In today’s dynamic world, organizations must continuously adapt to stay relevant, which requires embarking on projects to deliver innovation and improvements. Despite the fact that an entire industry revolves around project management, most organizations lack the tools and skills to succeed at this critical function. An organization’s most valuable work happens in projects, yet common problems persist that appear impossible to fix. Project pipelines are overstuffed. Project teams miss deadlines and exceed budgets. Then, once projects are launched, troubleshooting begins, adoption stalls, and the blame game begins.
How did we get here?
Several factors contribute to this common symptom of organizational dysfunction. First, project management has developed into a separate, specialized function—its very own silo. In addition, traditional project management uses a directive approach to leadership, which is ill-suited for cross-functional endeavors. Finally, without engagement and buy-in from project customers and stakeholders, project solutions continually languish from lack of implementation. These challenges are clear indicators of ineffective and inefficient projects. Your leaders are likely using project management tools and techniques rooted in the traditional project management thinking of yesterday, which won’t work in the cross-functional environments of today.
A fundamental goal of many organizational leaders is having a more effective and efficient organization that delivers on strategy, and OD practitioners are in the best position to help the organization do just that. (Hint: The process starts by shifting the approach from managing projects to leading them collaboratively.) This article examines why traditional project management often fails to deliver innovation and execute strategy; it also offers simple suggestions for leading successful projects.
Project Management Challenges
As the body of knowledge surrounding project management expanded, project managers became highly specialized professionals who shared their expertise with other departments as needed. In other words, project management emerged as its own discipline, one that was disconnected from the core business. Carolyn Solares, founder and managing partner of MurphyMerton, witnessed this evolution firsthand—through no fault of its practitioners—and considers it one of the project management industry’s biggest challenges. “The project management profession developed its guiding principles and certification program, which probably didn’t help,” she says. “Those are good resume bullets, but they can block new thinking.”
While traditional project management still has its place, many of the tools and techniques in this extensive body of knowledge are unnecessary for most projects. “Traditional project management tools work best when managing complex projects with a predictable outcome, like a mission to Mars or defense contracts,” says Paula Martin, CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the Matrix Management Institute (MMI). “But for the overwhelming majority of projects that aren’t that complex, you don’t need advanced project management tools like earned value analysis or advanced risk assessment.”
Another issue with project management comes from reliance on directive leadership. Project managers may collect input from other stakeholders, but they typically develop the project plan and documentation singlehandedly, delegating tasks to a team. Not only does this approach limit an organization’s ability to derive the maximum benefit from its collective expertise, but it can also have a detrimental impact on team engagement and adoption.
Martin recalls an engagement in the 1990s where she helped a client re-engineer its procurement process. She worked with the procurement department to revamp its operations, but when it came to implementation, they needed the support of the manufacturing divisions as well. “Long story short, manufacturing didn’t want to adopt the system, so they didn’t,” says Martin. “It sat on a shelf and was a complete waste of time. That was when I realized that you have to deal with all the stakeholders. They have to get on board early in the process.” This “aha” moment played a key role in the development of MMI’s project leadership training, which teaches leaders how to use a truly collaborative approach to create engagement and ownership among stakeholders.
How to Move Forward, Starting Today
Project leadership remains largely misunderstood, yet successful project execution is more critical than ever. The good news is that improving project success doesn’t require complex certifications, organizational restructuring or widespread culture change. Instead, simplifying the approach to projects can produce dramatic improvement.
- Shift from “leader” to “coach.” One small, but critical, shift involves the role of the project leader. With traditional project management, the leader often acts as an administrator, collecting information from the team at each stage of the process to populate various Excel spreadsheets. Such tools might be useful, but they don’t necessarily advance the project at hand. Instead of relying on a rigid, linear playbook, project leaders need to build a structure that facilitates teamwork. Establish ground rules to create a safe space where all team members feel valued and respected. Analyze the available tools, and only use the ones that make sense for the current project. Identify how the team will work: How will meetings be run? How will information flow? How will the team make the decision-making process transparent? The faster a project leader can build this foundation, the faster the project will progress.
Early in Solares’s career, she spearheaded a project to build a communication platform to promote information sharing across the organization. All members of the small, cross-functional team—comprised of junior to mid-level professionals, including a representative from Human Resources, a technology designer, and internal customers—had received collaborative project leadership training, and she guided the group as a facilitator. Solares left the organization in the middle of the project because of a geographic move. Several months later, the developer called to let her know that the team had successfully launched the project. “The magnitude of that moment has motivated me to this day,” she recalls. “I realized that it’s not about perfect project management. We had created a safe environment for the team to create, and somebody else stepped into the leadership role after I left. As a leader, you need to ask, can the work survive without you?”
- Train more people. This single action will help meet the widespread need for project management skills, typically held by an elite few that operate outside daily business operations. Offering project leadership training to everyone provides a common framework for the project at hand. “You provide basic planning skills that allow people to see how things fit across disciplines,” says Solares. “That’s the kind of thinking that changes teams. These tools get you up and stumbling. Then, you get better as you use the tools.”
Martin worked with a firm that offered optional training on a collaborative project process to new product development teams. Some teams completed the training and began using the methods, while others did not. A year later, senior leaders started to notice a difference in project execution—namely, some were more successful than others. Further investigation revealed that those teams that were using the collaborative project leadership tools were outperforming their peers who had declined the training.
“Projects are complicated,” admits Martin, “but not in the way that the project management industry has made them complicated. They’re complicated simply because you’re doing something you’ve never done before, so there’s a lot of uncertainty.” Arming more people with the tools to manage the unknown is a small change that can yield a quantum leap in overall effectiveness.
- Make the work simpler. Traditional project management often scopes out massive projects from start to finish, with timelines that can span more than a year. In today’s dynamic world, customer appetites and needs change rapidly, and a product designed eighteen months earlier may be obsolete by the time it reaches market. Tackling a huge project can also overwhelm team members, most of whom have additional responsibilities to juggle. In addition, the larger and more complex an undertaking, the greater the potential for errors and delays. As time passes, the original project scope may bear little resemblance to the final deliverables.
Instead of setting teams up for failures and setbacks, shrink the scope into a series of small projects. For example, determine what can be accomplished in six weeks, and plan accordingly. While some large projects need to be mapped out from start to finish, breaking up the work into phases offers the psychological boost of giving teams concrete wins and creates the opportunity to refine subsequent stages, based on the most recent results. “Focus on Stage One,” suggests Martin. “Then, as you’re completing that, see if you need to re-plan Stage Two.”
Are you trying to create organizational change but frustrated by lack of power or influence? If so, you’re not alone. “Getting leaders to understand the value of OD” was identified as a top concern at the January 2018 meeting of the Organization Development Network of New York. Consider a different approach. Specifically, set your sights on the project level, where you can generate immediate, tangible results, while gaining actionable intelligence on the organization’s needs in this critical competency.
Not only will participating on project teams improve your own project leadership skills—crucial for overseeing successful OD initiatives—but such involvement will also help connect you with the operational side of the business. “Find out where cool work is happening in the organization, and get involved,” says Solares. “Experiment. See how your OD expertise and insight actually work in the organization. Projects make a great testing ground since a project is a microcosm of the larger organization.”
Moving from the sidelines to the front lines provides practical, hands-on information on how to improve organizational effectiveness. After all, successful project delivery equals strategy execution (provided, of course, the right governance system is in place, addressed in this article on organizational strategy. In addition, project team participation will show colleagues in other departments the value and contributions offered by organizational development. And in the spirit of simplification and sustainability, improving project execution is a far more manageable goal than attempting to transform the culture of an entire organization.