Leaning to Action Leaning to People

Did it fail because of the team?

Cecile was unhappy that I left her hanging with my previous article on where we place the praise or blame for project failure or success. I had hinted at the team.

Yes what about the team then, Patrick ? Hoping to read the rest of your always deep analysis!

Cecile Bertholier

And Cecile is quite correct. I’m grateful for her question. I did leave you, the reader, hanging. So I am bringing forward this follow-up article in my editorial schedule.

If we set aside the traditional management mindset for a moment and consider the project manager as a leader of change, we can move beyond looking at the hierarchic levels and entities of the organisation, the project manager and the project team. Instead, we consider the challenges of leading a project team through change.

Action-Centred Leadership

We could look at the world of project management through the lens of John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership:

Adair considers the actions a leader must take, whatever their working environment. He maintains that to be effective, the leader must:

  1. Achieve the task
  2. Build and maintain the team
  3. Develop the individual

He goes on to list a number of responsibilities for the leader under each of these categories.

Hiring Great People?

I wouldn’t disagree with Adair. Also, I am seeing much emphasis these days on hiring great people as meaning hiring deep expertise in particular exclusive specialisms and then letting them get on with clearly-defined work while keeping the whole team informed.

This, too, is fine – as far as it goes – but a group of geeks is not a team.

“Ah, yes!” you might be thinking. “There needs to be team synergy.” Well yes, but I feel that even the associations we have with the word synergy are usually not deep enough.

An Unregarded Critical Success Factor

A true leader changes the environment around her. She brings out things in people that perhaps team members did not even know they had within themselves. That leader begins to model values, and guard a culture, even if she never uses the language of culture. It is possible – and I have done it from time to time – to create a culture within a project, that begins to outperform the norm within the surrounding organisation. 

Sure, as Adair says, the good leader does pay attention to the goal of the project and the individual contributions towards that goal (task), as well as good team-working, while developing the individuals within the team. Yes, John Adair, that leader ticks all your boxes. 

But can we go deeper and help individual team members engage with matters beyond their individual domains in positive ways? Specialists can show up to meetings as generalists; geeks can become generous, and contribute to discussions in domains other than their specialisms. And they discover in a culture of honour and respect. This encourages team members to lean towards others with empathy and greater influence.

The Villain of Failure

So, back to the question: who do we blame when a project fails, or when its outcomes are disappointing? 

The fact is that projects are, by definition, unique means that they are not kind learning environments, as psychologist Robin Hogarth would describe them. We lead a project, we are not navigating something as rules-based as Candy Crush or World of Warcraft. No. In Hogarth’s terms, a project can be a wicked learning environment. For example, we find that what worked for us before may not work next time, even in the same project.

What we require is high-order intuitive leadership. This kind of leadership creates a positive, engaging, honouring culture that invites people to own the challenge of the whole project; to cross into domains where they may feel vulnerable and incompetent at first. But backed by a positive, encouraging leader, they learn to be brave, to share in generous conversations, and to discover breakthrough solutions from within the team.

Maybe I will publish a further article on this and share my biscuit-based culture…and how this worked on a computer server engineering project. But that is for another time… and, of course, the biscuit culture may never work again. 

It could just crumble. (Sorry! Awful pun!)

Do leave your comments below.

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work

The Seven Keys eBook

Discover & Practice the Seven Key Areas that All High Performers Share

Download my free eBook