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Megaproject delivery: the four horsemen of project leadership thinking

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Over the last few years, projects have become more unpredictable, it’ll take more than mere management to deliver outcomes. More than ever, we need leadership; processes have, and will continue to change rapidly. While management involves working to maintain processes, leadership works to ensure the processes still serve their intended purpose. 

Leadership requires stepping out of the system for a holistic view and then stepping back in to inspire others. 

study in 2017 involving project leaders and industry experts with 500 years of cumulative experience showed that many megaprojects stall because industry players neglect a critical element for successful large project delivery. This element included leadership, mindsets, organisational culture, and attitudes and behaviours of project owners: leaders and teams.

The study found the art of project leadership becomes more important with increasing project size and complexity. Leadership is best suited for finding solutions to new problems, handling new complexities and navigating the paradigms of politics that are commonly associated with megaprojects.

Beyond technical skill and know-how, the ultimate determinant of project success is the collective mindset of stakeholders. It is possible to have the right mix of skillsets represented in your project team and still fail for lack of the right leadership approach. However, sometimes our thinking can hinder progress:

The four horsemen of project management thinking 

Of all faux pas of project management thinking, the study mentioned above identified these to be the four horsemen: 

1. “We have always done it this way.” This thinking stifles your priciest advantage in the unpredictable megaproject environment; resourcefulness. It also limits the extent to which a project leader can inspire team members to operate like an organisation rather than a typical project. 

2. “If the team is underperforming, I must turn on the pressure.” This mindset takes the responsibility from you and hands it to the team. When we understand that most teams take on the character of their leaders, we’re less likely to point fingers at the slightest opportunity. Before ‘applying more pressure’, be sure you don’t have a pressure problem. 

3. “It’s the contractor’s job to deliver the project on time and on budget.” Though every stakeholder has a role to play, some aspects of a project are too risky to delegate. One of such is delivery. 

4. Not questioning your processes. If a process cannot be questioned, that’s enough reason to question it. Management involves working within the system to maintain processes; leadership works on the system to ensure the processes still serve their intended purpose. I advise project leaders to consistently review their processes, vet their relevance and ensure they still serve the original intent. This practice would encourage the team to welcome new ideas, question existing processes for good and maintain an environment where people are not afraid to think differently. 

Now let’s consider four mindsets that all successful project leaders should have:

1. Leaders treat projects like businesses 

Megaprojects or major programmes require the thinking, planning and leadership acumen akin to running an organization or business, unlike smaller projects.

There’s a subtle variation here. In projects, there are definite start and finish times with tangible deliverables. And all labour, financial and material resources are channelled towards getting to the finish line in one piece. For organisations, however, the goal is perpetuity. While there will be intermittent milestones to hit, the ultimate goal of lifetime viability remains top-of-mind.

Most megaprojects require the leadership capacity typical of a company CEO. Project leaders must see themselves as CEOs who handle organisational issues that plague a regular business; stakeholder engagement, project governance, community engagement, financing, regulatory matters, industry factors, capacity and capability building for staff, etc. 

2. Leaders take full ownership of the project outcomes. 

Project leaders have skin in the game; they provide accountability for delivery. While managers may trade blame as things heat up, leaders take the initiative to make some difficult decisions to birth a solution. Even if we leaders might not have the full administrative authority to take certain steps, we initiate mechanisms to make those responsible do so. 

3. Leaders make others develop skin in the game. 

As important as ownership is, it’ll be too frustrating a burden for one member of the team to bear. As a project manager, my worst nightmares came from leading teams that didn’t share any passion for the project. Now, that’s not to say your passion will be on the same level as your team members, but there’s a minimum viable commitment required from every team member to make the project gain wings. By creating a mindset of we-win-together-or-lose-together, leaders inspire others to give their best to make things happen. 

4. Leaders understand that processes are meant to serve the project, not the other way around.

As project leaders we trust our processes, but understand that processes alone can’t solve every challenge. 

As Hilary Mercer, Vice President Projects, Shell, puts it, “You can’t write enough rules to manage complexity; a project director can write procedures to manage things that work in a logical way, but as risk and complexity increase, it is not sufficient. In a simple project, if a project director follows the rules, they will get a good outcome. In a megaproject, this is not so. Leadership is required."

The requirements for project success will continue to evolve with client expectations, technological breakthroughs and globally accepted practices. What should remain constant is our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. And of course, not just manage projects, but lead them.

Learn to lead through challenges in high pressure situations at the Power of Projects conference 2022

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  1. Marion Thomas
    Marion Thomas 12 May 2022, 12:18 PM

    Great article Tunde and I thorough endorse the four mindsets. I would go so far as to say these are the mindsets project/programme deliverers need to embrace irrespective of the size and complexity of a project. If we want to work in a sustainable way and minimise waste - our resources and our time - and look after the well-being of our team then we need to bring our leadership to the fore.

  2. Tunde Ajia
    Tunde Ajia 13 May 2022, 11:24 AM

    Thank you for your feedback Marion. I fully agree with the points you have raised and they are all valid. They all drive home the message that #projectmanagement ends where project leaders and their #teams deliver according to their clients expectations of time, cost and quality. Whilst #projectleadership begins when your team are willing to do it all over again with you as the #leader in charge.