When project managers are leaders

Are project managers the same as leaders? The distinction is especially apt, for example, when contrasting enterprise change management (a leader's task) and short-term well defined projects (straight forward for a "standard" PM). However - large complex projects, especially now that so much work follows some variant of an Agile methodology (incremental definition, build, evaluate, adjust, repeat), will definitely benefit from someone at the helm with strong leadership characteristics. A key part of what a leader does is to understand the overall direction and objectives - even if these are somewhat abstract - and distill and communicate these in ways that are effective for each member of the team and the various stakeholders. The very best can "speak" these different languages, i.e.,

  • internalize the overall goals and objectives, however ill defined 
  • understand the critical success factor from each stakeholder's perspective 
  • share a vision of business outcomes, risks and benefits with business stakeholders 
  • make sure each team and team member has a view of the vision and successful outcome in terms that are relevant and meaningful for them, whether IT, product development, marketing, or any other specialty 
  • keep this veritable Babel of vision statements in various languages in sync, so that they help motivate and draw the various teams toward a common successful outcome that meets the primary stakeholders requirements. 

Sometimes -- more often than not in my experience -- the stakeholders may not even be able to fully articulate and delineate a comprehensive vision of success. But a strong project or program leader with "leadership qualities" can, in the best of circumstances, grasp the underlying attributes of success, develop a shared understanding of these with the stakeholders -- and then go on to engage each part of the team, communicating in ways that are effective for each, and lead the entire group - team member and stakeholders - to an outcome in which all can be successful.

This requires:

  • ability to envision logical outcomes from various courses of action 
  • ability to synthesize a vision of a successful outcome, based on incomplete or only partially accurate input 
  • ability to communicate and validate a common vision with stakeholders across a wide variety of domain specific languages, acting as boundary spanner to be sure that the various groups ("domain islands"?) share a common vision, even though it may be communicated to each in different ways 
  • ability to help team members envision outcomes and interim project states in ways that are meaningful and motivational to them. 

It's typically only the simplest and most concrete projects that can be addressed simply through structure, budget and organizational management. Beyond this, the strongest project managers must be able to function as true leaders -- taking ownership of outcomes, drawing all stakeholders and team members together and leading them through uncertainty to success. These folks may not be leaders of large enterprises or companies, but the truly strong ones are, without a doubt, leaders in their own right.

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