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The nature and metrics of project leadership

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Just as the function of stakeholder management has been overtaken by the need to secure engaged relations, so too traditional project management planning skills and metrics are not well suited to meet emerging challenges in project delivery. 

To arrive at this conclusion, we must recognise and acknowledge the traditional function and role of the project manager has been overtaken by the need for a form of leadership appropriate for environments characterised by complex interdependencies, and diminished predictability. This means traditional planning methods or metrics reflecting adherence to cost, schedule and scope focus on performance against what is expected rather than effective adaptation to the unexpected and often unpredictable. 

Ever more compelling examples of global human inter-dependency and unpredictability endorse an ever more pressing need for ongoing evolution: both in the function and form of project leadership. ‘The best laid plans’ for project delivery are increasingly, conditional and provisional.  

Many will, by now, resonate with the insight that there's an increasing failure to deliver to baseline schedule, cost and scope reflects resource unavailability across diverse increasingly unpredictable delivery environments. Variance from baseline schedules and cost estimates may reflect a failure to deliver as predicted, but they are only symptoms. Whether human, materials or plant, uncertainties and interdependencies in demand and availability drive variance against even the most informed expectations. But while non-conformance to schedule reflects ‘what’ is amiss, it does not identify the ‘reasons why’. 

Evolving Project Leadership: From command and control to engage and empower, reflected my personal journey, exploration and eventual recognition of the pressing need for a fundamental evolution in the new ‘function’ and necessary fit-for-purpose ‘form’ of project leadership behaviours.  

Largely gone, then, are the highly controllable, largely predictable environments in which our profession of project management developed. Complicated though deliverables and delivery were, command and control prospered when access, control over work areas and resources; all were largely predictable and controllable.  

Similarly, traditional team behaviours, attitudes and metrics associated with project management require unquestioning compliance and adherence to process. This is largely effective in predictable if complicated environments.  

Dealing with ongoing largely unpredictable constraints and challenges requires leadership empowerment. The project leaders core function is to realise and release the potential of both individuals and delivery teams. Accordingly, the project leaders primary focus is not a disposition inclined to command and control, but to foster resilience and adaptiveness.  

In a fundamental sense the role played by the project manager is now much less based on planning and control ‘over’, but rather, navigating ‘through’ uncertainty and unpredictability. 

Inevitably the reluctance, resistance, even denial of any need to evolve or change the role of those leading change in less predictable environments reflects those with an agenda or vested interest in holding onto and maintaining the status quo. Fortunately, even where this applies to those in positions of power, as with the evolution of all life and organisations, time renders ‘unfit-for-purpose’ behaviours ever more apparent. 

Meanwhile, those who not only survive, but thrive, see the signs; swiftly adopting an approach facilitating learning and continuous improvement. Where both individuals and organisations are disposed to active and co-adaptive learning, their competence for navigating uncertain environments is enhanced exponentially. How so? Just as parallel processing vastly increases computing power, so too, empowered teams: realising and releasing the latent power of its members and ‘collective intelligence’: encouraged to recognise, share, and adapt through ongoing learning, far outstrip those subject to linear command and control. 

This then is what informed ‘Evolving Project Leadership: from command and control to engage and empower’. I opened this blog stating “Traditional project management and planning skills cast little light on or help in meeting the emerging challenges we all now face in project delivery.” Traditional metrics reflecting planning and management to cost time scope and quality take no account of obstacles: countervailing forces, or constraints in delivery. Indeed, in a relatively predictable environment any such hindrances could be largely anticipated and overcome, else mitigated through competent planning and management. 

Relevant metrics for effective delivery and associated competences today must look beyond cost, time scope and quality. They must expose the interdependencies imposing emergent constraints and eroding predictability in delivery resources, be they human, plant or material.  

Even more pressingly, the metrics of effective project leadership must reflect the immediate function of the project leader; their very role and purpose in establishing and empowering a team culture to effectively navigate and deliver in complex and even chaotic environments.  

This also informs the characteristics of those both able and adept in establishing a compelling vision, engaging mutual respect and rapport, thereby kindling the multi-disciplinary distributed intelligence a collaborative culture represents. 


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  1. Hugo Minney
    Hugo Minney 26 January 2024, 11:59 AM

    This is true - beyond simply looking at the competence of the professional, and even how a team of professionals (each with competences) fulfils the compentency requirements of a team, we need to look at the measurable outcome - does it actually get better results. HOWEVER (and with me, you knew there would be a 'however'), that's one part of the issue. No matter how well the project manager performs, they are still subject to the whims of those allocating resources - and there's an unfortunate tendency to keep on adding new projects to an already overloaded system, restricting the budgets and resource pool for existing projects. And then complaining when existing projects don't deliver on time. It's an extension of the Optimism Bias problem highlighted at the start of Bent Flyvbjerg's "How Big Things Get Done". So we also need to change the system. I propose that we use benefits management for that, and I've had some success with this approach. The traditional approach to benefits management is to build a compelling business case and then put it in a drawer. "of course" the project will deliver these benefits, no matter what we change! and it doesn't matter when the project completes, because the benefits aren't time-bound. The approach advocated in BS202002 British standard on benefits management in portfolios, programmes and projects is that benefits are responsive - during project delivery, whenever something changes, the forecasts for the benefits follow the changes in activity. Something gets delayed - because benefits now have a cut-off, some benefits pass to the other side of the cut-off and disappear from the justification. You don't have to wait until you make the change, you can scenario plan. So project leadership goes to investment board (usually portfolio leadership) and makes the case that their project needs to keep firing on all cylinders (what's the EV equivalent?), and that's weighted up against the case for new projects to come to the right balance of investment. Will everyone be happy? Well there aren't enough good project mangers to go around, so nobody will lose their job. But we might just be a lot more effective by concentrating on one thing at a time! And leaders can focus on engaging and empowering, instead of attempting to "manage up".