I was asked a very unique question by one of the learners in a project management course I taught this week: "How do I motivate my team members when even I don't believe in the project?".
While I'd been posed this question for the first time, it is not an uncommon challenge. It is hard enough for project managers who are in full support of their projects to inspire disengaged team members so having to do so when the project managers themselves don't feel the projects are worth doing is much worse.
Start by confirming the issue does not rest with you. Are you experiencing some general malaise with the company, your role, or some other personal cause which has nothing to do with the project? If so, deal with that first, or recuse yourself if you have the option to do so until you can deal with your personal issues.
Assuming the challenge is with the project and not you, how do you go about addressing this?
You can't just grin and bear it. If you don't really believe in the benefits from the project, it will be hard for you to create a genuine sense of purpose for your team members. Worse, if you try to fake it, your team members will pick up on this and you will lose credibility with them which will hurt you much more if you have to work with them on future projects.
Make sure you understand the underlying business rationale for the project. Whether there is a financial motive or not to the project's existence, is there something you are missing with regards to its expected benefits? If you have a good relationship with sponsoring stakeholders, meet with them to ensure you have the full picture. Ask your peers if they can see something which you don't.
If it is a non-discretionary project, ask yourself why you don't believe it needs to be done? We always want to lead disruptive, innovative, sexy projects but just because you are working on a mandatory project doesn't mean that your team members can't express their creativity, especially in coming up with lean solutions to the minimal requirements. With such projects it is often a question of re-framing how you perceive them. By keeping your organization safe, you are improving its brand, reducing risk and opportunity costs.
What if it is a discretionary project? Even if it is not improving profitability or solving world hunger, is there any benefit which justifies the investment? Even if the answer is "no", could there be an intangible reason for it such as a promise made to a critical stakeholder which, if broken, would cost a lot more to address in the future? If so, why wouldn't you want to support it?
But sometimes the project you are leading truly has no merit. If so, this is the time to use your powers of influence and persuasion to convince the sponsor, governance committees and other decision makers to do the right thing. And if they don't, you have a tough personal decision to make.
If you are asked to lead a project and don't want to, always start with why.