Leadership over methodology
Much discussion, to the point of debate, has occurred regarding the concept that a traditional project methodology or an agile form of project methodology is a better approach. This debate has been ongoing for some time with too little consideration given to the project attributes that may find advantage in one method versus the other. Evaluation of statistics direct attention to failure rates as an example to make a point about how superior one method is over the other with regard to the triple constraints of scope, schedule, or cost. While this discussion rages, strong project leaders are delivering successful project results in spite of whatever methods or processes are employed.
Points about methods
Once all of the emotion or preference is set aside on the topic of methodology, realization that each offers benefits to project results is recognized. Each methodology has benefits to the projects where the methodology best fits. One quote puts it this way: “If uncertainty is high and the requirements are fluid, it is common sense to use an iterative method. If the deliverable is critical and it’s execution and use involve life and death you may want a strict development methodology.” (Dr. James T. Brown, PhD, PE, PMP; 2010)
While the comparative of fluidity versus life and death appears to be two ends of a wide spectrum, it may make sense this way: A road through a wood may follow various paths to traverse that forest. Installing it could be performed using an iterative method, finding the best path among the trees to reach the other side. When the road is 80% complete, a traveler could traverse the road with results limited to 80% before the traveler would be forced to stop or turn around, unable to complete the journey with full success. Now imagine that within that forest there is a river gorge that must be crossed. The traveler may refuse to begin to cross the bridge over that river once told that his chances of reaching the other side were 80%. In this case, the bridge may require certain and well defined requirements that may be best followed using well tested and strictly followed scope qualities, budget and perhaps schedule specifications.
Additionally, where feedback and experience with results affect outcome with improvements or enhancements, an iterative method may be useful. The bridge example above might include adding enhanced guard rails or smoother expansion joints once a safe installation has been completed. One of the best examples of an iterative product is one where there have been an initial, important result accomplished, and then enhancements offering greater benefits are later added. Releasing a product that is correct up to a point would be useful, if users of the product are aware of the need for feedback, improvement, and fixes to details that may not be working as preferred. An example might be a dishwasher that washes dishes adequately, but drying needs improvement and additional cycles to enhance the wash process could be added with user feedback.
Where the leadership impact is greater than the method or process
Choice regarding which methodology will best suit a project can best be made by an experienced, strong leader. Too much process and methodology can contribute to project failure and balance is needed in decisions surrounding project approach method. Flexibility and the agility to make needed changes remain apparent in projects whether the methodology is traditional or agile. Trade-offs are sometimes needed and good leadership can identify the reasonableness or risks of the trade-offs in relationship to the valued results. Exceptions to process or even methodology and scope violations need to be identified and have formal approval provided. Without a formal approval process, project integrity is eroded and results are questioned or lack credibility. Requests for change with strong leadership will assist in finding a proper balance point between targeting good results and having process for its own sake. Keep in mind that project management is ultimately just a formalized structure for organized common sense. Strong project leaders put the “sense” in common sense.
Preferences for a leader – talent or team collaborator?
At a recent meeting of 300 Portfolio, program, and project leaders a poll was taken to examine preferences for specific leadership qualities. While the best leader would have excellent team work and excellent talent in the same individual, if you could only choose one of the two attributes, what would be your preference: excellent team-work with marginal talent, or excellent talent with marginal team-work?
A live vote was taken and the results were very one-sided. 90% of those polled chose excellent team-work and marginal talent over excellent talent with marginal team-work skills. One of the questions that could be asked when these results are revealed is why? The answer may still reside with leadership. A leader with team-work skills will be better able to capitalize on the talent and skills of the overall team and in the course of the project come out ahead utilizing the skills of the whole team. A leader with talent and marginal team-work skills may only have her or himself to rely on, failing to have the advantage of the whole project team to realize best results.
A project leader will be instrumental in overcoming challenges to successful project delivery. Deciding with the team on an intelligent (and some might say wise) path of resolution, being confident and resolute in committing to a solution, and executing well on that solution with confidence sets a positive tone for the team. Being uncommitted, doubtful or unsure, or expecting that someone else will make all of the determinations will lead to paralysis by analysis.
Hard skills versus soft skills
A high profile example of how hard skills and soft skills affect team performance can be observed in sport team coaching. Coaches are usually recognized as being good leaders, but not always as having the skills of physical ability or skilled performance as team members. The coach’s contribution to strong team performance is undisputed, but the ability to do the work of any particular team-member is very questionable.
Lists of factors of leadership may include physical ability, performance, individual knowledge, persona, attitude, integrity, enthusiasm, encouragement, and consistency. Among these, factors that are most controllable are persona, attitude, and integrity. Individual knowledge relies on current updates which may be somewhat transient, especially when scope standards and requirements can change (particularly from one project to the next.) Physical ability may degrade over time or with injury. Performance of an individual may vary more than team performance. By building a team with the needed skills, a project manager can lead that team to greater results than what will be achieved by an individual or a loose association of people acting individually.
In the same meeting mentioned above, another survey was performed asking about choices for team leadership. The 300 people were asked to reflect on a sports team leader to choose persona, attitude and integrity; or, physical ability and personal performance in reaching high team performance. 94% of the 300 people chose persona, attitude, and integrity over physical ability and personal performance. The fact that these chosen attributes are controllable can empower teams to higher performance. A team leader can learn new knowledge needed to lead a project and can gain in individual performance, but the controllable attributes must be in evidence before the leader can be truly considered a leader.
In sports, a lot of winners believe that “home field advantage” contributes to winning percentages. It has little to do with the specific location or type of playing surface, but instead can be broken into factors of enthusiasm, familiarity, encouragement and consistency. When a project leader fosters an atmosphere that includes these factors, even greater success can be gained. These factors can also be controlled by a project leader. A project leader can learn to act enthusiastically, seek and provide familiar relationships within the team, encourage team members in the direction of success, and the team will benefit from consistent behavior and treatment. This subject area alone could foster a long paper and there have been books written about them. It is mentioned here, because it offers more insight into a leader’s ability triumphing over mere methodology and process.
Managers lead for success – Leadership over methodology
One of the most important efforts a project manager can make to help ensure project success is to anticipate aspects of the project. Anticipation is forward looking and proactive, versus managing the existing project conditions. Anticipation may focus on resources, risks, scope variations, budget, schedule challenges, and so on. Anticipation largely relies on communication and collaboration between the project manager and the key stakeholders, including probing for potentialities for the project. The question beginning with “what if” may come to mind in relation to seeking to anticipate. Much research is available identifying where project problems originate. The variables and factors likely to cause project problems reveal most of these are concerned with: defining project purposes, scope, or product attributes, poor planning, or lack of communication. All of these concerns can be substantially mitigated by having a strong leader managing the project, not simply managing by methods or procedures. Leadership attributes, engaged in a project management role, and exercising worthwhile methods and processes, enhances greater project success.