The project management balancing act

Leadership, culture and methods must be applied in equal amounts across the life of a project for it to be a success

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.

The same is happening with Agile. I read a book recently that said that if you apply Agile principles to every project, you'll be successful every time. Which is just plain wrong and has no evidence to support it whatsoever.

To be fair to those that sell these methods, they go to great lengths to tell you that they don't work in isolation. After all, a fool with a tool is still a fool. Yet it goes unheeded time and again. In my many project leadership roles, I would frequently come across those project managers more interested in the structure of the templates rather than the personalities of the people.

The application of the methods, processes and techniques require the guiding hand of a good leader. One who understands how it should (and shouldn't) be applied to a project. One who understands the terminology to be used within the organisation’s culture. One who understands which technique or process to apply to which situation. One who understands when not to talk about it. And one who understands the need for brevity and simplicity.

Too much culture

As strange as it may seem to many (especially those working in environments that drain their creativity), too much culture can also be a bad thing. And in some instances, nothing brings a team together like a bad project manager.

The culture is formed through a shared disaffection or lack of respect for the very person who should be building the team. In these cases, the team starts working around the project manager rather than give them or their line manager feedback that they are not performing the role effectively.

In rare cases where a team has worked together before, there can also be too much familiarity, and that's a tough one for a project manager to handle. That camaraderie is a great foundation for project culture but what worked before doesn't always work again. It's wrong to assume that the team can re-use the same approaches regardless of the project and the person leading it.

Dom Price, Head of R&D Program Management at Australian software company Atlassian, said this speech, that 'if you remove the 'ure' from culture you have a cult'. In these instances, the team’s devotion will be towards the thing being built, which isn't always a good thing for deadlines or budgets.

Get the balance right

Many organisations, individuals and consultancies still think too simply about how to develop great project management, which is why practitioners like me find it hard to convince them that achieving it is more than just a week-long training course.

Great project management is no accident. It requires time, effort, feedback, mistakes, self-awareness, education and change. It can be achieved aged 18 or 80 and it never stops evolving with the times it exists within. Getting the balance right is the key to success.

Colin Ellis works with organisations to develop their project management communities. His first book The Conscious Project Leader is now available for pre-order and you can find out more about him here.