Project Management and Leadership – A Case Study

I recently commented on a post by Shim Marom, host of the quantmleap blog, where he listed a number of character traits that are useful to project managers.  He replied, and after several exchanges, we agreed to each post our thoughts on a case study:

Imagine your company has decided to replace its old, premises-based financial system with a cloud-based solution.  Since the company recently acquired two smaller firms, they’d also like to update their chart of accounts and start their new financial year out on the new system.  Your company’s financial year begins on the first of the month, eight months from now.  You have been appointed as the project manager for this journey and as you are about to embark on this endeavor, you are asked to consider the specific management and leadership attributes and behaviors you will need to exhibit in order to navigate the project to a successful completion.

For the purposes of this case study, I’ll use this definition: Management is the exercise of the specific authority associated with a role, whereas leadership is the exercise of influence independent of one’s role.  An air traffic controller manages the flow of aircraft in a designated airspace.  The pilots who respond to her instructions do so because she has specific authority.  On the other hand, the guy who gets out of his car at the scene of an accident and starts directing traffic in order to get the first responders access to the victims is leading.  The drivers who follow his hand signals do so because they recognize the urgent need to cooperate in an emergency situation.  The distinction is simple: there is a basis for enforcing an appropriate response to management behaviors, but not to leadership behaviors.  Followers decide to follow the leader.

In this case, the project manager has specific authority to manage the scope, budget, schedule, quality, and risks associated with the project.  She may also have the authority to manage execution of the contract with the SaaS provider and one or more other firms providing implementation services.  However, she probably does not have the authority or subject matter expertise to drive the hundreds of decisions required to execute this complex plan.  From the structure of the new, combined chart of accounts, to the design of business process and approval flows, to the selection of the options available to the users, to the conversion of relevant data, to storage of historical data, to acceptance criteria; the stakeholders have the responsibility to agree on a lot of choices.  And in order to meet that fixed deadline, they have to make those decisions quickly.  The project manager should apply her influence to facilitate, mediate, negotiate, escalate, and otherwise drive those decisions, in order to keep the project on schedule without sacrificing the value of the project to the stakeholders.

In addition, she should be able to resolve disputes among the stakeholders that arise from differences in quality and scope expectations.  In this case, perfection delivered a month late would constitute failure, so she needs to lead them to compromises and other agreements that allow delivery on time.  The two quarterly closings that lie on the timeline can be planned around, but the impact on the project will include availability of SME’s and possibly project team members.  The project manager should be able to lead the financial department managers to agreements that let them meet their operating schedules without impacting the project.  All of this activity is applying influence, as these managers do not report to her.  Indeed, they may be peers of her boss, or someone even higher up the chain.  She must lead, where she doesn’t have the authority to manage.  In this case, the organization would consider someone capable of influencing all of these players to be a strong project manager.

Few organizations will delegate all of the authority required to manage a complex project to successful completion.  And this is a rational decision on the part of the executives – the project is only one activity among many, and none of them should trump all others.  Consequently, those who manage projects need to develop and apply their leadership skills, to influence in those areas where they don’t have authority.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.