Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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The Answer To Your Project Management Problem Is More Leadership, Not More Process

During a conversation with a client a couple of weeks ago, they brought up a topic I hear all too often. 'How do we get our project managers to use our process?'

It's something I've been hearing for the last year whenever I talk to organisations about project management capability development. My answer is two-fold:

1. If they're using their own tools to capture the information and are successfully delivering projects (to the delight of their stakeholders), then does it really matter that they're not using your branded templates? (Actually, this is more of a question than an answer. It's designed to get them to see that getting projects delivered is what it's actually all about.)

2. If they're not delivering projects (and the stakeholders are unhappy), then they either need to be performance managed - capturing information is what project leaders do - or else shown the value of it.

Yet, upskilling our people to give them the knowledge of what it means to be a leader in project management is continually overlooked. Instead, more method-based textbook learning is seen as the answer. Phrases I hear include:

'We need more standardisation of our project management'

'If only they'd follow the process, they'd be successful every time!'

'Our projects continue to fail, so we're implementing a PMO'

'Once I've completed my [insert certificate name here] I'll gain the team's respect'

Yeah, nah. As they say in New Zealand. None of these things are true, no matter how many times people tell themselves that they are.

The only things that need to be standard and consistent about project management is the way that people lead. As I said to a client recently, if you get this right, then the rest - the culture, the commitment to stakeholder satisfaction, the methods and techniques used - will take care of itself. That's the thing about leaders. They see the value in things being done in the right way and if they think it can be improved, they'll let you know.

They know how to build a team and take none of the credit for their work. They know how to build in time to innovate. They know how to manage their disengaged sponsor. They know how to communicate to different personalities, in different cultures, often in different countries. And they definitely don't need to be told how to use a project management process by someone who's never managed a project.

So why do we continue to underinvest in leadership training for our project managers and sponsors?

Here in Australia, leadership was cited as the number one reason for project failure by the Victorian Ombudsman in their 2011 report into failed ICT projects.

In its Inquiry Report into the Queensland Health Payroll System in 2013, the Commission found ‘there was plenty of active oversight of the program, however successful governance is not just about having processes, but about how governance processes and tools are used to get the result.’

In his 2014 report entitled 'Learning From Failure: Why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved', Peter Shergold said ‘valuing leadership in program and project management will strengthen the [Australian Public Service] as an effective, professional and resilient institution.’ Mr Shergold also said, 'Program and project management are too often seen as control activities based on templates and Gantt charts. They are actually creative processes.'

Wise words, that continue to go unheeded.

In the latest Victorian ICT strategy released earlier this year, the word leadership is mentioned once in the entire document and if there's a strategy that needs more leadership, it's this one.

Of more concern - to me at least - is that their answer to continued project failure is a 'dashboard detailing the status of  ICT projects with a budget over $1 million' (expect lots of traffic lights about the things that naturally change in projects - time and cost) and more independent quality advice.

How about instead we spent some real money on developing the leadership skills of project people who can get the job done, so you don't have to line the pockets of your preferred consultants?

Even the Project Management Institute, the global body for our profession, is admitting the way that we develop project managers is broken. In his introduction to the latest Pulse of the Profession, PMI President Mark A. Langley said "we saw declines in many of the success factors we track [last year]. Even more concerning, the percentage of projects meeting their goals which had been flat for the past four years took a significant dip."

When the global professional body starts questioning itself in public, you know it's time for things to change.

It's time to give project people the choice to be leaders and the knowledge of what it takes to build cultures. It's time to sort the project management avoiders ('I don't need to use a process'), administrators ('I only need a process') and managers ('Let's get this done at all costs') from the builders ('Let's work together to create something unique') and leaders ('I'll empower you to deliver something special and remove the things that stand in your way').

It'll cost a lot less than $2500 a head and the only downside is that your people won't get a certificate. On the upside, they'll get the information they need to decide whether to become a leader and the skills to create something that will be talked about for years. They'll become role models for others to follow and these organisations will continually attract the right kind of people.

It's really not that hard to invest in the right program for your project people. So what's stopping you? Oh wait, is it your procurement process?

To find out more about The Conscious Project Leader program click here

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