What is the difference between management and leadership? Alert reader Luis Branco suggested this question in a comment to an article I wrote and it is a good question to ponder. In my experience there is less a binary definition than a continuum. On one extreme there is being a beacon for people to follow as they struggle through a dark, uncertain period to get to a brighter future. On the other extreme is driving efficient task management.
In this post and my previous article on "leading questions", I focus more on the leadership side for common situations in the PM world where skills should be built up. It may be a while before you are able to be an executive communicator, but you do have opportunities now to rise above common project management task wrangling and do leadership-side preparation and communications. If you are a newer project manager, this type of leadership skill can help you move into more complex projects and be recognized as a more advanced project manager. Many of us have done the same. If you have more experience, but need more focus to improve, there are tactics below to help.
Know Your Targets: Project Team
For your leadership-side communications to your project team members, you need to help them prepare for the future (medium-term to long-term), to understand the environment in which they work, and to see the larger context of their efforts. This context is beyond managing to a task list, no matter how sophisticated it is. Note also how this communication is parallel to an executive providing the context of the marketplace and "direction" for the organization.
Ask yourself these "leading questions". Add more questions for your situation. Not all questions are relevant to all situations, but you should have at the ready a broad list to make sure you to stay ahead of emerging problems with your communications and actions.
- Work Environment . . . Is there a work environment situation that may effect your team's ability to complete work? Is there a business context documented in the business case that affects how to surmount obstacles? Are stakeholders involved in conflicting work? Has the sponsor apprised of a conflicting business initiative? Is there a big change required by the team, such as a new methodology like agile, a brand new team or a new type of complex project? How do tactics for succeeding at the next phase follow new guidance or priorities from the organization or enterprise?
- Risks/Issues /Challenges . . . What are the new risks or issues to be addressed? Has the project team been involved in looking for risks? What did the project team identify? Who is affected? How must they be involved? How best to communicate to the effected?
- Preparation for Resolution . . . What are the next decisions to be made so that the project team can progress? What information is needed? What type of session is needed to bring participants to agreement? How is the project team best involved in preparation for resolution? How do any resolution decisions need to be communicated? Who gets the communication? When are the next meetings where communications must be made? Who needs to attend? What are their interests? How can these interests be addressed in preparation for the meeting? What information needs to be collected to resolve the issue(s)? What questions need to be asked at the meeting? How does resolution need to fit in with the business case?
- For any of the above categories, what needs to be said to motivate the project team to be successful? How do you say it? When do you say it (at what meeting)? What can you say to help them identify specific risks in this area?
Now apply the questioning technique to a particular example:
Situation: Your project is approaching the design phase. You ask leading questions of yourself (#1 and #2) and determine that there is a risk from some key stakeholders not receiving recent leadership communication of organizational priority on customer-centric design. Alternately, if they did receive the recent communication, they may not agree with the ramifications. As a consequence, these stakeholders may not make themselves available for the amount of time needed in work sessions to understand the design and give feedback to improve its effectiveness with customers.
- Prepare messages to communicate need for stakeholder availability based on organizational leadership initiatives.
- Determine which communication vehicles should be used.
- Determine which meetings should be used to communicate this message and obtain feedback.
- Involve your project team to come up with ideas to meet this challenge. For example, the project team should come up with ideas to communicate through a variety of methods the need for availability in design work sessions. The team can also identify stakeholders who are pushing back on new design priorities or who have not received leadership communications about customer-centric design.
Notice how these tactics, built by asking leading questions, keep you ahead of the risks and engaging your project workforce to manage the situation in a more sophisticated manner. If you were only focused on project task management, you would run the risk of not starting to address the problem until much later and in a much less-effective reactive manner. Don't be that project manager.