New Leadership Competencies for the Project Side of Strategy Execution

Tuesday, January 03, 2012 | Category :

By Dennis Cohen, Ph.D.

Whether leaders are directly responsible for a project-like endeavor, a portfolio of such endeavors or the general environment in which projects get executed, ultimate success requires sound project leadership competencies. As I explained in my blog post, ‘Changing Behaviors: An Insurmountable Challenge in Strategy Execution?’, these temporary endeavors are vital for strategy execution, yet those responsible are rarely trained in the art of project leadership. More and more leaders who have primary responsibilities leading permanent teams and ongoing processes find themselves with additional responsibilities to lead initiatives, task forces, change management initiatives, and temporary teams with no direct reporting authority. Leaders who take on these new responsibilities for the first time often assume that their general leadership skills can be successfully applied to leading temporary endeavors, but they soon find that they are in trouble. Temporary endeavors, projects or initiatives are different and take leadership competencies that are often counterintuitive to standard leadership practices.

Following are a few key things to consider when leading a temporary endeavor that are not always taken into consideration when managing ongoing operations or processes:

  • Participative Planning  Russell Ackoff once called strategic planning a ritual rain dance. This was because, in 1977, most strategic planning was simply last year’s budget and plans, plus or minus a percent, and some tweaks. No one really needed a plan because everyone knew what the year was going to be like and knew what to do. Permanent teams that operate using a set process are much like this. Once everyone has internalized the process, they know what to do and do not have to plan. Projects, initiatives and other temporary undertakings are different. In many cases, the project is focused on something that has never been done before, and the team has never worked together before. They have not yet developed into any kind of a team. Planning is now an essential mechanism to align and engage the team by involving everyone in a process of discovery of what has to be done, who is going to do what, how long will everything take, and who will be dependent on whom to get their part of the work done.
  • Meetings – Meetings are often seen as a waste of time, interrupting the process. In a project environment, however, meetings are essential to keep everyone coordinated and on track. Project methodologies themselves don’t hold meetings. Due to the iterative development approach, there must be continual team communication to keep everyone on the same page to meet the deliverable schedule.
  • Detailed Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)  – The details of the work have already been specified in a process environment. As long as the process is working, it is not necessary to detail everything that must be done. In a project environment, the detail must be laid out from the beginning in the form of a WBS process. This is a level of detail that most leaders are not used to or comfortable with.
  • Re-Planning –This process is something that is continuous. Theoretically, it goes on forever, but may stop if a problem arises that needs fixing. Once the problem is fixed, the process restarts unless it needs to be re-engineered. But then it’s a project. In a project environment, the project is always being re-planned because things do not go according to the original baseline plan. Those who have a project leadership background learn to expect this and work with it. Those who see the project through a process lens see the project as out of control and resist changing the plan.
  • Stakeholder Management  In a straight line organization, leaders are mostly interested in influencing the senior leadership they report to. Their bosses control resources they need to get work done and determine what rewards and career advancement path they will attain. Astute leaders cast their view a bit wider and higher to make sure they are covering all of their bases. When doing project work, the environment for success is even wider, higher and deeper. Often there are figures that will influence whether or not the project you are responsible for will succeed. You may not even realize that they are out there or the power they exercise over your goals. This makes the process of stakeholder analysis and management a critical skill for project leaders. Unfortunately, this is also often underdeveloped.
  • Influence without Authority  In the world of permanent teams and process, there is a structure of authority and a performance system that leaders take for granted. It helps to guide behavior. This is often absent in a project environment. Members of the team may report to another manager. They are more likely to follow that manager’s priorities than the priorities of the project leader unless their manager is aligned to the project. Because of this, there’s a real need for stakeholder management.
  • Risk Management Because these endeavors involve something that has often never been done before, they are inherently risky. They are even more risky because they disrupt the status quo and involve organizational change. Everyone says that they support the endeavor, but only if it does not interfere with “business as usual”. It becomes very important to engage in a process of risk management, because things usually go wrong in a project. We often do not know what these things will be and when they will happen. Risk management helps everyone be prepared to handle the changes that will take place.

To ensure successful execution, leaders must possess sound project leadership competencies. BTS Project Leadership and Management offers solutions for all leaders with project-like responsibilities. Learn more about our Project Leadership and Management programs.

About the Author: Dennis Cohen, Ph.D is the Senior Director, Project Leadership & Management at BTS.

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