Telling The Truth About Project Leadership

A regional claim center of a major insurance company was in big trouble. It’s customer service rating was a miserable 58%, entirely unacceptable. A senior manager was brought in to lead a critical turnaround project.

After experiencing a Leadership workshop, the approach he took was very simple, so simple that he attracted lots of naysayers, lots of pushback from all directions within the organization.

Eighteen months later, his simple approach to project leadership had taken their customer service rating all the way to 93%. That regional claim center became the customer service benchmark for the rest of the company.

How well a manager provides project leadership will determine whether the people factor is a divider or multiplier of project team performance. If the leader is effective in dealing with the soft, people issues, the performance of the project team is multiplied. If not, the people factor is divided, and project performance nosedives.

The key to successful project leadership and successful projects is to bring out the best in people. Unleash their potential and focus the resulting energy, creativity, spirit, buy-in, passion, talent, enthusiasm, etc. on accomplishing our project objectives. It is not an exaggeration to say that project leadership is mission critical!

With so much riding on the skills of the project leader, it’s not surprising that innumerable complex leadership theories have made their way into the business world. Leadership has gotten a reputation as a complex, mystical, ethereal, maybe even touchy-feely talent that we can’t quite wrap our arms around or demonstrate routinely. Everyone knows it is important, but many might not know how to do it.

Most managers have become experts in the hard parts of their jobs through training, education and practice. The same cannot be said for the soft parts of those jobs. In general, managers and executives don’t have nearly the experience or the education to cultivate sound practices in dealing with the soft, people issues. So, the challenges of leadership can look more complex than they really are.

It’s much more effective to simplify the way in which leadership issues are viewed and approached. Most of life’s complex challenges are tackled by distilling them down to their simplest forms. Even cleaning out the garage is overwhelming (at least at our houses!) unless it’s reduced to a series of simple tasks!

The power of simplicity
Complex solutions are rarely executed successfully, except on television. A number of years ago there was a series of TV commercials that featured basketball greats Larry Bird and Michael Jordan having an amazing shoot out in which they each tried to trump the other’s best shot.

The dialogue that laid out the shot always went something like, “Off the ceiling, around the pole, over the car, through the window, nothing but net.” The player would then nail the shot perfectly as described. In real life, the margin of error in those shots is so infinitesimal that it would be impossible to succeed. The slightest miscalculation would mean a colossal air ball. Yet, project managers often choose complex solutions with long odds instead of effective, albeit simple, effective methods of leadership.

Former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, shed some light on the reason complexity is chosen over simplicity when, in an interview with The Harvard Business Review, he said, “Insecure managers create complexity. …Real leaders don’t need clutter. …But it’s not easy. You can’t believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple. They worry that if they’re simple, people will think they’re simple-minded. In reality, of course, it is just the opposite. Clear, tough-minded people are the most simple.”

Like a trick shot, a complex solution is almost guaranteed to be difficult. A simple solution might not be easy, but at least it has a chance of succeeding.

Experience suggests the simpler the better.

Complexity is best reserved for those competitions in which “degree of difficulty” has a weighted impact in judging who gets the gold medal!

While many aspects of project leadership can be very complex, there are always ways to simplify them. Successful executives are beginning to recognize the power of simplicity. John Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer, said, “Everything we have learned in the industrial age has tended to create more and more complication. I think that more and more people are learning that you have to simplify, not complicate. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

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