Articles

The Effective Project Leader's Mindset

Karen A. Brown, Ph.D., and Nancy Lea Hyer, Ph.D.

By Karen A. Brown, Ph.D., and Nancy Lea Hyer, Ph.D.

Many people begin their careers in functional areas such as engineering, accounting, marketing, finance, or information technology and are often taken by surprise when they find their work life consumed with activities related to projects. As businesses expand globally, new technologies emerge and pressures for shortened product life cycles intensify, projects consume increasingly greater numbers of organizational resources. Out of this phenomenon has risen the commonly cited notion of the accidental project manager.

Many of the people we have interviewed and observed over a 25-year period have felt ill-prepared for the challenges they faced when they landed in positions requiring them to lead temporary, cross-functional teams. Our research has led us to appreciate that in addition to mastering the technical tools and processes of the project management trade, these new leaders must develop mindsets to appreciate opposing perspectives and feel comfortable with complexity and ambiguity.

Visionary leader versus detail-oriented manager

The effective project leader must have the presence of mind to recognize when a broad, visionary perspective is appropriate, and when it is time to don the manager’s hat and dig into the details. This requires a balancing act. The leader role involves what might be considered creative or right-brain capabilities for envisioning the big picture and conveying it in a way that inspires participants. However, to ensure work is actually accomplished effectively, the project leader also must apply a set of more analytical or left-brain capabilities needed for detailed scheduling, budgeting, allocating resources, and tracking progress.

Ideally, the individual heading the project effort will embody both orientations — visionary and detail-focused. We all have witnessed the failures of project leaders who attend so much to selling their vision that details are lost and the project goes nowhere. We also have witnessed just the opposite: project managers whose well-intended micro-management produces lots of box checking but does not necessarily lead to bigger-picture goal achievement and nearly always de-motivates team members and wastes their time.
 
Some people find it difficult to gracefully carry vision- and detail-oriented roles on their shoulders simultaneously. We advise leaders who have not articulated a compelling project vision to start doing so. No team is likely to follow you if you cannot help members to imagine an attractive end result. Vision is not something the leader can delegate. However, if the visionary leader is too busy for details, he or she can enlist the help of someone who has this skill set.  If two individuals agree to share these roles, they must do so in a noncompeting manner where the vision-person is the acknowledged formal leader and detail-person supports the vision.
 
Technically savvy versus interpersonally and politically astute

It often happens that a person with sound technical knowledge is handed the reins of a project in his or her area of expertise. This expertise is essential because it allows the leader to see the end result realistically, understand how the pieces all fit together, appreciate challenges inherent in the work, communicate intelligently with the team, and command essential respect from key stakeholders.

However, some newly-assigned project leaders can have a tendency to focus too narrowly on technical matters, failing to consider the interpersonal and political relationships so essential to the project’s successful delivery. We have heard innumerable tales of woe from technically-oriented project managers who were taken by surprise when dissatisfied or under-represented stakeholders seemed to come from nowhere to derail the projects they thought were swimming along so well. And then, of course, there are the project leaders who put so much effort into the politics of the situation that they are blindsided by technical challenges they had not anticipated. Project success requires the project leader to adopt a cognitive perspective that attends to both political-interpersonal and technical dimensions.

Disciplined versus flexible

A final contrast is discipline versus flexibility. The project management community has been informed in a positive way by the teachings of the Project Management Institute, the Software Engineering Institute, and Prince2. These and several other organizations have created globally-shared lexicons of terms that have enhanced project communication around the world and led people to appreciate the value of defined processes for getting things done.

However, we have seen some people, and some organizations, who take the advice of these professional groups too far. They insist that every project follow a rigid set of steps, and they lose sight of the fact that prescribed processes are intended as guidelines, not straightjackets. The effective project leader has the mindset to appreciate the importance of process and knows when to apply it formally, but also to recognize when to loosen things up a bit. Moreover, the effective leader also knows when it is appropriate to “stay the course” and follow project plans, and when to depart from plans because of changes in circumstances, requirements, or goals.

Some project leaders appear to innately possess mindsets that allow them to balance the three sets of contrasting capabilities. For others, it is a journey along a trail of learning episodes. For everyone, it begins with self-awareness.