4 ways good project leaders create cultures of success

Recognizing why or how people impact overall project success is important, but determining what you can do to unlock your team’s full potential is the tricky part.

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People are not machines. They can’t be programmed to simply do as they’re expected. People are complex, dynamic and intuitive, and they bring education, experience and emotions to work every day — all of which plays a role in their interactions and contributions. These factors have the potential to make people – employees, consultants and management alike – either the best assets or the biggest liabilities to any project.

Who has the greatest impact on projects as a whole?

The simple answer is everyone (executives/sponsors, vendors, customers, consultants and especially employees). If any one of these individuals is dissatisfied, the project suffers a loss in terms of participation, productivity and buy-in. These losses can be tangible or intangible, and are not always easily or successfully quantified. The one thing that’s certain is that dissatisfaction will imprint itself on project success or failure in one way or another. This can be through low morale, decreased productivity, conflict, absenteeism, an increase in turnover and so on. The end result is project teams and companies as a whole operating at greatly reduced competence due to various forms of dysfunction.

In “5 trends that will transform project management,” I covered the move away from traditional operational hierarchies to systems that identify and optimize employee strengths, redrawing org charts in a way that allows people with “intrapreneurial” mindsets to share ideas with decision-makers, despite the chain of command. In no way am I suggesting that larger, mature organizations simply disband those chains of command.

The traditional enterprise hierarchy was created for the purpose of orderly decision-making, and provides a sense of control, security and balance of power. That said, there are many ways to structure an organization, ways that can allow for optimized flow of information within the project decision-making process. These options will take more effort and time for projects within larger organizations, as they are historically less nimble than smaller companies when it comes to project planning, execution and monitoring.

[Related: 5 trends that will transform project management]

Here are four steps progressive-minded project leaders can take to create a culture of success and identify and optimize project stakeholders’ true potential.

1. Create visibility and empower your project stakeholders more

Hierarchies – even within project teams – can easily slow decision-making and block the flow of great ideas from lower-level stakeholders, due to the “chain-of-command” mindset. Within projects, and organizations in general, this information and innovation blockage can be removed without fully dismantling the traditional hierarchy. It is critical that business owners and project leaders work closely together to identify and facilitate the implementation of the best ideas. As a rule, most project team members are interested and willing to do their best if they believe their contributions are sincerely valued. Furthermore, project leadership should be willing to recognize and reward such team members equally for their time and effort contributed throughout all phases.

A paycheck is simply not sufficient enough incentive to project team members who go above and beyond others. Considering how much time project teams spend together, it only makes sense that most members seek a connection with project leaders and the company in general. It matters that project leaders know who the stakeholders are, what they do for the company and, more importantly, that their most valuable skill sets are being utilized correctly and awarded appropriately and fairly. Team members and other stakeholders cannot be rewarded fairly if their best contributions go unnoticed.

In the initial stages, project leaders can gain a sense to what drives and motivates individual members most by simply asking the question. Actively listen to the responses, note them, discuss reward options with company leadership, incorporate feedback and provide agreed upon relevant reward mechanisms as available throughout key stages.

2. Invest in your team members where it matters

Project leaders cannot demand team members personally invest in a project. Why? Because this type of business relationship is not that much different from any personal relationship. In order for things to work and be a success, all parties involved must value the relationship first, want to be a continued part of the relationship and freely choose to remain vested. Invest in your team and they will choose to remain invested in the project and the company. Project and business leadership, from the top down, must sincerely believe that their people are their greatest assets … and invest accordingly.

Training and development should be geared not only toward the project or company goals but also for the purpose of maximizing the development of their people’s highest-level skill sets. As an example, let’s say an employee shows strong potential in the area of project leadership. Yet their current position only involves scheduling. It’s in the company’s best interest to recognize this employee’s potential, and invest in additional training and development in that area. This offers both the employee and the company the maximum long-term benefit, as the individual can then be redeployed in a project leadership role, creating increased job satisfaction and resulting in optimal business strength and competence.

Companies can often get so busy running the day-to-day and miss seeing these as opportunities, all the while losing great people to other companies, or even their direct competitors. When highly talented and under-utilized project team members leave companies, enormous amounts of high-value intellectual capital exits with them. This can cause significant disruption, lost time, skillset and knowledge gaps and low morale during projects, not to mention missed project deadlines and goals. The cost to replace this knowledge is not always easily identified or quantified.

3. Enable through technology; transform through your people

As companies grow, so do budgets and resources, creating the need for, and ability to increase software and technology investments. It’s easy for the investment in project members themselves to become lost in the process. “Invest in more than the IT software. Invest in the people using it,” says Nick Wilkinson, CEO of Vitalyst. “The use of technology can bring many benefits to an organization if it is managed in a holistic way. By taking a human-centric approach – one where the CIO’s focus is on the employee – businesses will realize a larger return on their technology investments.”

[Related: The 7 best project management mobile apps of 2015]

When it comes to project management, the key here is continually investing not only in the right technologies and tools but also in the continued coaching and training of your teams on these technologies to maximize effectiveness … of both the tools and the people.

4. Seek and mentor more project leaders

In “5 trends that will transform project management,” I emphasized the need to focus on softer skills, not just technical training. A large part of project management is people, who are affected to a great extent by interactions with other people. The ability to resolve conflict, deal with ambiguity, and to act with diplomacy and confidentiality should be at the forefront of any great project lead’s management tool kit. Agility, adaptability and the skills to rapidly refocus efforts – as well as sound judgment – are other soft skills not easily found, but equally of value for business and projects alike.

Companies that have people with these soft skills are likely to have an easier time navigating through projects much easier than those that don’t. At stake are significant amounts of decreased productivity, miscommunication and internal conflict. Existing project and business leaders needs to seek out and mentor individuals who possess many of these soft skills. This requires effective project leaders without a protectionist or territorial mindset. It requires project leaders who understand the power that exists in mentoring other potential leaders.

The more people with leadership capabilities and intrapreneurial mindsets on the team, the larger the win for all through an increasing number of successful projects and, by extension, business opportunities.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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