Can project leaders use their understanding of changing project circumstances to bring their team together at crunch time?
by Stian Lofstad, November 2012
IT projects have a bad name. The Standish Group claimed in its 2006 CHAOS report that only 35 percent of IT projects are successful. Although more recent project failure ratio numbers are better, the scale and number of projects are also bigger. Some authors estimate the annual global economic impact of IT failures to be at US$3 trillion.
Most projects are measured on time, cost and quality. Quality is most often non-negotiable, and time and cost overruns are often results of initial under-estimates of quality requirements or unplanned expansion of these requirements during the project.
The stop-and-go nature of projects
Projects typically start off at a comparatively lax pace that intensifies when nearing a milestone, only to drop again after passing the milestone. This cycle repeats at a slightly higher time criticality for every milestone until project completion.
A lot of the time criticality level around milestones is related to planning and team efficiency issues. According to an old military saying, “Even the best-laid plan fails at first contact with the enemy.” While this may seem gloomy, it points to two very real issues: The “enemy” — in a project setting, the surrounding circumstances — is never really behaving the way you originally planned for. Therefore, your original plan will rarely be your final plan, since you have to make contingency plans, changes and adjustments as the project proceeds.
How can project leaders use their understanding of changing project circumstances to make their team work as a cohesive unit, capable of increasing throughput at crunch time?
Time criticality should influence your style as a leader
“Situational leadership” is a theory that states that the situation at hand forces adjustments to the leadership style, on a range from issuing orders to letting the team make decisions. While this topic is in reality highly complex with a multitude of factors to consider, we will assume that the leader has the necessary experience and self-awareness and the team has the necessary skills and basic motivation, and focus on two aspects of the situation at hand:
The time criticality of the work at hand
The team commitment needed to efficiently and effectively do the work
When considering the four situational leadership styles (telling, selling, participating, delegating) in light of these two factors, we can make a set of highly simplified observations.
Firstly, when time criticality is high, the leader typically exercises a more commanding leadership style. When time criticality is low, a wider range of leadership styles are employed, depending on the need for team commitment. If the need for team commitment is high, more time needs to be dedicated to build it. These are, however, all descriptive observations. How can we use this in a prescriptive manner?
Build team commitment at low time criticality, rely on it at high time criticality
In a typical project, there is comparatively more time at the start. It is also a fair assumption that a cohesive team will allow a higher degree of fluctuation in working methods and leadership style than a less cohesive team. Which leads to the obvious suggestion: periods of low time criticality should be used to build team commitment through a delegating leadership style, giving the team a high degree of responsibility.
Using the start of the project for team building, including using social activities and joint decision making, will help ensure team commitment and a feeling of ownership of project outcomes. A team committed to outcome quality will be more successful. The challenge for the leader is to be mature enough to reach out to the team members, and trust their judgment and expertise enough to let them trust the leader back.
Here are five tips to getting the most out of your project team:
Involve the team in planning and scoping through a “delegating” leadership style.
Plan team-building activities in the first day(s) of the project.
Do a “hot wash-up” after each milestone, determining as a team what went well and what could be better, including your own performance.
Be very open about the fact that you will be more commanding at crunch time and that this is simply a reflection of time criticality.
Be honest and allow every team member to be honest toward you.
A leader needs a variety of tools to master different situations, and understanding how time criticality impacts your leadership style adds to your toolbox.
Stian Lofstad is director of insight and strategy at Oracle, specializing in data center technologies.