The origination of the phrase, "The best defense is a good offense," seems to be apocryphal, although it was originally attributed to the classic military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. In later years, Mao Zedong was quoted as saying, "The only real defense is active defense." Both are of similar meaning and imply that a proactive approach often achieves the best results. As a boy in the schoolyard, the adage simply meant that if you can run up more points offensively, you have accomplished the same thing as a focus on defense (And, scoring points is always more fun than blocking and tackling anyway, right?).
I have come to believe that the same is true for leading projects.
As many organizations turn to project-based work to improve productivity and get more work done, companies and departments that wouldn't traditionally have turned to projects are doing so. For the most part, I believe that this is a good thing, and the project management tools that have been successfully used for years have the potential to be very successfully adopted to other types of project work. What's more, I believe that skilled project leaders have real opportunities to not only impact the success of individual projects, but the chance to positively influence the profitability of their organizations by directing how projects are done as well as the types of projects that get executed.
With that in mind, let's consider the adage, "The best defense is a good offense" in terms of project-based work.
In my opinion, project leaders need to take a more proactive role in defining project success. I say this because many organizations don't know what they really need in terms of a successfully completed project. In fact, I believe this is one of the reasons so many project-based groups struggle with governance and scope issues. If the organization can't identify what they expect from a potential initiative, how can the project team be expected to hit the ambiguous target.
What's more, I predict that the need for proactive project leaders will only continue to increase, while those project professionals content to manage process alone will find their roles diminish. I say diminish because I believe that the foundational elements of strong project management are not going away any time soon, but the need for real project leadership is so apparent that organizations are looking for proactive people, willing to take a leadership role in how projects are chosen, how they are executed and how success is measured.
So, how does someone differentiate themself from the crowd?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Speak Up: Don't be afraid to voice your opinion. As an experienced project leader, your opinion has a lot of potential value. Don't be afraid to share your knowledge and experience if it will help drive successful outcomes. Don't confuse this with a mandate to become a nay-say-er—that, is never productive.
- Don't simply identify the problems, offer solutions: Over the years I've worked with many people who were able to identify what the problems were. "Ty, this is working...or Ty, that procedure is broken." They were some of the most annoying colleagues I've every had to work with. Identifying problems isn't a problem, unless that's all you do. "Ty, I've been thinking about 'this' particular issue, and suggest that 'this' could be a viable solution," takes you from the role of whiner to the role of problem-solver, which is where organizations look for leaders.
- Don't be afraid to mentor: Over the years I've worked with many senior members of the team who were willing to take me under their wing and mentor me. Most of them weren't my boss and didn't formally identify themselves as "mentors," they just offered me critical bits of information at crucial times in my career. Don't be afraid to be that person to younger and less experienced members of the team.
In the context of our discussion, I am convinced that a proactive approach to project leadership will do nothing but increase your value to the team, to the organization and elevate your role. Of course, there are organizations that won't respond to this type of proactive project leadership. If that's the case, it might be time to "offensively" look for one that does.