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Project leadership and the ‘God Complex’

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“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” So sang John Lennon and there is a particular relevance to the world of projects and their management. In our world, projects can be ‘what happens’ to us while we’re busy making other plans. So how could we use a project leadership approach to build high performing project teams in 2018?

Managing your projects

Typically, we ask our project managers to deliver specifically what we have asked them for and to develop their ability to do so, we teach them to understand and follow a process.

Consequently, they value steps and stages, clear roles and responsibilities, comprehensive risk logs, regular and accurate reporting against KPIs and hierarchical structures for controlling progress, change and tolerance. In short they value project management over project leadership.

Of course, all of these things are important. A strong project management plan is the bedrock of success but let’s not forget that processes are designed for the inexperienced to give them structure. They are hygiene factors and not solutions. Over time we become more confident in choosing which corners to cut.

Tim Harford gives a TED talk called Trial, Error and the God Complex. It explains how we like to believe that we fully understand the problem. That we have it all mapped out and it is under control. This is known as the ‘God Complex’.

In this increasingly complex world of change, mapping it out accurately is not always possible. True project leadership requires an acceptance that some of what we do will be achieved through trial and error. What’s more, planning your project at too low a level of detail can create both a false sense of control and an unnecessary overhead.

Switching up to project leadership

So, if we want to avoid the ‘God Complex’ then it becomes important to increase our focus on building high performing project teams and leading them really well. So here are six reflections on how to switch to project leadership.

  • Project definition – Project teams are often transient and virtual so make it a priority to induct your team and set out your project leadership style. Define how you will you work together to solve problems.  Clarify your values and your red lines.  Help them to build better relationships, understand where the talent lies and above all else to trust each other.
  • Project planning - The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Keep everyone focused on the vision and purpose. Don’t lose sight of this by burying your team under the detail of a 50 page Gantt chart. Timeframes and milestone targets are essential providing we keep some perspective. The earliest Gantt charts were hand drawn to give the “big picture” and so there was a level of detail which was impractical to maintain. The bigger the Gantt chart the more likely that everyone is on a different page while a powerful vision (repeated often) can keep everyone on track!
  • Risk management - Address the real risks – the risks of having the wrong people. For instance what will happen when Sally gets the promotion she deserves. What would we lose? What couldn’t we do anymore? How will we cope during peak periods of activity when our capacity is stretched? Do we have contingency plans?
  • Performance monitoring - Speak to your team regularly. Listen to their successes and look out for conflict. Check on how they are doing, send them home when it’s late and thank them regularly. Put a spring in their step and help them to recharge their batteries. Oh, and remind them about the main thing.
  • Change control and tolerance - Managing these aspects can become a real burden for the project manager who has planned and structured in minute detail. If your project team is working well together and understands the vision then have the confidence to move decision-making control to the point of expertise and empower them to act. This can remove layers of bureaucracy and will also free up your time for more proactive project leadership.
  • Stakeholder engagement - Pool your knowledge. Understand how your project is connected with every stakeholder and who has the best relationship. Work out who are your super-heroes and who could be your super-villains and then put the effort in to win them over and bring them ‘on-side’ without exception.

Leading high performing project teams

Building high performing project teams requires strong project leadership. High performing project teams will develop trust if they value each other’s expertise, reliability and have established a personal relationship. More importantly, they need to see that they are all working to the same agenda.

If they trust each other then your project leadership style will reap the benefits of collaboration, communication, productive challenge, freely given support, personal commitment and accountability.

Showing strong project leadership is the most important factor in achieving this.



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  1. Anthony Brown
    Anthony Brown 26 January 2018, 12:30 PM

    Another nugget of an article from Eddie. We must all take note and address as appropriate. Tony Brown

  2. Alison Martin
    Alison Martin 26 January 2018, 02:07 PM

    Eddie Kilkelly - how do you manage to speak such down to earth common sense so much of the time? I have sent this onto a number of my colleagues who are busy losing sight of the main thing and even more busy developing intricate plans. Thank you for this ........... always a pleasure reading your stuff.