Project Success: Considering Leadership

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In his book, The Portable MBA in Project Management, Eric Verzuh states,

“The discipline of project management can lead us astray. With all its structured methods and specialized reports, it can create the illusion that if a person learns the discipline, he or she will surely lead successful projects. Projects are too messy to be ruled merely by organized documentation. The methods and mechanics of project management are essential, but they are not sufficient (Verzuh, pp 12-13).”

Verzuh goes on to explain how successful project managers are first and foremost, successful leaders.

In my years of consulting and training, this has been a recurring truth. Inevitably, no matter how knowledgeable or ignorant of project management an individual is, success in project management is determined by the quality of leadership rather than organizational skills or project management knowledge.

It is always difficult to consult on project management when the problem you observe is largely a leadership problem. How do you approach your client and say, “I’m sorry, but your problem has less to do with project management and more to do with leadership”? You could offend their judgment and talk yourself out of a job unless 1) the client is open-minded enough to listen and learn, and 2) you have the knowledge and skills to help them fix their leadership problem. This kind of change is far more uncomfortable and difficult because it may require a change of personnel or an organizational change, or even a policy and procedure change. Any of these can be uncomfortable by themselves, but most of the time it is a combination of two or more of these issues or other needed changes.

An organization that truly wants to improve project management should be fully willing to consider that poor leadership may be the primary reason for poor project management. It is too easy for most managers to lay all the blame on the lack of proper tools (such as a PM software application) or a lack of buy in from employees. They go hunting for more people, a different software, and/or attempt to install new rules within the organization to secure “buy in.” Inevitably, this will stall criticisms in the name of “change.” What this really should be called is a “cover up.”

Leadership is not always the problem. However, most companies are poor at identifying the difference between a “management” issue and a “leadership” issue. What should a company use to help them identify what type of problem they are encountering? What would make it fair to the parties involved?

I do not suggest here that there is a separation of leadership and management, because that would be false – they go together and one does not exist without the other. However, there is a difference between the two. What I DO suggest here is that any analysis of project management should include/consider leadership as well. Only then will the correct perspective be taken and proper decision making can occur as far as what changes need to be made.