The Project Leader’s Balancing Act

by Karen A. Brown and Nancy Lea Hyer

As a project leader, do you sometimes feel as if you are part of a circus act? In a way, you are. You must balance a right-brain orientation (vision, political awareness, flexibility) with a left-brain orientation (detail, technical savvy, discipline), knowing when and where each is necessary. Additionally, you must juggle a set of intersecting skills, each of which influences the others (in a good way or a bad way – that’s up to you).  We offer more explanation just below the figure.

Communication. By this we mean the two-way exchange of information with key project stakeholders. It appears as the central gear that drives all of the others. Without it, your efforts in the other skill areas will produce a mixed bag of results.

Stakeholder influence. This is all about how you sell your project to others in the organization, and beyond. You need their support and resources, you need them to voice positive remarks about your project to others, and you don’t want them to engage in activities that undermine the project. Stay in touch with them, and hone your influence skills.

Conflict management. Projects are non-routine, and that means goals, roles, and processes are not cast in stone, especially at the beginning. Research shows that early efforts to define key project elements can lead to productive conflict that ensures the project is off to a good start. When the goals, roles and processes are left undefined, destructive conflict can emerge at a higher level of intensity mid-project. Regardless of when the conflict occurs, however, effective project leaders (this includes you) know how to handle it. Will you withdraw or try to smooth it over? That rarely works. Will you force a solution on those who have engaged in battle? That usually doesn’t work either, but sometimes it’s necessary. In general, the best approach is to get at the crux of the conflict and facilitate solutions that support the overall project goal.

Team motivation. Project leaders within organizations rarely have formal authority over those who contribute as team members. This makes motivation more challenging, but not impossible.  Remember this: intrinsic motivators, things that make the task itself attractive, are more powerful than extrinsic motivators such as financial incentives. If you don’t believe this, think back to your most motivating project experience and ask a few of your friends to tell you about theirs. When asked what made a project motivating, most people respond with the following kinds of remarks: “I liked working with the team,” “The project was important to the company,” “It offered me a challenge and opportunity to learn new skills.”

Decision-making. When we ask people to tell us about the least effective project leaders they’ve encountered in their careers, “Indecisive” or “Wishy-washy” are frequently mentioned as memorable attributes. Projects require decisions, some of which you will make on your own, but many of which will require you to involve others. The key is to know when to make decisions on your own, and how best to leverage the inputs of your team and other stakeholders when a more collaborative process is appropriate.

Project management tools. We hesitated to include this as a gear when we developed this model, given that many people assume the tools are all they need. Don’t get us wrong – technical tools offer powerful organizing frameworks and provide helpful aids in planning and executing a project. But, the tools do not manage a project – people do. Although we do advocate the use of some widely-promoted tools, in addition to several leading-edge tools not found in most textbooks, we offer the caveat that they must be applied in the CONTEXT of the other skills in the model.

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For More Information About the Balancing Act

Article: An in-depth article by Brown and Hyer, “The Project Leader’s Balancing Act,” appears in a special issue of P&IMJ, Volume 46, Number 2, pages 56-72.

Executive Education: An upcoming seminar at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management will create an interactive learning environment where you can explore this topic in greater depth and exchange ideas with project leaders from a wide range of industries. For more information, click here.