Identifying key project leadership competencies

What is the research?

The research aims to identify key project leadership competencies whilst addressing one of the areas currently under investigation by the APM Corporate Members Leadership Group (CMLG) into non-technical competencies.  Collaborating with participating organisations the research team will identify ‘good project leadership competencies’: what these are in terms of behaviours, preferences and traits; what helps to support these (and indeed, what doesn’t); and to craft strategies to improve the situation.

Why is it important?

The traditional view of project management continues to evolve in a fundamental way: it is moving away from a preoccupation with project planning and control tools as the keys to success and towards the management and leadership of people and their performance. This is not an “either or” scenario, but rather a rebalancing of the capabilities needed. Providing leadership capability is not just left to “leaders”, as the project community is discovering, and every project manager needs elements of leadership capability to be effective.

We wish to identify, highlight and share those particular project leadership competencies at a time when projects are becoming a strategic issue for organizations, and for “mega-projects” commissioned by government. With projects representing high costs and increasingly using extended supply chains and multi-geography virtual teams, they also represent high risk. This matters. Government calculates that over 90% of policy (and over £500bn of spend) is now delivered through major projects. But despite considerable investment and attention, NAO identifies that 30% still report red or red/amber prospects for delivery.

The identification of particular competencies leading to an improvement in project leadership capability will have a significant impact. Further, project leaders have typically come from the STEM fields through technical career routes: understanding project leadership capabilities which “make the difference” can support organizations in widening the pool of future project leadership capability in line with predicted need through recruitment, retention, learning and development. It is calculated that the profession is short of 100,000 project managers in the UK alone for the projects pipeline forecast so that an understanding of those project leadership capabilities which make the difference is urgent to the success of these initiatives.

Who is the intended audience?

The research has a collaborative three-strand approach to connect the academic (Cranfield University) with industry and project practitioners, immediately connecting action on the ‘problem’ (normally encountered in industry) with the processes of ‘inquiry’ (normally conducted in academic institutions).  Discussions and initial meetings have already shared and reviewed the various perspectives and focus on project leadership across these organizations, so ensuring we have a consensus about the focus of the research and that it reflects the project leadership challenges that industry is currently facing. 

How will the research progress?

Industry partners have already volunteered to take part, comprising multi-national corporates undertaking major projects worldwide.  Each multi-national represents a different industry sector, so safeguarding commercial confidentiality.  Research with these partners will comprise interviews, workshops and events in the UK and, to a limited extent given the grant funding, abroad. Our research interviewees will be existing project leaders, aspiring project leaders, project sponsors and, where feasible, clients.

Any other considerations?

The research has been approved by the university ethics committee. As such it follows stringent ethical procedures including guaranteeing the anonymity of organisations and individuals, and handling data confidentially and in accordance with the Data Protection Act.

Who is the research lead?

There are two research leads for this study: 

Firstly, from an academic perspective we have Professor Michael Bourne who is Professor of Business Performance at Cranfield University, Director of the Project Leadership Programme and Director of the Centre for Business Performance. His research interests lie in the field of strategy execution and the capabilities, practice and tools that make that happen.

From a practitioner perspective we have Sarah Coleman, Director at Business Evolution Ltd.  Sarah is a Fellow and former NED of the APM and a highly experienced consultant, educator and author.  Throughout her career she has worked in projects, programmes and transformation, and continues to work at senior and board level across professional services, private sectors and government in the UK and internationally. She is also a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University and Lincoln University, and a Transformation Associate and Subject Matter Expert at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

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