Project Leadership

Over the last two or three decades, project management has become a standard skill set. There is a common body of knowledge required to manage a project, an evaluation test you can take to assess your skills, and when it appears on a resume, there is a common definition. Project Leadership, on the other hand, is less defined. As with many areas of leadership, it relies less on hard-and-fast skills and more on a set of understandings, attitudes, and perceptions of the world—and work.

Three key components of a successful project leader are:

  • Getting big change through small wins
  • Focusing on the right areas
  • Seeing the “invisible obvious”

Following a session on project leadership, you can help participants by encouraging them to revisit the themes of incrementalism, focus, and insight over the next several weeks and months. Regularly revisiting the path to a team’s success only enhances the likelihood that the team will reach that success. Going the next step to consider what the participant can do to inspire success is a hallmark of a leader.

In each case, image-based activities outlined in the Participant Guide are ideal for exploring these issues and helping the leader identify their own authentic answers.

Take a look at the Project Leadership Sample Agenda.

Getting Big by Going Small

Sometimes, big changes need to be made. Large-scale reorganization, big office culture shift, products revamped. In those instances, it is often (counter-intuitively) easier to make the big change all at once. People will need to acclimate to such a large change anyway, there is no easy way to divide the change into manageable bits, and an effective leader may choose to “rip the bandage right off” and endure the short-term adjustment pain.

In many other circumstances, however, the most effective way to get significant change is through a series of smaller, incremental changes. As an example, consider the movement around the globe to become environmentally friendly. Initially it started merely by encouraging people to recycle. When those practices became entrenched, it ballooned into encouraging carbon-neutral buildings, using cloth-only grocery sacks, and offsetting emissions. The changes over the last two decades have been great, but the increments have been manageable.

A significant virtue of this incremental approach is that it becomes self-propelling. As initial steps are successful, it becomes easier for the next steps to be implemented. Conversely, if the initial steps are not working, the leader has an opportunity to revisit the approach, and potentially the strategy.

One way to help developing leaders with this idea is to make it practical. Help participants identify a significant change they would like to make. From there, you can guide them through a process of identifying achievable steps toward the goal. Working with other perspectives in reflecting on these achievable steps can provide a “reality check” about feasibility and about where potential obstacles exist.

You Get What You Focus On

It is a truism of budgeting that in a finance committee, you often spend the most time debating the items that cost the least. Millions of dollars’ worth of expenses sail through unquestioned, but the hundred-dollar paper clip budget earns two hours of debate. Partially, this is because everyone has experience with the smaller items. It is also because there is much more risk in questioning the large items than the small ones.

Regardless of the reasons, however, it is an effective leader who focuses his or her energy on the important, whether big or small. For many effective leaders, that includes “softer” things like team culture, staff  development, and morale. It also includes “harder” areas like sales initiatives, product road-maps, and fiscal planning.

Developing leaders can experience difficulty in this area when they cannot determine what is, and what is not, important. One way to help them clarify is to guide them in developing images of the important focus areas of their work. The use of images will help them create linkages otherwise unseen, and the result will be a visual reminder they can refer to on a day-to-day basis.

Seeing the “Invisible Obvious”

Fifteen years ago, author Richard Farson used the term the “invisible obvious” to describe the ordinary aspects of life that we simply do not see because of our biases and predispositions. Everybody has disconnects between our knowledge and our behaviors—after all, if that were false, everyone would be eating healthily and exercising regularly!

To make the obvious visible, participants must air (and validate) their assumptions. The constraints we all place on life’s challenges also are constraints on their solution. The parable about the truck stuck in the tunnel, for instance—just barely too tall to make it out the other side. People offered all kinds of difficult solutions, from disassembling the truck to digging out the tunnel. A child then suggested simply letting some air out of the tires: an easy, and sound solution. And one unseen by
others who were blinded by assumptions and biases.

Perhaps the most difficult part of seeing the obvious is that we have what’s called hindsight bias. After we figure something out, then in hindsight, it appears to have been obvious all the while. So although we talk about seeing the “invisible obvious,” it really is not as simple as it seems.

On a project, the invisible obvious may be anything: which team members are right for which tasks, what strategies are best for executing the project, or which stakeholders to involve in key decisions. By making the participants’ biases and assumptions explicit and then verifying them, you help make the obvious visible, and innovation can take hold.

Developing Great Leaders is also available in a printed version.