Are You a Project Manager, or a Project Leader?

Project management is big business.  Every day, there are thousands of companies around the world trying to get things done.  When they want to do something differently, they create a project to do it.  And once they have a project, they need to manage it.

The Project Management Institute is just one of the many authorities advising would-be project managers on what to do and how to do it.  You could fill a library and a good part of a warehouse with guides, manuals, and methodologies for project management.

Virtually all of them will tell you that a project needs to have a project charter, a project schedule, an issue log, a risk log, a project governance structure, and so on and so forth.  Furthermore, there’s metadata about the project.  What methodology is it using?  What tool will be used for documenting the project schedule?  How will progress be tracked and reported?

Driving all of these tasks – managing them, if you will – is the job of the project manager.

What is commonly not the job of the project manager?  Surprisingly to some – but not to others – the project manager is often not responsible for the actual delivery of the project objectives.

In many organizations, the project manager is an administrator.  Better ones will be proactive and vocal, asking for status on deliverables before the day they’re due, discussing issues before they’ve turned into burning oil platforms.  But, as I often call them, they are professional nags.  Everyone else is busy actually getting something done, and they’re making sure their PowerPoint slides look good for the Steering Committee.

No wonder that in some organizations, project managers get very little respect.

And no wonder that in many organizations, they also get very little accomplished.

I worked with someone whose project management mantra was “Projects get behind a minute at a time, a day at a time.”  His point was that a project manager has to be on top of things every single moment, because once you’ve let something slip, the time’s gone.  You’ll never get back the half a day that you lost because someone’s computer went down or a key business contact was out sick.

I’ll concede that there’s a basic point there.  You almost never make up time on a project.  If you’re late getting to your first milestone, you can safely push them all back.

I found this mantra tremendously annoying, however.  First, it demanded an intensified experience as a project nag.  Simply thinking in terms of human communication, there’s a limit to how often and how rigorously you can ask people to provide updates on what they’re doing.  Ask enough times, you can be sure you’re going to get evasions, estimates, and outright lies.  Anything to get rid of you.

Second of all, it oversimplifies why projects are late, and suggests that every problem is either avoidable with proper foresight or fixable within its original timeframe.

Project management is about planning, predictions, and mitigations.  I may sound critical of it, but there is no question that sound project management is key to project success.

Project leadership, on the other hand, is about owning the outcome and working with everyone involved to deliver it.

A project can be well run, knock off all its project management artifacts, produce its deliverables, come in on time and under budget, and still be a failure.  That’s what happens – best case scenario – when there is no leadership.

Here are some more specific ways in which a project leader differs from a project manager:

  • A project manager accepts resources as provided. A project leader constantly reviews project resources needed for project success.
  • A project manager accepts the project structure provided. A project leader constantly reviews the project structure for project success.
  • A project manager drives administrative completion of standard project management tasks. A project leader selects standard project management tasks as tools to enable delivery success.
  • A project manager focuses on project management deliverables. A project leader focuses on the delivery of the business outcome, regardless of the source of issues or solutions.
  • A project manager supports team delivery of a business outcome. A project leader collaborates on achievement of a business outcome.

In short, a project leader:

  • Is engaged with the team
  • Is engaged with the project sponsor and shares ownership of project outcomes
  • Takes personal responsibility for project success

An Affliction of Inspiration

I’ve written over 40 books, but curiously, I have never actually written any about what I actually do for a living.  I did write one novel, “Best Judgment”, which was about business and used many stories and jokes I have picked up over the years, but I’ve never sat down and actually written about the day to day work I do.

I’ve had ideas for it, but nothing ever came from those.

However, a couple of weeks ago I was stricken with an affliction of inspiration.  An idea completely clicked in my head, and a book outline fell into place in mere minutes.

The idea comes from something I’ve been playing around with at work lately.  Technically, I’m a project manager.  However, in many circumstances, a project manager is a very administrative person.  They create and manage work plans, manage lists of risk and issues, and act (as I call it) as a professional nag.  Get that done yet?  When will you have it done?  How’s it going?

Over the last few months, I’d really reformed the notion of project management into the idea of project leadership.  That label isn’t new: my last company used it to group project and program management together, although I’m not sure anything more was meant by it.

My contribution to it was to define project leadership as something more than project management.  If you just want an administrator for your project, you probably don’t want (or need) someone with the experience of myself or most of my colleagues.  If you want someone who will own the activities to deliver a project, and actually care about what the project outcome, then you want a project leader.

I’ve written some slideware on the topic for a couple of presentations, but I’ve still been noodling over what else to do with it.  I’d like to develop the concept within the firm I work with, defining the work we do as project leadership.  That should help drive the model of how we hire people and how we approach our work.  Still, this was not yet an inspiration.

Then the inspiration hit.  I’d write it as a book (not a PowerPoint deck), and I could encompass a lot of my own experiences and theories into it.  I’ve since leapt into that and have written roughly half of it so far (5 out of 12 chapters drafted, about 22000 words).

Of course, this will fall very much in the zone of a business self-help book, a category about which I am notably snarky.  Hopefully I’m being realistic about my snark when I write this.  That will also be the big test.  I’m planning to give draft copies of this to some colleagues, and that’s when you ask the big question: I’ve just spent all this time to write a book; now, is it going to be interesting to anyone?

In my dreams, this helps launch a new phase of my career.  I’m not quite ready to set off as a Stephen Covey-like career as a public speaker.  Maybe I could do it in a small way.

My day dreams quickly founder on the rocks of a sad reality in the business self-help industry.  I need a catchy name.  Something inspirational, something pithy.  Something that gets right to the point.

My wife pointed out that I also need a self-assessment questionnaire.  All the best books have those.  I’m still thinking about that.

Back to the name.  The working title of my book has been “Old Wombat’s Guide to Project Leadership”, which is boring and distractingly quirky at the same time.  I’ve put together several other books under my personal brand of Old Wombat’s (“Old Wombat’s Concise History of the World” and “Old Wombat’s Law for Junior Wombats”) but I wasn’t necessarily putting my professional identity behind those books.  Another name is absolutely critical.

Luckily, on Friday night I went to a rock concert.  We saw Guster at the Riviera Theater.  I can’t even remember what song they were playing, but one word suddenly jumped out at me: believe.

I reached my catchy name in a moment: Project Believer.  It fits completely.  A major part of my ideas around project leadership is essentially a matter of positive attitude, constructive contributions, and so on.  You have the believe in the project you’re working on.

I haven’t decided how to completely work this in, yet.  I’m not sure I want to replace “project leader” everywhere it appears in the 100 pages I’ve written so far.  I might just talk about project leadership as a step towards being a Project Believer.

Anyway, there it is – the affliction of inspiration leading to “Project Leader to Project Believer”!  Coming to online bookstores and project management seminars soon!