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Diversity is the magic bullet to successful projects

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I recently came across one of those proverbs that we instantly recognise as containing a deep truth. This one is African and it applies very nicely to my experience of project management, and maybe yours, too: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go as a group.

On many projects, team working seems like a lot of effort. Getting a group together – to plan a project, identify and assess risks, work out stakeholder engagement and define scope – adds to your workload. Wouldn’t it be easier to do it yourself?

Other processes also add to your workload: briefing a team, delegating work and encouraging junior colleagues to take some new responsibility. Yet you know that delegation can save time. And you know it builds capacity, too. But still, wouldn’t it just be quicker to do it yourself?

Leadership consultant Liz Wiseman divides leaders into ‘diminishers’ and ‘multipliers’. Diminishers suck the energy out of the people around them. They are smart and take on everything themselves, merely briefing others into support roles.

Multipliers see people as a source of ideas, innovation and excellence. They ask questions, set challenges and expect more from people, because they know that people always have more to give. Multipliers get results.

Consequently, they don’t just multiply the impact of their people – they multiply the capacity and the capability of the whole team. Wiseman makes the point that it is not the genius who gets things done, but the ‘genius-maker’. Perhaps we can expand on that proverb:

If you want to go far, go as a group. If you want to get things done, take a group with you.

Over the past 14 years, I have trained managers on the fundamentals of running a successful project. The majority of them perform the project management function as a part of a wider management or professional role. They are not, and don’t aspire to be, full-time project managers.

Their range of experiences, technical skills and personalities constantly amazes me. Yet all show that they can make first-rate project managers. And the range of people they call upon to contribute to their projects is equally diverse.

Indeed, diversity is the magic bullet to successful projects. All of the research that I have read – which has also been confirmed by my own experiences – shows that the more diverse your team is, the more impressive its problem-solving and decision-making skills will be.

One of my all-time favourite management-related books is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. He is a journalist who writes engaging stories in a highly readable style, and the meat of the book is about the conditions under which a group can make better decisions than an individual. Surowiecki discusses how we can get better answers to tough questions by aggregating the views of the many.

This isn’t new. In 400 BCE, the historian Thucydides told how soldiers would estimate the height of the wall of a besieged city. Many soldiers would each individually count the number of rows of bricks. While there would be a variety of answers, most would get the same number, and that was used for the calculation. This early reference to using the statistical mode is a good example of how aggregating data gives better results. The many are wiser than the few.

To access this wisdom, though, project managers must be skilled at managing both people and data. We constantly hear how project management is a people profession – and it is. But we must not lose sight of its analytical side if we want to make good estimates and build robust plans: If you want to estimate, estimate with a group. If you want to understand your answer, study statistics. 

This blog first appeared as an article in the Autumn 2016 edition of Project Journal and is authored by Mike Clayton.


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