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Learning to Lead in the Project-focused World
By Art Petty

The rise of “the project” as an important means of competing and creating value has profound implications for those in leadership roles. Unfortunately, in many cases, the evolution in leadership practices has not kept pace with the needs of project teams or the needs of organizations struggling to develop competence at executing on projects.

Our traditional models of leadership emphasize the development of skills and practices that focus on individuals and teams generally operating under the umbrella of a single functional leader. However, firms moving towards a project-focused culture tend to start by overlaying a matrix form project management structure on top of the traditional functional orientation. This new and non-traditional environment offers a host of new problems and challenges for leaders used to being masters of their own domains.

As a sidebar, while the project management discipline is well established and the role of the formal project manager is growing in importance and popularity, both my own anecdotal evidence and the many reports and studies on project performance indicate that we’ve not yet cracked the code on managing projects for success. In my work as a consultant and as a project management educator at the graduate level, I have few qualms in suggesting that the majority of the organizations that attempt what I’ve described above…imposing a matrix format on a functional orientation, struggle and flounder with their projects. Leadership or the lack of appropriate leadership support is a key issue in project failure.

8 Suggestions for Leading and Succeeding Inside the Project Matrix

  1. First, recognize that the rules of the game have changed. Your mission is no longer about optimizing results within your functional boundaries. Your emphasis is on providing resources and support for teams that aren’t yours.
  2. You enhance your position by supplying the strongest possible talent for work on project teams, not by hoarding this talent for your own purposes. Pony up.

  3. Your talent development efforts must now incorporate the development of skills and experience working within the matrix. Translation: you need to help teach and develop individuals that are comfortable and competent working on multiple initiatives for multiple teams.

  4. From time to time, complex project challenges will require your functional area’s direct support for resolution. This is a time for you and your colleagues to shine. Run, don’t walk and offer your help.

  5. Be aware of fluctuations and perturbations in the matrix. The brunt of the stress and complexity falls on the people doing the work. Communication, problem-solving, negotiation and prioritization are all complex in a matrix environment, and you can help by stepping in and facilitating solution development. Your efforts to reduce stress and complexity will pay off in the form of increased team performance and improved project execution.

  6. Hug a project manager today. OK, maybe not literally, but it’s a great practice to reach out and cultivate a relationship with your firm’s project managers. These busy individuals are at the epicenter of a firm’s key initiatives and have a unique view on the challenges, opportunities and the organization’s talent pool. Plus, develop a good reputation for supporting the project managers and this will pay dividends when you are looking for support for initiatives that impact your area of responsibility.

  7. Leverage the emerging project environment to expand your reach and grow your career. Top management is looking for leaders that understand how to help make things happen in an increasingly complex and hostile global marketplace. Your active involvement and contribution to project team success will highlight that you’ve moved beyond yesterday’s approaches to leading.

  8. Master the role of project sponsor. If you are at the level where you are eligible to serve as a project sponsor, sign-on and do everything possible to help the project succeed. Don’t make the common mistake of viewing this role as a token or honorary position. Good sponsors work hard to support their project teams. And don’t forget the Kevlar vest for others outside your project team that will have plenty of reason to take aim should things go wrong. This is the time when great sponsors shine.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Never turn down an opportunity to enhance your leadership skills. The increasingly important project-orientation of organizations offers a myriad of opportunities for you to develop new skills and try on new approaches. You can remain stubborn and insist on leading from a functional view-point, but in this case, your view might just be from the back of the unemployment line. It’s time to enter the matrix.

Art Petty is a 25+ year experienced marketing and sales executive in business intelligence software, retail automation, life-safety and building automation markets.

Over his many years of leading and building businesses into market leaders, Petty is most proud of the many great professionals that have graced his teams and have gone on to tremendous careers and accomplishments of their own.

Petty’s runs Strategy & Management Innovations, LLC, a management consulting firm serving Business to Business and Technology organizations. He also maintains a professional blog: Art Petty on Management.

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