Distributed Leadership - a new way of leading projects - January 2014

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Posted by APM on 14th Jan 2014

The January 2014 event of APMHK is about distributed leadership, an important contributor to project success, as they become more complex.We were pleased to have Dr Steve Simister, Director of the Project and Programme Management Centre at Henley Business School as our event speaker.The event was held at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club on 10.1.2014.

Dr Simister is Director of the Project and Programme Management centre at Henley Business School. In addition to his Henley role, Steve has a consultancy profile working with organizations, such as Pfizer, Network Rail, Deutsche Telekom, BP, Shell, BG Group, Local Partnerships, Cabinet office, Lend Lease, Foster Wheeler and Network Rail. Steve is a verifier and assessor for APMs RPP standard, an OGC gateway review team leader and sits on BSI & ISO committees developing project management related standards. He has been past chairman of the APM Contracts & Procurement SIG and is currently secretary of the APM Knowledge SIG.

Distributed leadership is often used interchangeably with shared leadership, team leadership, and democratic leadership. At the beginning, Steve introduced the key terms and ideas of distributed leadership, and how it leadership was distributed over an interactive web of people and project situations. Traditional leadership of a project resides with individual project managers. But it does not suit all. As the projects go more complex, the challenges of the ability for individual managers become even more. The leadership focus is therefore switched from the project manager to the whole team.

According to Steve, the concept of distributed leadership focusses on the emergent property of a group of interacting people, widening the conventional net of potential leaders, and expertise distributed across many people. As projects become ever more complex, leadership needs to be more distributed or spread over both leaders and followers throughout the entire project. In other words, they are proactively and collectively leading the project instead of the team being passively led by a team leader. Leadership is treated as a group rather than an individual. When people work together in such a way that they pool their initiative and expertise, the outcome is a product or energy which is greater than the sum of their individual action. However, we still need leaders in distributed leadership. But the role of a project manager is one of coordinating and facilitating. While individuals can take the role of driving a project but in general leadership is done by the group instead of individuals.

From the distributed dimension, it is critical that leadership practice be resulted from interactions among leaders, followers and the project situations. Leadership is an organization quality, rather than an individual attribute. Single person in project management simply does not work. This distributed leadership approach fosters collaborative and ethical practice. It is most effective when people at all levels engage in action, accept leadership in their corresponding areas of expertise.

Distributed leadership has implications for project management. Steve pointed out that a single project manager to provide all the leadership attributes was almost impossible on complex projects.Distributed leadership did not deal with the hierarchy issue, it could be a model that helps gain commitment and create team environment across the whole team.Distributed leadership was more successful and particularly relevant for joint venture projects / programmes.

Steve concluded the seminar by a case study of MetroBus.The small scheme covers some 150 miles of road network at about 30million with a programme life of four years.It enhances the bus network in the UKs South West region.The work was funded from six different sources with no cross funding between schemes. The original arrangement of strong programme leadership was initially effective but soon wore out.Using distributed leadership, the four local authorities with no contractual relationship did not have to work together. They saw that in doing so the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts to create a truly integrated bus network. From his experience, Steve explored how distributed leadership was becoming increasingly recognized as a vital component in delivering successful projects. Finally, he cautioned that Distributed leadership was not right for every project. One member opined that distributed leadership was more suitable if things went wrong. People needed to be part of the solution if there were failure in leadership.

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