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Project Leadership – The Art of Stepping Away From the Detail

Project Leadership

On small, tactical projects it’s not unusual for the project manager to double up and also be a team member who completes some of the team’s work and who makes detailed decisions. It can be a great way to utilize people’s skills, especially if the project doesn’t need a full-time project manager.

On large strategic projects, however, it’s a different story. Large projects require a project manager who is dedicated to steering the project and to leading the team – as opposed to doing the detailed work. Intellectually we know that this has to be true, but in reality, many project managers struggle to step away from the detail. As a result, they work overtime to stay in control and to get it all done. Ultimately it’s a losing game as there will never be enough hours in the day to cover all the details on a large project.

Why is it So Hard to Give Up Control?

Through my leadership work, I have come to recognise that people with certain traits and personality types find it particularly challenging to step away from the details. I have seen this with people who are task-oriented and who want work to be completed in the right way or who want it to be completed quickly.

Ambitious, driven and analytical managers often can’t resist the temptation to attend every meeting, to read every email and to be involved in the resolution of detailed issues. Especially technical project managers and subject matter experts feel that they need to know it all and do it all because it’s familiar territory to them.Project Leaders

But even non-technical project managers find it hard to let go. Many managers thrive when they are in control and their ego gets a boost when they are able to impact decisions and resolve issues. Wanting to be liked, validated and appreciated is human nature and many project professionals justify their role by putting their hands in as many pies as possible.

When they have spent the day putting out important fires on the project, it gives them a sense of instant gratification, which they don’t get from strategizing and engaging in long-term planning activities.

When We Hold Onto the Detail We Disempower the Team

Not surprisingly several issues arise when project managers are unable to let go of the detail. The first problem is that when the project manager is involved in detailed decision-making and issue-resolution, there will be a lot less time available to maintain the overview, to coach team members, to build relationships with stakeholders, to plan and to keep an eye on the commercial aspects, the vision and the business case.

If the project manager isn’t attending to these strategic aspects of the project, no one will.

The second issue is that managers who are too involved in the detail run the risk of becoming what Liz Wiseman refers to as Diminishers. A Diminisher is the stereotypical Know-It-All, who tells people what they know, how to do their jobs, and then test their knowledge to see if they are doing it right.

Diminishers have high standards, and a high level of knowledge, but they rarely share their knowledge in a way that invites contribution. Rather than shifting responsibility onto other people for finding solutions, Diminishers stay in charge and tell others – in detail – how to do their jobs.

Many Diminishers see themselves as thought leaders and think that they are doing the organization and their team a favour by driving the project forward through their involvement. But unfortunately, they don’t realise the restrictive impact they are having on others. Being a good leader is not about having the right answers nor is it about making all the decisions or solving all the problems.

Leadership is about unleashing other people’s potential and that’s only possible if the team is allowed to learn and experiment on their own. Working with a diminishing project manager is demotivating and disempowering.

Controlling Managers are Prone to Stress

The third problem is that project managers, who are too absorbed in the detail, are much more likely to burn their candle at both ends and to suffer from chronic stress. Wanting to be in control to the nth degree – and perhaps even to be praised for their heroic efforts – comes at a personal cost, which is unhealthy.Project Leadership Training

I recently spoke to a project manager who was so worried about his project failing, although it was still in the initiation phase, that he was working until midnight most evenings to validate decisions and to move the project forward. He acknowledged that he had a problem but blamed a lack of people to delegate to as the root cause.

It’s often easier to blame the constraints of our projects for our controlling behaviour, but the truth is that we need to look inside ourselves to find the root cause and to address it. Many leaders have successfully learnt to delegate and to empower others to run with the details in spite of aggressive deadlines and limited resources.

Learning to Delegate is a Necessity and a Sign of Strength

The first step is to acknowledge that the primary role of the project manager is to set the course and to empower the team to make the best possible decisions along the way, rather than making all the decisions for the team. This is particularly true in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment where it’s impossible for one person to know it all.

The project manager must build a reliance on a strong team who is comfortable operating in an ambiguous environment. Taking a step back from the detail is therefore not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength and shows that the project manager is comfortable giving up some of their power to the team.

The second step is to learn to delegate elegantly. Elegant delegation happens when the project manager delegates work which the team finds motivating and which it will grow from. Delegating a task or a decision to the team doesn’t mean that the project manager detaches himself and simply trusts that the task will be performed successfully.

The project manager is still involved in defining the task and in agreeing what a good outcome looks like. They guide and support the team member to use the right thinking patterns and approaches, thereby empowering them to own the detail. If something isn’t going to plan they will ask challenging questions and encourage the team to take responsibility and think harder. But they will not jump in and take back control or decide how the work should get done.

In summary, large strategic projects require a project manager who is dedicated to steering the project and leading the team as opposed to doing the detailed work. This is a challenge, especially for technical project managers and subject matter experts, who feel that they need to know it all and do it all.

If project managers don’t learn to step away from the detail they will disempower the team, become less able to navigate the project in a VUCA environment and they may ultimately suffer from burnout. Learning to delegate is not only possible, it’s highly necessary, and when done correctly it becomes a win-win situation for everyone involved.

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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