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Stepping Up To Leadership - Five Lessons In Project Management Success

Project management is the first stage of a leadership career. How project managers mould a group of people into a cohesive team, how they formulate and implement a plan, and how they overcome the challenges faced during the project, will decide whether they are cut out for an executive role.

The perils of project management are neatly summed up in an episode of the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show where Project Manager Johnson enlists Mark’s help to “unleash” Project Zeus -“Why can’t Sales be an arm of Marketing?”.

Naturally there are “thousands of reasons” but Mark, as the subordinate, is obliged to show enthusiasm. He is of course falling into a trap to which many before him have succumbed, neatly encapsulated by Johnson:

Succeed… and we’ll co-manage a new super-department! Fail and…well, you’re the junior guy…you take the bullet.

Johnson, as an experienced manager, knows that any project can be subject to a whole host of problems: lack of focus, delay, conflicts, communication issues, poor evaluation procedures and often, as with Project Zeus, unrealistic targets. Some projects, like Zeus, are predestined to fail, whilst others have to succeed, regardless of any difficulties. Projects, by nature, entail risk, and as Johnson correctly identifies, it’s the project manager or team leader who will carry the can.

For the project manager there is also another inherent danger, which is that he or she is very much on display in a leadership role. Everyone is watching to see how you will shape up. Are you headed for that walnut-lined executive office – or will you be crawling back to your cubicle where you will spend the rest of eternity?

So if you are leading a project what do you need to know to get it right?

1/ Plan, Plan… and then Plan Some More

Identify the stakeholders and their expectations, establish criteria for measuring success (including schedules and budgets), and detail very clearly the roles and responsibilities of team members. The initiation of a project is the most important part because it sets the tone. The more carefully planned and constructed it is, the more chance it has of gaining the confidence and enthusiasm of those involved. Details are very important at this stage, to ensure everyone knows what they are doing, and what they need to achieve, as well as to identify (and plan for) those potential areas of risk before they occur.

Planning is one of the first elements covered in our Online Project Management courses!

2/ Captain, My Captain – Are You a Leader?

Project leading combines both management (of personalities and abilities) and leadership (having a vision and being able to realise it). As such it is seen by many leaders as being a bridging step prior to full leadership roles, and hence it is doubly important that one makes a positive impression.

It is necessary of course that the team selected are capable of fulfilling their duties, just as it is vital that everyone understands exactly what these duties are. Projects that are seen to drift or mushroom out of control are apt to get people talking and, since you may be leading people you don’t know (and who hence have no particular sense of loyalty to you) you may end up taking the blame for others incompetence. Guard against this by making sure they understand what they need to do, keep lines of communication open, set time-frames to actions and ensure report-back procedures are agreed-upon.

So give clarity of instruction, but also plenty of praise and encouragement; you want people working for you because they believe in you. And if you need more help with learning how to lead, the 5th module in the online diploma in Project Management you will be bery helpful …

3/ Risk – The Game of Strategy

As we’ve said, identifying risks before they occur is the key to managing them. We’re in the Donald Rumsfeld territory of ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown knowns’ here (see the video clip here) – forewarned is forearmed. A risk is only a potential problem – your job is to ensure it does not become an actual problem, and the best way to do that is to build enough flexibility into your project plan to begin with, so the risk is manageable if and when it occurs.

As a leader, these events can play to your advantage. No-one necessarily takes much notice of a project which runs smoothly – but everyone will notice when a well-led team react in an assured fashion to counteract problems.

If there’s a fire, the person who filled up the fire buckets is a hero.

This is covered in the Diploma Module 4: Feasibility and Risk in Projects.

4/ How About Doing It Like This?

The sister to Risk is Change, and most projects will see some adaptation to the initial plan. What you as a project leader must guard against is ‘scope creep’ whereby new elements are added to the plan without corresponding re-evaluation of schedules, budgets etc. If the project needs to be ‘rescoped’ it is vital that all stakeholders sign off on the new plan subsequent to this re-evaluation. Again, as team leader, it is the clarity of your communication that will be the biggest determinant in whether change is managed successfully.

Have a look at this real-world example of the dreaded ‘scope creep’ – yes, it’s all down to poor project management.

Throughout all the elements of the online Project Management programme, the focus is on sticking to the original project specification.

5/ Staging Posts, Finishing Posts

As a project leader you must carry a vision of how the project will unfold from start to finish. As we’ve said, you must expect that problems may occur and change may be required, but your plan must include milestones along the way where objectives need to be delivered upon and the progress of the project evaluated before the next phase is implemented. Deadlines focus minds, and without clear staging posts, even the most talented team can succumb to drift and loss of momentum.

The team meetings that occur are useful for pulling the project back into a whole in the minds of the team, allowing them to reflect on their achievements thus far, giving them a picture of where the whole project stands, and reenergising them for the work that is still to come. It also reminds everyone who is in charge!

The evaluation that is carried out at the end of each defined stage also helps shape the final report wherein you will evaluate the project as a whole. This is the space where you should reflect, not only on the project’s success, but on your own. How well did you manage the disparate human resources into a cohesive team? How well did you bring the project home in relation to the goals you set?

And finally, have you got what it takes to be a leader?

You research and present the results of a project in the Advanced Diploma in Project Management course.

 

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