Why Project Managers Often Fail To Lead

A project typically makes something meaningfully different in the world – it creates a new or better building structure or program, for instance. If the people in your project team don’t feel this wider purpose, you are failing and you should look in the mirror.

Organisations generally see projects as “one and done”. But all organisations also essentially want to deliver a better version of themselves and they can do this through projects. So it should be key, as part of projects, to deliver people who are excellent and improved in capability.

Of course if you are building a bridge you can’t just have happy/more capable people and no bridge. But shifting the focus from the outcome of the project to helping the people on the project deliver their best does not mean foregoing the outcome. You deliver both the project and the people when you focus on one of them – namely, enabling your people to give their best, stretching them and keeping them accountable for doing so. In other words, you serve the team first and not the result first.

Legitimate Leadership says that people become more willing and motivated when they trust their leaders more. As a leader, if you don’t spend time on building trust, then you will spend time on managing the fallout and damage from not having built trust.

The above were some of the insights offered by presenters in a webinar entitled Why Project Managers Often Fail to Lead, held by Legitimate Leadership on 7 May 2021. The webinar was moderated by Ian Munro and the presenters were Josh Hayman and Rachael Cowin, all of Legitimate Leadership. 60 people attended the webinar from a number of countries. The webinar expanded on an article by Josh, What Projects Really Need Are Better Project Leaders, Not Better Project Managers.

The presenters said that generally in project management theory, aspirant project managers are taught to manage costs, schedules, resources (human and material), stakeholders, etc. Programs like Prince2 and the Waterfall method support this, with most of the focus on managing and controlling. Managers are taught that they are accountable for a successful outcome.

Often, for project managers who work on contract, a portion of their fee is held over to be paid only when the “triple constraint” objectives of time, cost and performance are met. Again, this cements the focus on the outcome, and managing and controlling.

But actually the key focus should be people and leadership. We know from Legitimate Leadership that people become willing when they trust their leaders. Leaders earn trust by building personal relationships, giving people time and attention, passing the intent test (is the leader prepared to put her people’s interests before her own?), and giving up control incrementally. Leaders need to look for opportunities to do these four things.

So for projects to be more successful, less focus should be on the outcome and on enabling people to deliver. Then, the projects take care of themselves.

Josh said that during a span of 10 years as a project manager he had a mentor who said there were two parts to project management: the science of it (on which 100% of focus is traditionally put, but which should be 20% of focus); and the art of project management, being how to lead people. The key is to learn how to shift the project focus to leading people, the mentor said. In that way a better result will be got, as well as better people.

But it is easier to teach the science, and the concept of people not being “human resources” or “human capital” is not yet widely accepted.

There is of course a need for technical expertise (or science), which it is foundational. But it is not what makes excellence, said Rachael.

She said when she started in project management, there was a view that project managers needed to be hard-nosed because “marauders would come over the hill and want to change your project”. So a project manager dared not be likeable – she recalled a debate between two members of her team as to whether their project manager had smiled.

But, she said, it turned out that it wasn’t the toughest, most qualified, most hard-nosed project managers who were most successful. It was those who batted for the stakeholders, who empowered and engaged their teams – who gave them a wider purpose. Who, for example, gave the planner accountability, and the planner then spotted the issues between different projects and worked to resolve them.

In production and engineering, she said, there is not always great scope for an operator to grow. But project experience can be used to grow such people much more. In her history, they had become linchpins on the site. Such team members then go on to deliver other people who have grown in the same way. For instance, she recalled that in a previous role, detailed interviews were carried out for candidates for a new projects team and applicants invariably pointed to their experience on previous projects to illustrate what they had learnt.

Ian said that in a consulting business, all the growth of people that happens, happens in projects. Growth of people never appeared as an outcome in the project plan, but it could have.

Josh said hardly ever does a project plan talk about an objective of making people more capable. Projects are fundamentally viewed as being there to solve a problem for the customer, fill a hole. Sometimes having a goal to have more capable people at the end of the project happens, but by accident. Occasionally, it is stated as a project goal that the capability of a few people should be improved in order for such skills to be sustained in the organisation.

Thought in project management qualifications, there isn’t an emphasis on people or leadership of them, leadership is often learnt on the project. He said that he learnt because he had teachers, some of whom he didn’t report to but who reported to him.

He pointed to three problems with the teaching of project management. First, thought around stakeholder management is flawed in its emphasis on “managing” stakeholder expectations in the best interests of the project. Traditionally, this does not mean having happy stakeholders necessarily. The focus should rather be on building a relationship of trust – when stakeholders trust you, they support you. “Don’t try and manage them, lead them.” Second, because the focus is on results and outcomes, over time the project manager gets to be able to do the work better than his team members. It then often becomes easier and quicker for the project manager to just do the job himself. He gave an example of an intern whose work he corrected himself because he could easily do so, but who later reprimanded him for doing so without giving her the opportunity to rectify it – thus teaching him a lesson. Third, as the project manager’s job is seen as primarily to interact with the customer, he begins to focus on just the most critical jobs. As a result of this, he said, on one project, he became “a study on how to spend time inappropriately”. On arriving at work he would open his laptop and wait for the phone to ring, which it generally did all day. He was doing all the management, not the leading. He was serving the result, not the team.

“Time, cost and quality are stated as the triple constraints. The problem is when you don’t trust your customers or they don’t trust you, you cling to those triple constraints like a life raft. But when you do, and you deliver the best outcome for the customer, the triple constraints fade into the background. The customer trusts your motive and you trust theirs.”

The most successful projects have been where the team takes accountability – even if the customer isn’t aligned with that approach.

“Create an environment where you are serving the team and then, by extension, the result. It’s difficult to get the balance right, but then it becomes easier to serve the customer.”

Rachael said there are always different views in a team. Healthy conflict about ideas can lead to great innovation. If you can manage this it will pay dividends – but it requires the project leader to build trust within the team. If you don’t then you are forced into management and control techniques, which can work in the short term, but will not deliver the same benefits.

“You are not going to fix this forever. It is not a non-return pipe, you have to keep working at it against a background of people and organisational change.”