Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 2

Why Projects Succeed is a blog series in which Slalom Business Architect Roger Kastner sheds light on key factors behind the art and science of successful project management and invites readers to discuss how they apply across different environments.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Slalom Consultant Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects

Welcome to the second in a four-part series on Project Leadership. The intent of the series to help evangelize the notion that individuals who find themselves in a Project Manager position have two choices they can make: they can either “manage” in Sisyphean fashion and push that stone uphill in attempt to hit on-time and on-budget, or they can “inspire” the team to produce something of value that they all can be proud of. Leaders pull people, managers push. As individuals, we naturally resist when pushed, yet we flow toward those things that pull us, such as Mexican food, beer, and greatness (maybe I shouldn’t be writing at dinner time).

In my last post, I introduced my first three principles of Project Leadership, and as a quick recap, those were:

  1. Advocating a Vision–Providing clarity of goals that are compelling to the team, especially when the direction is unclear, is a key function of leadership primarily because no one else is doing this.
  2. Setting Expectations–For Individuals to be successfully contributing to the team goal, and to fairly be held accountable, need to be provided clear expectations, understand the limits of those expectations, and be aware of the support available for them to deliver on the expectations of them.
  3. Building Trust–Trust is the lifeblood of healthy teamwork and positive, fulfilling relationships that result in a level of efficiency and productivity only experienced by great teams.

Now, let’s jump back into it with the last three principles.

4. Fostering Joint Accountability
At a large, matrixed company where I once worked, whenever I heard the phrase “shared accountability” my mind translated it into “no accountability.” In my experience up to that point, whenever something went wrong, regardless of the amount of finger-pointing and flame emails written in ALL CAPs, I never saw any individual truly held accountable. (Actually, the joke was: the bigger the failure, the more likely the person would be promoted.)

Fast forward a couple of years. While reading The Oz Principle by Roger Connors and Tom Smith I came across a new definition of “joint accountability” that still really resonates with me. Simply put, Mr. Connors and Mr. Smith define the line of accountability. In order to create a culture of joint accountability a leader defines personal accountability as follows: when a problem occurs, every team member must ask themselves two questions:

  1. What did I do to help contribute to the problem?
  2. What can we do to move toward desired results?

With that as the framework, whenever something has gone wrong, anytime anyone is doing anything other than asking those two questions they are not acting with personal accountability.

Fostering joint accountability means informing others when they are not acting with accountability. Instead of yelling at someone when they didn’t do what they agreed to do, to which they most likely respond defensively by making excuses for not getting it done, you just have to remind them that they are not acting with accountability. By helping the individual re-focus on those two important questions, “how did I contribute?” and “what can we do to move forward?”, the leader will cultivate a culture of joint accountability and ultimately help the team be more proactive and constructive.

Embracing the concept of joint accountability reflects a reality on projects that, most of the time, tasks and deliverables are dependent on inputs and those inputs are provided by someone else. Even though on Projects, if following good practices, we’ll create RACI charts to highlight who is accountable and who is responsible for performing the work, we’ll assign ownership to tasks and issues, and we’ll throw around the concept of “single throat to choke” (a sort of an homage to a more draconian style of accountability). Although the focus is trying to get to single accountability, rarely are tasks so independent that anyone truly “owns” something. Between inputs and outputs, handoffs, poor communication, lack of thorough planning, and Garbage-In/Garbage Out realities, we are too interdependent in project environments for any one individual to be truly an owner and fully, independently accountable.

As Project Leaders who will run into issues frequently on projects as a standard practice we should demonstrate our own personal accountability by asking those two questions of ourselves publicly. To foster joint accountability we should remind others who slip “below the line” to act with accountability.

When individuals on a team hold each other jointly accountable in a positive way, behavioral changes occur that strengthen the team dynamic and increase productivity, rather than tear the team down in a defensive game of blamestorming.

5. Giving Recognition
In the first post on Project Leadership Principles, I wrote that in order to articulate a vision—that compelling story that connects the individual to the objective—a leader must understand the interests of the individuals. In The Carrot Principle, authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton suggest that leaders who are able to connect individual interests and accomplishments with the project objectives and provide immediate acknowledgement of the achievement will greatly accelerate productivity and performance amongst the team. I have seen this performed by a few leaders in my past where individuals who are praised for their contributions to the team’s and their own goals will accelerate their own performance and hold themselves to a higher standard of accountability than before. It made me a believer that by doing so a leader will create a focus on mutually beneficial relationships while driving the best from each team member.

Let me give you two personal examples where recognition has either a negative or positive effect:

  • I can do the dishes at home extremely efficiently. No full sink takes me longer than 10 minutes to clean and stack. But let’s be clear: dishes are not one of my interests. In fact I hate doing dishes. While it’s important to us as a family to have a clean home, whenever my wife praises me for doing the dishes, my response is “Meh.”
  • Something else I’m good at: I can take complex subjects and scenarios, break them down into digestible concepts and frameworks, present them back to audiences at different levels and create new degrees of understanding. I love doing this. When my client or boss tells me I did a great job at a presentation, I’m floating for a week.

See the difference? In the first example, with recognition I’m not more excited about doing dishes and I am not any more likely to volunteer to perform better at this task, in fact, I’m now fearful that I might be assigned this task more often. In the second example, I can’t wait for my client or boss to give me more work and more opportunities to do this again.

As a Project Leader, if you want the best from the individuals on your team, you need to find out what excites them, catch them doing that and doing it well, and then recognize them for that contribution. It will fuel the fire for greater achievements.

6. Embracing Change
Leaders are there to either to reinforce a prior change or to drive a team to a new reality. In order to achieve either, a leader not only needs to advocate the vision for change, but also needs to know how to execute the change, which will usually be more successful when using a proven framework and tools for producing change in individuals, teams, processes, and systems.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” –Machiavelli

But change comes hard. And like anything in life, it comes down to attitude and approach. There are two types of change a leader must embrace: desired change and unplanned change.

Unplanned Change. I’ve never met a Project Manager who didn’t have something knock their project sideways. Unplanned change is why every project should have a Change Management plan. From an approach standpoint, this is why Project Leaders ensure baselines and control thresholds are developed: in order to identify when changes have occurred, and then have a framework for knowing what to do with change once it has occurred. A leader’s attitude towards change should be expectant and flexible for tactics, but unyielding for the objectives. All leaders should have a tolerance for change, and resistance is futile.

Desired Change. Well, that’s the name of the game. Project Leaders should know that the discipline of Organization Change Management is all about “softening the target,” meaning that the change a project intends to achieve will impact a target audience, and project efforts will be much more successful if that target audience is actively prepared for the change prior to the change occurring.

Leaders who have “greatness thrust upon them” did not hit the Leadership Lottery. They did their prep work. They set clear expectations, built trust, and fostered accountability. They embraced rather than ran from change. And they first and foremost provided a clear and compelling vision that drives all the leadership principles discussed in this post.

In the third and fourth posts in this series, I will outline two approaches that good Project Managers should adopt in order to become great Project Leaders. The intent is to provide the approach for making these principles actionable and helping our good Project Managers on their way to inspiring their teams.

What do you think?
I would love to hear what you think about the principles of Project Leadership and whether you agree—or not—about its significance for successfully managing projects. Additionally, if you have any tips or tricks you want to share, please join the conversation and post a comment.

Slalom Consulting’s Seattle office Slalom Consulting's Project & Program Management focus
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About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

8 Responses to Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 2

  1. Rod Mann says:

    Great point on positive and negative recognition and the important of really knowing your team members.

    • Roger Kastner says:

      Thanks for the comment, Rod. Great thing about doing recognition well is that it has a corresponding impact on accountability (the flip side of recognition). People are more likely to hold themselves accountable when they see that you praise them for the good stuff they do. Want people to be more accountable, praise them when they contribute to something they care about.

      Thanks again,

  2. Jeff Stroum says:

    Roger – great points on the joint accountability. Your previous employer is not the only one to share that joke. I have found the greatest leaders, whether they were project leaders or even department leaders, always held themselves accountable. And furthermore, they publicly announced how they personally would rectify the issue at hand – truly demonstrating accountability – part of the leadership skills that set those individuals apart from “good” leaders.

    On the topic of project change – planned vs desired. I agree in having a change mgmt structure is necessary. Having a published risk mitigation plan will “soften the target” as well. The possible causes for changes are then understood in addition to how the changes will affect the project as a whole.

    • Roger Kastner says:

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for your comment. Two thoughts that come to mind for me:
      1) By publicly announcing that one will resolve an issue, and then doing so not only builds accountability but also trust. And you only follow those who you trust. So if you announce a commitment, your leadership position is on the line.
      2) There are neuroscience explanations for why changes and risks are perceived as bad or negative. The amygdala and the reptilian parts of your brain have a chemical reaction to both. So that is why it’s so important for leaders to explicitly state and reinforce why it’s necessary to embrace, discuss, and actively plan and manage them.

      Again, thanks for your comment.


  3. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 3–Becoming a Project Leader vol 1 « The Slalom Blog

  4. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 4–Becoming a Project Leader vol 2 « The Slalom Blog

  5. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 1 « The Slalom Blog

  6. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed: Transformation Initiatives Facing Healthcare Organizations « The Slalom Blog

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