Bryan Barrow MBCS considers the current issues in project management, and compares them with a conundrum that was faced by the scientific community last century.

When President Dwight D Eisenhower suffered from a heart attack while in 1955, it pushed the issue of heart disease up the political agenda in a way that few other things could. The challenge for scientists and doctors back then was to try and explain what caused dietary heart disease.

For the next ten years idea after idea was analysed and scrutinised by the academic community. The possible causes coalesced into two rival camps. One camp argued passionately that fat was the underlying cause of heart disease. The other camp claimed with as just much certainty that sugar was the culprit. In the end those arguing that fat was the problem won out over their bitter rivals.

As a result public policy has been shaped around three beliefs. First, that fat is the enemy, not sugar. Second, that the reduction of fat from the diet must be a key weapon in heart attack prevention. Third, that the path to the eradication of dietary heart disease should be based on a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates.

In the forty years that followed, since the early 1970s, we have witnessed the relentless rise of obesity, the continuing carnage caused by so-called ‘low-fat’ diets and the slow, steady death of millions of people who might otherwise have gone on to live active, healthy lives.

You only have to plot a graph of the proportion of fat in the diet alongside the proportion of the population suffering from obesity. The proportion of fat in the diet has fallen consistently. The proportion of the population suffering from obesity has rocketed relentlessly throughout that entire time. Forty years spent heading in the wrong direction has resulted in a situation where obesity now costs the UK public purse almost fifty billion pounds a year.

And so it is with project management, where I believe we have spent not just vast sums, but also the last four decades, wrestling with the results of incorrect conventional thinking.

The challenge for project management 40 years ago was the question: ‘Why do so many projects fail?’ As with heart disease we in the project management community thought we’d identified the chief culprit: Poor project management was to blame and since the 1970s we have invested heavily, both intellectually and financially, in the idea that if we fix project management then we will deliver projects more successfully.

We have followed that path for the past forty years. We have developed and adopted bodies of knowledge. We have created and promulgated methodologies for project management, programme management, portfolio management and risk management, which are now seen as fundamental foundations of the professionalisation of project management.

All of this is welcome, but I believe that we have been following a path that has ultimately proved to be the wrong one. The other path was the one towards better project leadership.

Why do I say this? If you look at the vast sums of money spent on project management certification and training and plot that against project success rates you’ll see that the trend lines show no correlation between investment in project management certification and training and project management outcomes over the past forty years.

Let me be more specific about what I see as the differences between project management and project leadership. Project management is that branch of management devoted to the process of change; the orchestration of people and resources through a series of activities, tasks and processes to bring about a transformation from one state to another, different state.

Leadership is that branch of management concerning the development, nurturing and utilisation of influence as a way of motivating others to some end or objective. There are many ways that you could describe leadership, but from a project management perspective it is associated with power, influence, persuasion, campaigning, direction and motivation.

Now I am not for one moment arguing that projects don’t need managing. I am arguing that, in order to deliver more successfully than we have done, we need to focus more on leadership. Support for this view comes from two sources.

The first is from a Project Management Institute (PMI) survey from 2013, which asked what the most important skills to successfully manage highly complex projects in organisations were. ‘Leadership skills’ was the overwhelming choice, with 81 per cent of respondents citing it as the most important. ‘Technical project management skills’ came in at a paltry nine per cent.

The second is from my own experience, not just as a project consultant and coach, but also as speaker and conference chair for project management events. In this latter role I have spoken to hundreds of speakers and thousands of delegates. Time after time their message is the same: we need to focus on the softer skills of stakeholder management, on vision setting, on ensuring that we deliver business change alongside project change, so that we make change stick.

In 2015 I still believe that there is more to be done to address the historical imbalance so that we focus more on project leadership. Let me give you three reasons why I believe this to be the case.

  1. Failure to execute strategy is still seen as a project management issue
    There’s a big problem in business concerning the execution of strategy and business leaders see this as their number one challenge. It’s relatively easy for them to define a strategy, much harder to deliver it. Somewhere, something is going wrong between vision and execution and many still see it as the failure of project management to successfully deliver strategy. I don’t agree. This is a leadership issue, not a project management one.
  2. We need to develop leadership potential instead of systems and tools
    There’s a real need to develop the leadership potential of project managers. If leadership is concerned with influencing and motivating people then project managers need to be skilled leaders, not just successful administrators. Unfortunately too much of the discussion around project management skills is still rooted in hard skills and techniques: planning, scheduling, risk management, and budgeting. Instead, it should be focused on those skills that are vital for leadership: envisioning, goal-setting, listening, speaking, collaborating, negotiating, supporting and reinforcing, coaching and mentoring. If we don’t address the need for better leadership now with new and aspiring managers, we will face a future where the business leaders of tomorrow have poor leadership skills.
  3. We need to focus on stakeholder management and business change, not just faster delivery
    When stakeholders are poorly aligned, when they are ignored or when their needs are not met we create the conditions for doubt, for conflict, for rejection. We must spend as much time as we dare developing relationships with and between stakeholders. We must spend as much time as we dare understanding their needs, their concerns and their goals. We must spend our time working to unite people in support of projects so that they feel a part of the change that is to come and support it. It’s time we returned to the right path towards project success. So I say death to project management and long live project leadership.