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Project Success; It Begins and Ends with Leadership

In today’s global economy, project success can make or break any company, as the race is more challenging than it’s been in decades to grow the business and continue to find new ways to trim costs.  Every company I consult with has already addressed low-hanging fruit.  It will no longer be as easy to find ways to be competitive.  Thus, when there is an opportunity, there’s nothing more important than ensuring it delivers results – project success.  And, as my HR mentor used to say, “Success begins and ends with leadership.

To make matters more difficult, it is increasingly hard to find effective leaders.  One would think with unemployment as high as it is in the U.S. and even worse in the manufacturing hubs, it would be simple to find leaders.  It’s not.  I’ve talked with a half dozen executive recruiters in the last month, and they have all said that it remains a tall order.  What do the best leaders do differently than the rest

Clarify Targets/Objectives.

It is amazing how overlooked and simple yet incredibly important this secret to success is to achieving project objectives.  Interestingly, in hundreds of projects I’ve participated with over the years, those with clear objectives have had an 80% greater chance of success than those without them.  So, why in the world don’t project leaders clarify objectives more frequently?  I’ve found that it isn’t as simple as it sounds, as it often requires unwavering commitment

For example, on a recent integration project, the objectives seemed clear.  As usual, project teams start off on the right foot.  However, at the first sign of trouble, the objectives become less clear.  Politics entered the scene.  If the project leader stood by the clarity of the objectives, he stood the chance of taking the heat for side impacts for other departments, which could result in unhappy employees as the workload would be temporarily increased.  Of course, overall, this was similar to a $100 investment to save $100,000, and if he communicated it effectively, it might not be a problem; however, it was uncomfortable.  Thus, he wavered, and the project team became less sure of the objectives – and less successful. 

Ability to Translate the Target/Objectives for the Team.

This is not nearly as simple as just repeating the objectives, stating support and threatening if required.  A project leader has to be able to translate the objectives for the team in a clear and insightful manner.  It doesn’t require that the project leader understands the entire subject matter; however, he/she must be able to ask effective questions and be respected by the team.  Otherwise, it’s likely to result in immediate failure.  

For example, I’ve participated in two projects where the project leader wasn’t too familiar with the details of the subject matter.  In one case, the project leader asked effective questions and was able to lead the project to an early delivery with better than anticipated results.  In the other case, the leader was in over his head and resorted to threats.  This project team not only made lackluster progress at best but was extremely frustrated. 

A Focus on Results.  

Last but not least, the project leader must focus on results.  One of the most common mistakes I see with my clients is getting distracted with thousands of non-essential details.  Instead, those who are successful maintain a rigorous focus on the critical path – in essence, just those tasks required to achieve the project objectives. 

For example, I’ve often seen project teams distracted with the optimal way to use project tracking software, or what format to use for tracking progress yet little to no time is spent proactively communicating with project team members.   Instead, a steadfast focus on the project objectives can achieve wonders.  

As businesses struggle to stand out in the crowd in the “new normal” business environment, there’s no doubt project success is vital to maintaining and improving profitability.  Although there are several keys to achieving success, there is nothing more important than leadership.  I’ve never seen a project succeed without an effective leader – at a minimum, there was an informal leader who drove project success.

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