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Project Leadership – 5 Key Factors for Successful Execution

By Dennis McNulty, Senior Consultant, The Piras Group

Project Management Leadership Success

You’ve been asked to lead a project at work, and you are both excited and anxious about making sure the project is successful and can achieve it goals.  Leading a project is a lot different than just showing up to project meetings and competing assigned action items. And we probably all have been part of projects that started off strong, only to hit a wall, or get hopelessly off track somewhere along the way. 

So how do you get a new project off to a solid start, ensure progress throughout the project phases, and get the results needed?

I have led, or been part of, many complex projects in the engineering and technical world for over 30 years.  And I have found that when I’ve used the following 5-step framework with the project’s I have led, teams are more likely to work together and achieve the results we all are looking for.

1. Purpose:  The adage of “begin with the end in mind” remains a powerful way to start off your project to be sure you, and all the stakeholders, are aligned on the project purpose.  Too many project leaders jump right into the detailed planning without ensuring that the key sponsors, and those ultimately responsible for execution, agree on what success looks like in the end.  Investing in the time up front to make sure you, as the leader, your sponsors, and the project team are very clear about what you’re trying to achieve, what success looks, and how you’re going to be measured, is critical to success.

Clarity and alignment of purpose will also be a critical anchor for you when things begin to derail, or when team members begin to get off track and loose momentum.  When things begin to get hard, as they most likely will, going back to the project purpose and goals helps to keep the team on track and maintaining meaningful progress.

2. Baseline Plan:  Once you’re clear, and aligned, on the project purpose, you can then begin the important work of defining and building a solid baseline plan.   The term project baseline plan refers to the initial plan that is developed, and agreed to by the sponsors, to achieve the project objectives and schedule.  The baseline plan is where key work phases are defined, along with the associated tasks and resources needed to complete the project scope of work on schedule.

The critical component of completing the baseline project plan upfront is to reach agreement with the key sponsors on the work to be accomplished within the desired schedule.  The baseline plan will be the project leaders’ roadmap to managing progress and negotiating resources as changes in requirements and scope occur.

3. Engagement: It is through the project team that the real work gets done, and engagement with a project team is essential to successful execution throughout the project. Engaging the team at each phase of the project builds the level of commitment needed to work together towards a common purpose, and stay focused on what’s important during the multitude of distractions.

At the start of the project, the team will need to understand the work streams to be accomplished, and agree to their specific tasks and time spans to achieve the project goals.  And as the project unfolds, engaging the team with any changes in requirements, scope, or schedule will be critical to successful performance at each phase of the project. Engagement is what builds ownership, and ownership is what gets project teams through the challenges encountered along the way.

4. Accountability: As difficult as it sometimes is for people to embrace accountability, an accountable team is at the core of maintaining performance throughout the project.  Accountability is about behavior, it’s about making and meeting project commitments, and it’s about working for each other.  A leader’s role is to keep the project commitments visible to the team, and then to address issues head on as they arise. 

Project measurement is the critical accountability tool that the leader must use to keep teams on course.  It provides the method to keep track of meaningful progress, and for addressing issues as they arise. Along with keeping track of progress, measures should also be targeted to look out on the horizon for potential impacts to the baseline plan.  And at a minimum, keeping a weekly rhythm of project reviews will help to maintain accountability among the team and to track completion of critical milestones along the way.

5. Adjust for Results:  Leading a complex project is never easy, and no amount of upfront planning will prevent roadblocks or significant changes from happening to the project.  From changing requirements, increased sponsor demand, and team member challenges, a project leader will need agility and the ability to quickly adjust to the moving landscape. It will also take perseverance and focused vision to keep the team and project on track, and to be able to adjust the environment along the way.

Having a common purpose, completing solid baseline planning and engaging the team at each step will allow a leader to adjust real-time, and to achieve the results envisioned for the project.

Using the above framework for planning and leading your project will give you a solid roadmap to help start your project off right, to lead through the hard work of execution, and ultimately to celebrate success for you, your team and your organization.

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