is a lovely guy, but...' or 'I love working for Anne, however...'.

If project managers place too much emphasis on charismatic leadership and not enough on the mechanisms for productivity or progression, they'll find themselves as 'head of special projects' in no time at all.

Great project leaders are aware of the processes and tools available and make good use of them to capture the information necessary to support the successful completion of milestones. They can demonstrate the value of the processes and techniques that they use and employ their leadership skills to ensure that they're built using good collaboration.

American author, Marianne Williamson, said in her book Elements of Leaders of Character: 'Charisma is a sparkle in people that money can't buy. It's an invisible energy with visible effects.' However, without the know-how of techniques and process to guide the team through delivery, that sparkle will lose its lustre very quickly.

Too much method, not enough leadership

'Too much [project] academia can do you harm' - Jason Fried Re-work

While too much leadership can be bad, what we see more of in project management is too much method. Unfortunately, it has been employed by organisations for the last 15 years - and many are continuing to do so - as a silver bullet to the continued failure of Waterfall projects. Despite the fact that there's no proof anywhere in the world that this is the case.


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