RESEARCH
  • Leadership

Leading Vs Managing Big Projects

5 core elements and 8 survival skills needed to lead complex projects

 

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The UK government has been accused of being too ‘managerial’ in its approach to the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. So, what is wrong with being managerial? And if not a manager what different skills are needed to lead a big project rather than manage it?

In a recent study, Professor Michael Bourne of Cranfield School of Management and  Sarah Coleman of Business Evolution looked at the distinction between managers and leaders in the context of project management, and identified the skills, competencies, values and behaviours required for successful project leadership, as opposed to project management or general leadership.

Their research, which focused on project leadership from the perspective of the project leader, rather than from the perspective of the organization, was based on interviewing a wide range of individuals engaged in complex projects across five multinational organizations (BAE Systems, IQVIA, Jacobs, Shell and Siemens).

An underlying theme is the need for project leaders, typically promoted on the basis of their technical ability, to refocus their behaviours and reprioritise their approach so that they are able to work on the project, as opposed to getting dragged back to work in the project. Interviewees, identified the importance of ‘letting go’ of the familiar project management technical activities that had helped get them to this point and, rather than reverting back to their comfort zone, transitioning into a new and enhanced set of skills and behaviours.

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Join Cranfield’s ‘Leading Complex Projects and Programmes’ to understand and improve your personal performance in the strategic leadership of complex projects

Dates: 23 - 24 Sep 2019 and 17 - 18 Mar 2020│ Format: In-class study │ Location: Cranfield, UK

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Most studies in this area focus on the mechanics involved with the implementation and delivery of projects, i.e. project management. The importance of project leadership tends to be neglected, perhaps because the differences between project management and project leadership are unclear.

The value of this study is that the researchers have been able to identify five core elements of project leadership, whereby project leaders must:

  1. Understand themselves – their strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and touchpoints, and how their experience can help them work with their team;
  2. Construct the organization of the project – allocating roles and responsibilities and establishing the culture;
  3. Build and develop a project team – to not only deliver on the current project, but also create the company’s project delivery capabilities for future projects;
  4. Focus on the outcome and overall deliverables – not on managing day-to-day project schedules, deadlines and immediate deliverables;
  5. Understand the wider context of the project – the nuances and pitfalls facing the team in the wider environment. And guiding the project through difficult, complex and turbulent environments from a technical, emergent and socio-political perspective.

All told, project leadership involves setting up the project, including recruiting the team, and then focusing on the outcome of the project and how it fits into a wider context. The day-to-day granular tasks of implementing the project are outside of the leader’s purview.

The researchers also suggest these specific project leadership ‘survival skills’:

  1. Anticipating – being prepared for what could knock the project off course next;
  2. Judgement and decision-making – making timely decisions with incomplete information;
  3. Seeing it all – feeling the totality of what is going on inside and outside the project;
  4. Building credibility and confidence – belief in the leadership and the team;
  5. Being organisationally intelligent – knowing when and how to engage with the organisation;
  6. Learning – being open-minded, and reflecting on and developing personal and team performance;
  7. Resolving conflicts and collaborating – building a common purpose, despite the rules.
  8. Creating the project culture and environment – deliberately defining and creating the culture and environment to succeed.

“The skills required of a project leader are very different to the skills developed for project management. Leadership is more about the future – setting direction, dealing with people and working outside the project with stakeholders – whereas many aspects of project management are inward-looking,” say the researchers.

Furthermore, while there is some overlap, project leadership demands specific skill-sets beyond general leadership, such as: structuring the project, allocating roles, and recruiting a team to meet project deliverable goals. It also demands the ability to operate with considerable autonomy and to make fast judgement calls in ambiguous situations often in an unstable and volatile environment.

Consequently, the researchers conclude that simply developing general leadership skills is insufficient preparation for developing the leadership needed for major, complex projects. There has been an overemphasis on project management skills in many of the competency frameworks they have seen, and although this is changing, greater emphasis needs to be placed on developing our understanding of project leadership skills and competency frameworks.

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Access the full research paper: Project Leadership: Skills, Behaviours, Knowledge and Values. Sarah Coleman, Mike Bourne. APM Research Fund Series (October 2018).


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