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Shifting from Project Management to Project Leadership

Leading Successful Projects

Organizational are facing complex challenges through an accelerating rate of change of external factors such as technology, demographics, government regulations, and global competition.  These rapid and spot changes put tremendous pressure on organizations to effectively respond. As a result, traditional structures for managing must allow an additional management form.  This emerging form is well suited to short term, unique demands of the external environment and is referred to as projects.  Projects deliver change. Project Leaders deliver projects.

How can it be that this emerging form of projects and project teams is in greater demand and is garnering attention by organizational leadership?  Projects have always existed. Some outstanding examples are the building of the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and the Mayan pyramids. These are considered some of the greatest projects in history.  The project managers of the above projects used simple tools. They did not have software programs to manage their projects. These projects also took a high toll on the well-being of the project workers. Yet these projects were completed and represent wonders of our world.

It is generally agreed that the beginning of project management as a discipline began in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the United States with the Polaris project. Over the subsequent decades, a group of dedicated project managers have been learning and improving project management methodology.  A community of practice emerged to create a Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Despite the dedication and significant improvements, project management did not gain common acceptance and utilization until recently. PMBOK was developed during a time that the basic assumption of good management was hierarchical, command and control.

At their best, organizations are learning communities. If this is so, managing the people side of projects is an essential part of learning and responding effectively to change. Classic project management has focused on the technical or tactical side of executing projects efficiently. Now, however, there is a need to build upon the technical side by adding a focus on the social reality of a project to effectively execute projects. The change the projects seek occurs when stakeholders (those with a stake or impacted) accept and support the change.

It is not an either/or but a both/and of project work. Projects have things that need to be managed (planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving) but people need to be led (providing vision, aligning, motivating, inspiring). Management without leadership is as bad as leadership without management.[1] Both are needed. This balanced Socio-Technical focus produces successful projects and high performance organization cultures.

The purpose of this paper is to provide language, understanding, and approaches for the technical side of projects (project management) and then add project leadership. In this way, both the technical and social/people aspects of executing a project have focus.  


In organizations today, there are many types of projects with endless possibilities.  A project can be

         Developing a new product or service

         Designing and implementing a new process

         Developing a brand image or marketing plan.

         Redesigning an organization structure

According to Lewis (1995:2) a project is: “a one-time job that has definite starting and ending points, clearly defined objectives, scope and (usually) a budget.”  What differentiates a project from an ongoing processes such as delivering a product or service is that projects are considered temporary, unique (non-repetitive) and specifically addresses a need to change. Ongoing processes are long term, repetitive, and require consistency of approach. Operations and projects do share some characteristics.  They are both performed by people, constrained by limited resources, and should be planned, executed and controlled (PMI, 2000:4-5).

A good way to understand project work or management is to compare it to what it is not. 



An approach for change

Business as usual

Temporary – clear start and stop



Maintaining Status quo

An opportunity for development, visibility

Expected of one’s role, committee work

New, different, innovative

Routine, consistent, desiring control

Aligning & coordinating people and work towards a goal

Scheduling on project management software

Table 1


Project Management 101

A project manager balances competing demands for Scope, Time (Schedule), and Resources (people, money) which is conceptualized as the triple constraints model. The challenge provides rapid development of management skills so it provides a training ground for high potential employees.

Project management calls for the creation of a small organizational structure – the project team. This project team is often cross- functional and a microcosm of the larger organization (Heerkins, 2000).  One of the most important roles of a project manager is to build a high performing team from a group of people that may have never worked together and could have potentially worked against one another.

The traditional (PMBOK) project management process has five phases: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling, and Closing.

The Initiating phase of project management includes examining the need for a proposed project and gaining clarity and commitment. During the Initiating stage, a champion should be identified. The project’s case for action, purpose, and outcome should be developed. A project manager and project team should be identified. An effective tool for this phase is a project charter.

The Planning phase devises and revises a workable scheme to accomplish the project’s intended goals and outcomes. In the Planning stage, the project’s roles, milestones, deliverables, tasks, and resources required are identified. A schedule, budget and critical path of tasks are developed.  A Gantt chart is a simple tool that provides a graphic display of schedule related information.

The Executing phase coordinates people and other resources to carry out the plan as defined in the project plan. This stage is uses key project measures to manage change and take corrective action as needed. This phase involves working within a budget, making sure tools are in place, dealing with problems that may arise, keeping stakeholders (such as customers, clients, and executives) informed of the project’s progress.

The Controlling stage provides feedback by monitoring and tracking progress to agreed upon measures (scorecard). Execution may be altered if the feedback indicates that the project is off track.

The Closing stage includes final details for completing a project and obtains acceptance from key stakeholders. Closing ideally includes conducting a lessons learned and shares best practices. The final project plan, lessons learned, and other key documentation should be archived for knowledge sharing purposes (Graham, 1989).

Adding Project Leadership-201

Traditional project management has focused on the Technical (execution) side of projects. There has been little focus on the people - project performers and stakeholder relationships. The lack of focus on the well being of the project performers resulted in the loss of body, mind, heart, or spirit. This could be as extreme as death (e.g. pyramids, Great Wall) or stress related ailments. Stakeholders were informed of the project changes but not engaged in helping to understand and develop the details of sustaining the change. Communication meant more telling than listening. In today’s knowledge age, the whole person and relationships matter.

People matter because they are most important component for responsiveness and achievement of project goals. Unlike scope, schedule and other resources, people are best led not managed. When project performers and stakeholders understand, are aligned, and motivated, the project change moves from a proposal to reality. The alignment is accomplished through relationships. Relationships are created and evidenced by conversations/communication. A relationship can be defined by the last five conversations that shaped it so communication is critical.  Relationships matter because a relationship is where commitments are created.

The need to increase the focus on the Social side of the projects has led to new definitions of project management. Hal Macomber (2004) redefines projects as:

“A project is a single-purpose network of commitments performed by a temporary social system. Unlike recurring business processes, the network of commitments on a project emerges rather than is designed and refined as performers gain experience in the network.”

With the shift of some focus to the social side of the project, the role of the project manager must add the role of a project leader. All of the previous technical aspects of running a project cannot be lost. What is lost is the command and control assumption of the project manager position. The project manager/leader role holds a hierarchical relationship but the project manager/leader operates as a servant leader to align and coordinate the project team to deliver on commitments. At this point, project leader is defined to include both project management and leadership and operates to:

1. Create the necessary conversations to make collective sense (sensemanaging) of the project to provide clarity of purpose, outcomes, process, and coordinated roles.

2. Understand, align, and coordinate the individual and group dynamics of the project performers. Attending to the individual and team means a project leader must optimize the following:

          Mindsets, assumptions, and other cultural impacts

          Background, experience, and skills

          Development needs and ambitions

          Engagement and involvement levels

          Commitments and accountabilities

3. Stay focused on the vision and continually adjust to move toward that vision. Change and response is inherent in a project. A project leader facilitates ongoing conversations to make collective sense of changes while keeping the team connected and committed to effectively achieving the goals of the project.

Project leaders have a challenging role to connect the social side and the technical/task side of project work. The key to connection is conversation that reveals the context and content of the project. The following is a model that depicts the complexity of a project leader’s role.

A project leader balances the contexts of nested systems (external environment, the enterprise, the Strategic Business Unit (SBU) the functional department, stakeholders, to the project itself). Within the project, a project leader must deal with the whole person who has different mindsets, assumptions, culture, backgrounds, experiences, and skills. A project leader must sensemanage to create a collective mindset. A project leader must focus on the development of each member of the project team while creating a high performance team. This entails relationships and a web of inclusion. All of this is accomplished utilizing the basic tool of conversation.[2]

Steps to Next Level

An organization is effective and sustainable when is it successful at responding to change. For an organization to appropriately respond to change, the leadership needs to identify projects and utilize project leadership to achieve needed changes. The project leader should be an individual capable of balancing and integrating the social and technical side of project work. This project leader should be able to effectively deal with context and content and efficiently execute following a project leadership process. This involves project management, change management, communications, developing project team members, connecting with stakeholders, and coordinating commitments and accountabilities. Clearly project leaders need to appreciate the complexities, challenges, and opportunities inherent to their work of creating change capable, high performance project teams.



Gina Hinrichs, Ph.D. hinrichs@geneseo.net



Discussion / Sensemaking:

          Why is there a greater demand for project leadership in today’s business environment? What are the competencies of a project leader?

          How would you define project management?

          How would you explain the difference between a project manager and a project leader?

o        What would you put in an IS/IS NOT table?

          How would you connect the five phases of Project Management (PMBOK) to the six phases of Project Leadership?



Dobson, M.S. (2003). Streetwise Project Management, How to Manage People. Processes and Time to Achieve the Results You Need. Avon, MA.: Adams Media Corporation.

Graham, R.J. (1989). Project Management as if People Mattered. Primavera Press.

Heerkins (2000). Project Management: 24 Lessons to Help You Master Any Project

Kotter, J.P. (1990).  A Force for Change: How leadership differs from management. New York: The Free Press.

Macomber, H. (2004). Reforming Project Management Blog. (http://www.reformingprojectmanagement.com.)

Project Management Institute (2000). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, PMBOK Guide.  An American National Standard, ANSI/PMI 99-001-2000. Newton Square, PA.: PMI.

Shenhar, A.J., & Dvir, D. (2007).  Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach to Successful Growth and Innovation. Boston, MA. Harvard Business School Press.

Suboski, K. (2006). The Art of Project Leadership – Role and Essential Skills of the Project Leader. OD Practioner, April, vol. 38(2). 10-15.


[1] See John P. Kotter, A Force for Change.

[2] See Suboski (2006)

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