Do you have  a project that’s in trouble? Does it seem to get worse despite your best efforts to fix it? Having worked on many distressed projects, I’ve come to realise  that projects that become troubled tend to get worse because of the very actions and mindset that we put in place to correct the course.

Businesswoman striving for a solution to a problem

The initial corrective response (once the denial stage has passed) is often to put in place greater levels of controls and more frequent reporting to increase the accountability within the team. Corrective action tends to be centered around resources – more resources to go faster, fewer resources to slow down the spending rate and different resources if it is perceived that incumbents are not performing. If the project continues to degrade then the delivery businesses begin to look at commercial recovery strategies. What’s more, there seems to be a sense that if SOME of these activities are GOOD then MORE will be BETTER. Like a fire that begins to burn out of control, we apply more and more of the fuel that we used to start it in hopes that it will bring it back under control – it rarely does.

These steps may all be warranted and appropriate if some basic fundamentals are not in place – lack of project controls processes to give you clear picture of reality, insufficient or incompetent personnel, or project scope expectations that are inconsistent with contractual agreements. However, the difficulty with this approach is multi-fold:

  • It is focused almost entirely on results rather than on the work that produces those results, which can actually distract the team from improving the work environment.
  • It is predicated on the belief that the team are the problem not the solution; therefore, the “fix” for the team (or client or consultant as the case may be) needs to come from an external source rather from the team itself.
  • These approaches can actually exacerbate some of the current challenges. An extreme focus on results can mean that the team try anything to demonstrate results (e.g., completing easy work to show progress, de-scoping objectives to meet milestones) that manifest as time and cost later. Adding additional resources into an environment that is inefficient will increase the inefficiency because there are more work fronts to manage. Initiating commercial warfare can breakdown the relationships that will be counted upon at some point to effectively progress the project.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is founded in the belief that a project can be managed out of a challenging situation.

My experience has been that we cannot MANAGE our way out of trouble – we need to LEAD the way to a positive result. The leadership that I refer is not dictatorial or based on intimidating the team into performance. It is leadership that brings a mindset of performance improvement and focuses on the activities that generate the desired results. Importantly,

Leadership is not like prayer – you can’t do it from the privacy of your office and expect to get to the promise land. 

In the performance improvement solutions I put in place, I always ask the management team to provide the leadership that these initiatives require to be successful – it simply cannot come from outside the team. The project management is then faced with a choice: to direct the team in what is expected of them yet not actually participate themselves or to become actively involved in the improvement activities.  Invariably when at least some members of the management team demonstrate that these are initiatives they value and are committed to then performance improvements are profound and results soon follow. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true – email directives and table-thumping ultimatums are completely ineffective in creating an improvement focus when it is incongruent with a leader’s actions.

People value what they SEE their leaders value, not what their managers tell them to value. If the team see that the project leadership values their input they will strive to provide valuable input. If they see that action is valued as a means to results they will focus on positive actions rather than crafting results. Driving improvement processes over reporting will result in an improvement mindset in lieu of status and reporting thinking.

Leadership in a project improvement context is most effective when it is channelled into three key areas:

  1. Focus. Focus on the actions and activities that will improve performance, don’t focus purely on results.
  2. Capability. Rather than assess resources and capacity, understand and utilise the capability of your team.
  3. Opportunity. Actively look to identify and exploit delivery opportunities instead of generating recovery initiatives around “problem areas” or “road blocks.”

When this type of leadership is at the heart of a structured approach to performance improvement, it is very common to see teams meet or exceed their commitments where previously they were under-performing against business expectations and struggling with morale. Often this is true with largely the same people in fundamentally the same project environment.

Questions for consideration:

  • When you suspect that your projects are beginning to struggle, what is your mindset and where do you focus your actions?
  • Are your corrective actions focused on better understanding results or improving delivery performance?
  • Do you see your project team as the problem or the solution?
  • When challenges manifest themselves do you step into the role of a leader or work from your office praying for a miracle that might never come?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share them in the comments area below.

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