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Is Your Project Leader Causing Your Initiatives to Fail?

May 31, 2016 // Erik Nelson

Up to 90 percent of organizations fail to implement their strategic plans. This can be particularly frustrating to a CEO who has devoted a significant amount of resources to crafting a well-developed strategic plan. Even more frustrating to CEOs is that—despite upbeat status reports suggesting that their strategic initiatives are on track—the results are disappointing. Macro performance measures around cost, health outcomes, and patient experience have not significantly improved. Year after year, CEOs bang their heads against a wall in frustration as they try to implement meaningful change.

There is one performance-impacting factor that rises above the rest when it comes to predicting a strategic project’s success: project leader effectiveness. This variable is a common thread between hundreds of strategic projects we at Innovo Advisors have overseen since 2002.

Our team has seen many well-planned, well-funded, and well-supported projects fail because due to weak project leadership. While a lack of support, poor planning, and underfunding can certainly derail a project, extraordinary project leaders are experts at navigating seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Identifying an Effective Project Leader

Degrees, credentials, references and resumes are poor predictors of project leadership success. Even interviews can be deceiving.

Our 14-plus years or experience has shown us that it takes a leader to identify a leader. Only an expert can pick up on subtle clues, like whether a candidate is rigid or flexible, confident or insecure, selfish or selfless, etc.

Warning Signs of an Ineffective Project Leader

The true effectiveness of a leader is unknown until they are in the midst of a project. Inexperienced leaders can emerge as experts and seasoned leaders can stumble. As a result, it is imperative that organizations be able to assess a leader’s effectiveness before it is too late.

Aside from the obvious signs that a project is in trouble (e.g., missed milestones, cost over-runs, and poor communication) there are equally, subtler indicators that a project may be headed in the wrong direction:

  • Overly optimistic status reporting. Egregious deception is rare, but overly optimistic status reporting is fairly common. We’ve seen numerous projects where issues are simply omitted from status reports. This gives organizations a false sense of performance. It also prevents organizations from making simple corrections to problems before it is too late.
  • Unaddressed issues. Not reporting issues is one problem, but not addressing them is an even bigger issue. A good project leader is relentless in squashing out issues as they emerge. They know that addressing small issues early on is a lot easier than facing insurmountable problems later in a project.
  • Subtle scope erosion. Project leaders under pressure may resort to subtly whittling down the scope of project in order to claim “success” within the original timeline and resource targets. While considering project trade-offs is not necessarily bad, we have found that the best leaders are unrelenting in pursuing the original objectives of the project and are transparent in addressing threatening issues head-on.
  • Signs of insecurity. This issue is arguably the root cause of every other issue listed. A confident leader reports and addresses issues head-on, fights hard to achieve the project’s goals, hires team members that are smarter than they are, and gives all of the credit to the rest of the project team. Any sign of arrogance or insecurity is a big, red warning flag and needs to be addressed. Sometimes all it takes is reassurance from an executive leader or a direct, albeit uncomfortable, discussion of the issues at hand. In some cases, however, it may warrant replacing the project leader.

These warning signs are subtle, which is why it takes a trained eye to spot them. An accomplished, outside project leader is in the best position to assess the effectiveness of a project leader.

Continually Assess Performance

Even though established project leaders are the best at identifying other great project leaders, the process is still imperfect. Effective leaders perform differently in different situations. A myriad of variables, many of which are unknown, ultimately determine an individual’s success. A company’s culture, executive team dynamics, and emerging external issues can prove to be a poor fit for even the most effective leaders. As a result, companies must not only be able to select a project leader but they must also be able to assess their ongoing effectiveness.

Strategic Success Is Possible

If the strategic health of your organization is at stake, it is wise to invest in hiring an outside project leader to perform a few interviews and a brief assessment to know whether your project leader is on track. As long as you have the right person in place, you are facing a quick and simple process.