The Trouble with Troubled Projects

The problem can have many faces. It could be a troubled project with missed deadlines, and a budget that is grossly out of control. Or it could be scope that is ever-increasing and running wild. It could be a team that is frustrated or intransigent to leadership. Or it could be all of the foregoing. Let’s begin with stepping back and looking at the situation broadly. As we think about it, these are symptoms of a problem, but not the problem itself. They are not the cause. How so? Projects exist to address a tactical need of an enterprise. Projects are, by design, temporary endeavors. They come and they go as they complete their assigned purposes. How do the initial objectives of a project become compromised over time? The problems we encounter that result in a troubled project situation are an outgrowth of several dynamics of the project environment. We will break down these dynamics. But before we do let’s mention another critical aspect.

Project managers are tasked with the dual role of leading and managing the project. These may seem to some as synonymous or very similar. But they are not. Managing is an administrative function. It is occupied with measuring progress. It reports outcomes but does not drive those outcomes. It tells us whether we are on track or have strayed off the mark. By contrast, leading is a visionary function. This is what I like to call it. Think of it as guiding or shepherding your people to achieve a defined objective. Think of it as positioning your people for success through fostering a healthy environment. Leading well drives successful outcomes. The success of leading is reflected in outcomes. Good leadership nurtures an environment of success. Managing tells the story. Leading creates the story that is told.

So, let’s go back to that troubled project situation. We said this may be characterized by a blown schedule or budget or scope.  We said it may be characterized by a frustrated or intransigent team. A few observations. Let’s keep in mind that project managers are tasked with two unique roles – managing and leading. Therefore, we need to provide structures that encourage an organized environment in which to track the project and record our progress. And we need to provide a means to communicate the project vision or mission to the team and other stakeholders. If we can create a structured, organized environment in which we are tracking our progress, and we are giving consistent voice to the project’s vision, then most if not all project dysfunctionality will evaporate.

This sounds great, but will it work? Fair question. Let’s get to it.

As a project manager you must manage. Remember that this is an administrative function about tracking the project’s progress. These are numbers. We gather them and we report them. By this we mean that you as the project manager are giving an account of where the project is at stated intervals. But this is only the counting of things. There is a more critical dimension.

As a project manager you must lead. And this is a visionary function about communicating the project’s mission consistently and regularly throughout the span of the project’s life. It is on this point that project’s typically fail. Project managers must find their voice as leaders. What does this mean? Project manager/leaders must find their unique style. They must find their rhythm and method of speaking and communicating in the various venues of project life. How will they communicate informally as they move among the team members and other project stakeholders? What is their message in daily, weekly, or monthly status meetings? What is their overall tone and frame-of-mind as they report on the project to the broader enterprise? What do they communicate in their speech and what do they communicate in their actions? How a leader approaches these things will determine the success or failure of the project.

I have more to share with you in future postings. Let’s stay connected.

GATD Cover 10Apr2018

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