The ability to identify, articulate and share a clear vision for the project is one of the key ingredients to project success. The reality however is that many projects aren’t strategically aligned. They are tactical and are lead by an execution-oriented project manager who may not feel that setting or communicating the vision is part of their responsibility. Let’s examine the most common roadblocks to leading with vision and how to overcome them.
There is an on-going debate in project management circles whether the project manager needs to have subject matter expertise in order to run a project successfully.
Some argue that project management is a transferrable skillset and that as long as the project manager understands that skillset he or she will be able to operate effectively in any industry.
My view is that when we’re dealing with small and low-complexity projects that may be true. But for larger strategic and much more complex projects it’s a different story.
In those cases we need a strong and experienced project manager who can face off to senior stakeholders and have meaningful and strategic conversations with them. If the project manager doesn’t understand the business context of the project they will have difficulties extracting and validating the needs behind the project.
It will also be much harder to challenge the team, asking the right questions, making decisions and effectively leading the project.
To overcome this roadblock, project managers need to spend time immersing themselves in the subject matter.
Spend time with end users and operational staff understanding key business processes, the current operational state and the future state after the planned changes have been implemented.
Although the project manager doesn’t own the project’s vision it’s important that they understand it and can see how the projects’ outputs are aligned to it.
If the project manager is new in the industry they can find support in a good business analyst, but in essence the project manager will need to acquire the most essential business knowledge themselves if they are to lead with vision.
The second roadblock isn’t so much about the project manager’s subject matter expertise – it’s about their leadership skills and lack of confidence and gravitas.
Many project managers feel inferior compared to the stakeholders they face off to and may suffer from imposter syndrome, having doubts about their accomplishments and a fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
With that inner feeling the project manager is bound to minimize themselves and will fail to step up and engage with the client at a strategic level. They will hold themselves back asking important and challenging questions about the business case and the project’s purpose and vision. Instead they will focus on the familiar, the technical details, the planning and managing the team.
To overcome this roadblock project managers should work on their beliefs about themselves as a leader.
What do they believe they are lacking? What is it that makes them feel inferior and unable to see the client as an equal partner? They need to really ponder this question and meditate on it until they feel an inner glow and a sense of worthiness as a person and leader.
To accelerate the process they can work with a coach who can help them strengthen their self-belief. They can also ask the team for feedback about the things they are doing well and should continue to do.
Receiving positive feedback can be a big boost for someone who lacks confidence. Another tip is to create a personal goal map where they identify the kind of leader they would like to become, what this means to them and the steps they need to take in order to become that leader.
The third roadblock is related to situations where the project manager understands the vision and the strategic objectives of the project but fails to share it with the team.
This may happen either because the project manager is unaware of the importance of leading with vision or because they feel it’s not important to the team. But the team needs a strong project manager who can unite them around a common goal and share with them why the project is important.
Team members are motivated by the desire to contribute to a vision that’s larger than themselves and that has meaning and purpose. A purposeful project could be implementing an IT system that provides a better level of service to it’s users as part of a modernisation strategy or it could be the production of consumer goods that are more cost effective and safe to use for the end consumer.
To overcome this roadblock stakeholders and team members need to give feedback to the project manager and encourage them to inspire the team by sharing an appealing vision and the purpose for the project. They can also help the project manager out by holding joint meetings with the team where, together, they discuss the vision and the bigger picture behind the project.
If the project manager struggles to be inspiring in front of the team they can practice with an elevator pitch at home. This exercise is essentially about imagining that they are in an elevator with a candidate who is considering joining the project. The project manager has 30 seconds to tell the candidate why they should join. It’s about conveying what the project is all about and in which ways it will be appealing to this new member of the team. The trick is to focus on the benefits of the project rather than its features.
The three roadblocks above are mostly within the project manager’s control to do something about. The fourth roadblock is slightly different, because although the project manager can influence it, they don’t have full control over it.
This last roadblock is related to the fact that some projects don’t have a clear vision. The sponsors and managers who initiated the project haven’t thought the initiative or the business case through. They think they want something but it’s unclear to the project manager and the team in which ways it will serve a greater purpose for the organisation.
Without a clear vision there is bound to be a misalignment between the project’s tangible outputs and the business benefits that the sponsors are expecting.
To overcome this roadblock project managers need to make use of their business acumen and leadership skills to escalate the issue within the organisation.
No project manager should be executing a project without a clear purpose or business case. Even tactical projects have a purpose. It’s important that the project manager speaks the truth and voices his concerns, albeit in a diplomatic way. They must highlight the need for a strong and committed project sponsor and spend time with that sponsor working through the business case.
If there is no viable business case perhaps the project shouldn’t be executed at all.