Training April 2016

Why leading project teams is tough

Projects are too common. Because of this we take them for granted, see them as part of everyday work, and don’t approach them properly. We usually gather the team and dive straight into the details of the project, without really applying a professional approach. We certainly don’t apply as much planning expertise to the task as we should, as we wade straight into the mechanics of the execution.

Why is that? Poor leadership and lack of skills make for dangerous dance partners, as the team launches forth rocking and rolling with no strategy and little expertise.

Often, there is no existing documented planning process in place. This is rather ironic if project types are repeated or very similar projects are undertaken. Templates and structure are missing so everyone just improvises, making it up as they go along, re-inventing the wheel.

The goals of the project are often vague. This is the result of a lack of direction from top leadership to those tasked with doing the work. To counter this problem, the project leader has to push back, seeking clear reasons from upper management for the project, and making sure that everyone involved understands them.

Project scope creep is like a cancer that can kill the project, denying it success. The project begins with vague boundaries around what is to be done. In quick order, either external parties or team members become like emus—attracted by bright shiny objects. Very quickly additional tasks multiply but the time frame and the resources committed to the project do not change. This never ends well.

The implementation strategy regarding roles, budgets, timelines and follow-up is weak or non-existent. Well, when you are having fun playing things by ear, you are busy getting on with the work, so no strategy is needed. Later, things go wrong because timelines were not clear or properly planned. The resources do not turn up at the required time or the sequencing of the work is found to be off, so there are delays from which you cannot easily cover or resolve.

You quickly find that people, rather than logistics, are the trickiest part of project leadership. You may not have been able to match the resources of the team with the skill sets required and therefore have to make do with what you have.

There may be incompatible working styles among members of the team. You are now chief psychologist—in addition to team project leader—spending a lot of time and energy dealing with staff or division conflicts.

The start of the project may be exciting, but over time other tasks start to impede and compete for your people’s time. Their motivation starts to slide. You have to rally them constantly to be enthusiastic and committed to the successful completion of the project.

This is when you discover your communication and persuasion skills are rubbish and you are getting nowhere with them. The problem becomes magnified when there are critical issues of internal and external cooperation required.

People not completing their tasks on time unleashes issues around trust and reliability. Their excuses are never in short supply, but this is not especially helpful, because your boss won’t be accepting any from you, as project leader.

Because you have never been trained on how to delegate properly, you either don’t do it at all or you give it a shot. When it fails, you wind up doing most of the work. This would be fine if you had nothing else to do and could devote your time to this one project. Strangely enough, the organisation has bigger plans for you, which involve a slather of other work to be done as well.

The answer is fairly simple: train people properly on how to lead projects. Projects are always going to require completion, and organisations should have their own way of doing them. This would be developed through long periods of hands-on experience, and constantly updated to reflect best practice discoveries made along the journey.

We should follow the seven project evolution steps:

  • define the scope
  • devise the plan
  • implement it
  • monitor and modify it
  • get closure
  • evaluate
  • celebrate

For each of these steps, we need a trained project head, who is highly skilled in leading people, rather than someone who is ace in creating macros in spreadsheets.