Managing versus Leading a Project

Published Categorized as Project Management
managing versus leading
managing versus leading

I will begin with a brief discussion on managing versus leading a project. Then in a subsequent article I will move to tackle the importance of managing project stakeholders.

I couldn’t wait to be the manager of my own project and run the project the way I thought it should be done. Boy, did I have a lot to learn!
—first-time project manager

This article is based on the premise that one of the keys to being an effective project manager is building cooperative relationships among different groups of people to complete projects. Project success does not just depend on the performance of the project team. Success or failure often depends on the contributions of top management, functional managers, customers, suppliers, contractors, and others.

Managers require a broad influence base to be effective in this area. Different sources of influence are discussed and are used to describe how project managers build social capital. This management style necessitates constant interacting with different groups of people whom project managers depend on. Special attention is devoted to managing the critical relationship with top management and the importance of leading by example.

The importance of gaining cooperation in ways that build and sustain the trust of others is emphasized.

Also you can read about another related topic: identifying personal attributes associated with being an effective project manager.

Managing versus Leading a Project

In a perfect world, the project manager would simply implement the project plan and the project would be completed. The project manager would work with others to formulate a schedule, organize a project team, keep track of progress, and announce what needs to be done next, and then everyone would charge along. Of course no one lives in a perfect world, and rarely does everything go according to plan.

Project participants get testy; they fail to complement each other; other departments are unable to fulfill their commitments; technical glitches arise; work takes longer than expected.

The project manager’s job is to get the project back on track. A manager expedites certain activities; figures out ways to solve technical problems; serves as peacemaker when tensions rise; and makes appropriate trade-offs among time, cost, and scope of the project.

However, project managers do more than put out fires and keep the project on track. They also innovate and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. They often have to deviate from what was planned and introduce significant changes in the project scope and schedule to respond to unforeseen threats or opportunities.

For example, customers’ needs may change, requiring significant design changes midway through the project. Competitors may release new products that dictate crashing project deadlines. Working relationships among project participants may break requiring a reformulation of the project team. Ultimately, what was planned or expected in the beginning may be very different from what was by the end of the project.

Project managers are responsible for integrating assigned resources to complete the project according to plan. At the same time they need to initiate changes in plans and schedules as persistent problems make plans unworkable. In other words, managers want to keep the project going while making necessary adjustments along the way. According to Kotter these two different activities represent the battle: managing versus leading.

Management is about coping complexity, while leadership is about coping change.

Good management brings about order and stability by formulating plans and objectives, designing structures and procedures, monitoring results against plans, and taking corrective action when necessary. Leadership involves recognizing and articulating the need to significantly alter the direction and operation of the project, aligning people to the new direction, and motivating them to work together to overcome hurdles produced by the change and to realize new objectives.

Strong leadership, while usually desirable, is not always necessary to successfully complete a project. Well-defined projects that encounter no significant surprises require little leadership, as might be the case in constructing a conventional apartment building in which the project manager simply administrates the project plan. Conversely, the higher the degree of uncertainty encountered on a project— whether in terms of changes in project scope, technological stalemates, breakdowns in coordination between people, and so forth—the more leadership is required.

For example, strong leadership would be needed for a software development project in which the parameters are always changing to meet developments in the industry.

It takes a special person to perform both roles well. Some individuals are great visionaries who are good at exciting people about change. Too often though, these same people lack the discipline or patience to deal with the day-to-day drudgeries of managing.

Likewise, there are other individuals who are very well organized and methodical but lack the ability to inspire others. Strong leaders can compensate for their managerial weaknesses by having trusted assistants who oversee and manage the details of the project.

Conversely, a weak leader can complement his or her strengths by having assistants who are good at sensing the need to change and rallying project participants.

Still, one of the things that makes good project managers so valuable to an organization is that they have the ability to both manage and lead a project. In doing so they recognize the need to manage project interfaces and build a social network that allows them to find out what needs to be done and obtain the cooperation necessary to achieve it.

Image courtesy of Freepik

By Alex Puscasu

I am a Project Management practitioner with more than 5 years experience in hardware and software implementation projects. Also a bit of a geek and a great WordPress enthusiast. I hope you enjoy the content, and I encourage you to share your knowledge with the world.