I’d like to start off by pointing out this is not a true dichotomy. Project Management and Project Leadership are not exclusively on the same spectrum, but there are differences and placing them as opposites on the same spectrum can provide some insights into the discipline and our behavior.
Transactional vs Contextual
One of the ways I’ve seen the differences is in the way PMs conduct themselves at meetings. I’ve seen great people use meetings as control points where they’re focussed on accounting for the progress on a particular deliverable and only the progress. The dialogue usually includes something like “Tim, can you tell us the status of XYZ deliverable?” Moving around the room they’ll use a slightly different line with the next person “what’s the progress on EFG?” “When will this be ready to hand off?”
These are closed transactional questions that don’t lend themselves too much more information than could be achieved by a bar graph or spreadsheet. Why pull people into a meeting for a status you could get from a website?
In contrast I’ve worked with others who don’t directly focus on the progress of the deliverable, but instead will start with focusing on the person and their team. More than one time I’ve been a part of a meeting where a project leader will ask someone how it’s going and in the course of the response they’ll get a full status update as well as context that helps to understand the challenges that team faces. The style that only focuses on the status loses important context.
I’ve often said that Lean can be simplified into the sentence of “making work for the next person easier at the point of hand-off.” This is hard to do without a shared understanding among the team of the context the next person has to operate in. Shared context helps to make the work of the team visible it’s something leaders strive for and managers miss.
Our Reality’s History
Any time you see the word management written it’s probably referring to a definition widely influenced by Frederick Taylor. The industrial revolution moved work from disparate and disconnected environments and consolidated them in factories. Very quickly people who went from one generation working with a handful of others in agriculture found themselves working with hundreds of others.
This drastically changed the way the work force operated. It also mean that there was a large diversity in work ethics and work experiences. This was especially true in the United States when immigration meant not only a workforce new to the job, but new to the language and culture of their new country as well. Non standard processes and perspectives can lead to significant issues with production.
Frederick Taylor saw how these problems impacted the productivity of manufacturing and performed studies and wrote about the solutions he found. His book, The Principles of Scientific Management has been widely influential, but because of his generation it contains a few flaws that encourage transactional behavior.
Taylor’s model relies very heavily on class distinctions between Management and Workers. Managers get paid to think. Workers get paid to do. Ideas come from managers studying out the problems to improve progress along their measurements.
Can you see how this could lead to some issues? Firstly, the measurements of his era where the best they had, but are clearly wrong. Cost accounting’s flaws translate to a great deal of poor behavior and encourage waste in a system. If no good ideas could come from the employees then how valued do you think they will be and how will their sense of value improve their performance? One needs only read the story of the NUMMI Plant in Smarter, Faster, Better to see what a difference employee empowerment can make.
Taylor’s definition of management was highly influential during World War II when the term Project Management first appears in the literature. Today the heritage of Project Management is the transactional manager. PMI has made huge strides to address the issues this causes (there’s a whole section on resources now), but its literature isn’t quite divorced from the history of the transactional management style.
The history lesson and meeting observations are helpful to identify and understand the issue, but they’re not terribly prescriptive on how to move forward. Here’s some additional tips that can help improve the project’s performance and your stakeholder experience:
- Change your vocabulary. Use the work Project Leader instead of Project Manager. It’s amazing how powerful a word change can be.
- See the symptoms. If you’re frustrated then you’re managing, not leading. Leaders help the team through their trials.
- Practice listening. Get to the point where you’re comfortable being quiet and asking follow up questions that show you heard the person and you care about the challenges as they see them. “What are the obstacles you’re facing?”
- Help create the team. Leaders help members of a group feel like they’re part of a team. One of the best ways to encourage this is to provide positive reinforcement. Starting your team building by telling someone in a meeting they let the group down is not an ideal technique. Instead help the group see that the challenges of one person are group challenges and help that person with the challenges feel they’re not alone.
While it’s not true that Project Management and Project Leadership are opposites exaggerating the differences helps to illustrate that there are differences between the two. These differences are part of the heritage of the project management discipline being heavily influenced by Frederick Taylor’s scientific management. We’ve got some practical steps we can take now to change towards project leadership and to close the gap between the use of project management and project leadership in our actions and in our prose.
Of course, you could take another route and apply the techniques in The Art of Demotivation, or follow all the examples of Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss.