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Exercising Necessary Project Leadership When the Time Comes

Most of the projects I am involved with nowadays are organisational change projects, many related to the implementation of a true project management culture and all its relevant processes, behaviours and tools.

I use a “user-centric”, self-organizing, collaborative approach I call “changeboxing”, that I developed specifically for these types of projects. It is a mixture of agile project management “timeboxing” techniques and collaborative implementation approaches. It is based on voluntary work by concerned stakeholders of projects in an organisation, following an internal diagnosis where these stakeholders identify and confirm the organisational change they desire, and then work together to make it happen.

More often than not, the approach works quite well and accelerates new processes’ implementation and integration in the day-to-day life of the organisation they serve to improve. To succeed, however, the whole change process must be based on a real desire to change and to collaborate as a team towards the new project management culture…and complete transparency and trust among stakeholders. I have been coaching customers through this “changeboxing” approach to organisational change for five years now. When we have run into difficulties and the approach failed to deliver the expected harmonious change, it was always because a group of stakeholders were not sincere and would try to manipulate the others in preserving THEIR status quo. When such a roadblock appears, I really expect that upper management, as the sponsor/client of the changes, will take on its traditional role as the legitimate ultimate organisational authority. It must give a precise indication of its expectations, give clear direction and then just do what it’s supposed to do: DIRECT. This might look like a very rigid approach from “agile” me. Maybe! My belief is that exercising Situational Leadership [1] is an agile approach and that the S1 alternative (directing and telling) is quite a valid alternative when the context calls for it.

Alas, in all instances when such a roadblock appeared, none of the chief executives involved came forward to apply the required directive approach. They preferred waiting for the conflict to just settle by itself or to get some more “persuasive S2 alternative” change management going on in a context where the will to change is not there. Of course, the change then stalled and stalled; the status quo desired by the resisting group was maintained. And the organisation ended up worse that it was in the first place, because the vast majority that desired the change was deprived of it and will not collaborate next time we come to them to work on improving their organisational project management maturity.

I am really puzzled by the aversion to directing and using authority, which seems to be the norm now with upper managers. I give a course on “How to influence with limited or no formal authority” because, it seems, people do believe that it is so difficult to influence without formal authority. Yet, those who have legitimate authority seem to be in need of their own course: “When and how to use the formal authority that you already have”.

For me, the issue is very simple here. It is part of leadership to direct when need be, and there will always be instances where directing is the preferred, if not the only option. When times come for real change and a majority calls for it but cannot move forward, because of a group or a person, not wishing to be part of a team effort, resists obvious and necessary organisational change, project management leadership through directing is called for. Real project leadership can face adversity. Real project leadership is not a question of leading by consensus. Real project leadership is a question of leading and taking charge when times call for it. Let the true leaders rise and manage properly these organisations where change is necessary, that is all organisations.

1 Situational Leadership models explain that proper leadership style is contextual and that basically four different styles can be used depending of the context: S1-Directing, S2-Persuading, S3-Concerting, S4-Letting go (autonomous teams)

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