Beyond Project Management to Project Leadership

We are only in the second month of the new year and I have already had three conversations on a topic that I sadly continue to discuss year in and year out; why is it so many IT projects fail?

Most recent studies show that only about one in three projects are considered successful and even many of those have the quality of “declaring victory” and moving on in spite of evidence to the contrary. The generally reported reasons are:

  • weak executive sponsorship and involvement,
  • vague or incorrect requirements,
  • unrealistic schedule,
  • poor scope management,
  • team break-down,
  • lack of user participation,
  • inadequate or incomplete testing.

All these reasons are widely known and accepted. Anecdotally and interestingly, the majority of IT projects in recent years have required that the project manager is Project Management Institute (PMI) PMP certified with the implicit assurance that projects lead by certified managers are aware of and able to avoid these pitfalls. Project mangers with a PMP  are educated and certified in the PMI’s PMBOK guide which cover their principles of project management and project management processes. In my opinion, the PMBOK is a solid body of work that focuses completely on the process of managing a project but falls completely short on the subject of project leadership. It is telling that leadership was only explicitly acknowledged as an important project management skill in the 4th and latest edition of the PMBOK for the first time and only in a brief paragraph buried in an appendix.

The PMBOK exemplifies what Donald Schon in the “The Reflective Practitioner” touches on;  “the inadequacy of established management theory and technique to deal with the increasingly critical task of managing complexity” where “professional knowledge is mismatched to the changing situations of professional practice – the complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflicts which are increasingly perceived as central to the world of professional practice”.  PMP certification, while demonstrating that the holder is acquainted with the PMI’s “body of knowledge” regarding project management, does not imply that said individual can effectively apply this particular body of knowledge in the real world nor does it ensure that this project manager is capable and willing to deal with the uncertainties, complexities, vulgarities of a project at the human level.

By definition projects are unique. By nature, they are very human endeavours. Projects are often foggy, untidy affairs staffed with less than a perfect team. This is lost on many who plan and staff projects. They believe that projects are deterministic, predictable, cookie cutter affairs and as such require managers of process and not leaders of people. We all have encountered the clip-board toting project manager with low to zero emotional intelligence, checking and measuring against “The Plan”. They hold meetings straight out of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where all is fine and nothing is amiss, hole up it their office fiddling with software tools that “manage” the project, and carefully craft meaningless status reports right up until the project hits the wall (to none’s surprise except perhaps to the few that actually read the status reports and took them  at face value).

Reliance only on process and certification will most likely result in a failed project. A successful project is the result of an effective and efficient team effort. The success of that effort is more assured with a true leader at it’s helm; an individual that is a communicator and motivator, a person that instills confidence and enthusiasm, and by their integrity and credibility has the mutual respect of all involved. As an industry, we need to make the requirement of these qualities in our project managers the first and foremost visible priority and place process knowledge in the back seat as a given core competency.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Project Management to Project Leadership

  1. Yes, as a PM you need to ensure you cover the big three: scope/time/cost, but Project Management starts there. It’s also not a combination of 9 knowledge areas. Truly great PM’s show a quality that aligns themselves to more of the liberal arts that inspires them to better understand their environment and those around them and in turn creates awareness of what success can look like. At this point a great PM instills confidence, provides leadership and empowerment, opens channels of communication and walks along the journey with those on the team. I’ll agree that the PMBOK and its PMP certification help ensure you understand the “tools” you need to use and what their purpose is for but it doesn’t tell you how to be a great PM or even a good one unless you are measured by how effectively you use the tools. It’s missing the human quality that provides the glue, that conviction, the doing the right thing at the right time approach, having the hard conversation about how the project is going with your sponsor or understanding when it’s time to call it a day and let people lift their head up. You can’t teach that, that’s character. The PMP/PMBOK was never created to make people into great leaders it was created to ensure standards and process. You won’t ever read the term Leader in the context of a PM role inside a SOW or a Project Charter. You hope that being a Project Sponsor your PM is a Leader that will help ensure they have the experience and knowledge to create success in almost any situation.
    I personally like what the PMI/PMP/PMBOK have to offer within the context of what they are offering. As this post describes, we need people with their PMP but we need people with the other PMP, the Project Management for the People.

    Great Post.



  2. Love the post. There must be more behind what you mean by “process” since having a playbook with a portfolio of “set plays” doesn’t seem like a bad idea and I construe that as “process” too. The leadership quality being knowing when to invoke a particular set play, when to invent a new one, and how to lead/support the team in making those adjustments – as compared to strictly adhering to the One True Plan at all costs, including project failure; “It’s not my fault – I kept the team focused on the plan that you approved/signed off on.”


  3. Totally agree. PMBOK has the lofty goal of ensuring success through rigid control on process and tools but a project is like building a custom house each time. Tools do not build the house, people do. Tools do not make a project successful, people do. And rigid rules only take you so far. Rules around process can define what to do next but rigid rules do not allow for the flexibility of a custom home, nor do rigid rules allow for the flex required when working in differing organizational cultures and differing natures/skills of the project team. The secret of success lies in understanding the reason for the rules and the value outcome, not in the rule itself. Project management focuses on the rule, project leadership focuses on the outcome.
    As suggested by the author, projects are organic and non-conforming and very messy (very human) and will not be successfully managed with rules and tools alone. PMBOK is the base, much like knowing how to use a hammer or the more fancy pneumatic nailer but skill in using the tool does not make a house, and using a more snappy tool still doesn’t build the house. The successful project leader understands the purposes and value of the tools and processes and leverages them in ways that address the needs of the organization and project team to bring success. This is the leadership piece and requires the project manager to embrace and lead the human component.
    As suggested by Mark Murphy in an interview with Dan Schawbel (Forbes contributer), when hiring, the base skills and knowledge are expected and it is the ability to work with others, innovate, collaborate, and fit with the culture that determines success in their new role, even in IT ( Similarly, project managers with a track record of success clearly have the base management skills, and adapt those skills to focus on the outcome and work in the human environment, to lead the team to success – that is leadership.
    Great post!


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