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Effective project leadership: ideal project board duties and behaviours

How does the leadership of a project – essentially, the project executive, sponsor, senior user and supplier who comprise the project board – operate effectively?

Their roles are admittedly demanding, combining responsibility for business as usual operations with operational improvement and developing new products/services.

To understand how project board members need to face these challenges, there are a number of key questions to be considered:

  • What should projects expect from the project board?
  • What should the project board expect from project managers?
  • How does the project leadership delegate and still retain control?
  • What kind of decisions are the project leaders expected to make?
  • What is the composition of an effective project board?

Creating a controlled environment for a project

By establishing an environment which is clear about how a project will be run – including defined roles and responsibilities – this will help ensure the project leadership does not micromanage the project manager.

Creating this controlled environment means that everyone should understand the project management method or framework adopted by the project or organisation as a whole.

As a result, this allows project managers to make decisions by providing a mechanism for this to happen. It also determines the tolerance levels exercised by the project board – in other words “managing by exception”, one of the principles of the PRINCE2 framework.

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Understanding your method and applying it to project leadership

The project framework or method should be clear about the role of senior management and the project board. Above all, that should incorporate the specific duties and preferred behaviours of senior leadership throughout a project. They include:

  • Accepting that you, the project executive and board member, are ultimately accountable for project success – supporting, directing and steering the project to completion
  • Assigning a project manager but not, thereafter, relinquishing responsibility and effectively “disappearing” for the duration of the project
  • Organizing and endorsing an integrated, cross-functional approach typical of many project team structures
  • Ensuring there is ongoing user involvement and commitment to the proposed change
  • Employing the continuous business justification concept (or adding value in Agile approaches) to ensure the business case remains valid and therefore the project is viable, deliverable and desirable. If so, senior management will be responsible for authorising each subsequent stage of the project
  • Ensuring there aren’t too many projects running in parallel to maximise success
  • Providing unified direction, communication and being an effective leader for the project manager in a collaborative and facilitative way; this is essential in Agile project scenarios where transparency and collaboration keeps the project on schedule and de-risked
  • Ensuring project managers and teams are empowered to make decisions – absence of this is a principal reason for project failure
  • Escalation: to make sure decisions are made at the right level and avoid “decision latency” – another reason for project failure.
  • Having regular project board meetings scheduled, but also reviewing their necessity when there are no key decisions to make, such as moving to a next stage or altering project scope
  • Diagnosing and avoiding problems – where are the weak spots in the plans? What are the risk management and mitigation plans?
  • Taking responsibility for delivering benefits to the organisation.

Ultimately, the project board cannot – and should not – blame the project manager if these things are lacking during a project.

Improving interaction between project boards and project managers 

Hosting project board awareness sessions is one, effective way of improving the overall performance of project boards, interaction with project managers and overall project leadership.

In facilitating these sessions, it helps project boards to fully understand the project management method principles adopted by the project/organisation and ensure they too know how to adhere to the principles.

It’s also an opportunity to discuss the ideal behaviour of senior management in the project, such as accountability, offering unified direction, knowing how to cope with delegation, effective communication and allocation of resources.

Equally, it’s useful to project boards to recognize the importance of building relationships with their project managers. For example, knowing what keeps the project manager awake at night helps project leadership identify when and where to take action to ensure success for the project and organisation.

Awareness of leadership skills at project board level is vital

Having a greater awareness among project board members about the factors that contribute to either project success or failure will help them make the connection to the abilities and skills they need for effective project leadership.

And that might also include gathering facts on the ground in their own organisation about which principles and practices are needed to improve their project board performance.

Developing and being able to deploy a wide variety of project leadership skills is essential throughout the lifecycle of a project and, not least, at the points where project boards are required to make significant decisions. This demands serious understanding and preparation as, at the point of decision, they need all the knowledge and evidence to commit the organisation’s budget and resources with confidence.

Allan Thomson

Allan is the Global PPM Product Ambassador responsible for representing AXELOS externally with regards to PPM products. He is a result driven PRINCE2 qualified Project Manager with over 25 years’ project, programme management and PMO experience. Particularly adept at implementation of PRINCE2 into organisations, Microsoft Dynamics solutions, risk management, business implementation, new product development, business improvement, software implementation and change management. Allan is an experienced Project Leader who through collaboration techniques integrates and leads teams to achieve business objectives. Have gained experience in agile delivery methods and their inclusion into PMO reporting.