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New Game, New Rules

And new leaders are needed to play.

Business today is A new game with new rules. Running a fixed operation efficiently will no longer keep you in business. Efficiency is merely the price of admission: Speed, intelligence, and the ability to implement change define the winners.

In this highly competitive game, leaders must keep finding ways to lower costs, deepen customer delight and loyalty, provide innovative solutions to new client needs, tap new markets, and create markets where there were none. Everyone’s work must revolve around conceiving and implementing major changes, one after another.

Implementing change is called project management, and it requires a unique leader, with a new focus.

Eight Areas of Leadership Focus

Today’s leaders need to devote their attention to eight critical areas:

1. Strategy. Leaders must clearly understand the products, services, and outputs that will—and will not—be offered to customers and markets, now and in the future. Ask yourself: What core competencies must we possess in order to win? What capabilities must we acquire? Which of our existing competencies need to be improved? How will we determine our priorities, and how will we measure success? And, which projects should we undertake to turn our vision into reality?

Leaders who can’t answer these questions are destined, at best, to carry out the wrong projects well. At worst, they’ll be paralyzed by debates over priorities, resources, and projects.

2. Portfolio and pipeline. To the degree that projects are being worked on underground or out of the sight of leadership, a portion of the business—and its results—is outside leaders’ control. Leaders must evaluate all projects in terms of how they will contribute to the implementation of strategy, and how much value they will create. The leader must ask and answer: If we do these projects, in this order, will we achieve the strategy and the margins, the market share or market size we need?

3. Methodology. The leader, using a sound decision-making process and the input of internal and external project experts, needs to choose a standard methodology for defining, planning, and controlling project work. This will ensure that all project teams are on the same page: using a common approach and speaking a common language. Having a common process for managing projects makes it easier to get projects up to speed quickly and for project team members to move from project to project.

4. Resources. Settling disputes over resources is a bane for any leader. There is never an all-around satisfactory solution, and someone always ends up disappointed. Leaders must allocate resources so that all the projects in the portfolio have an equal chance of success. They must ensure that projects aren’t initiated, only to run out of resources or cash. To do so, they must know the true state of their resources: where there are shortages, and where there are reserves of money, equipment, and people. Careful planning will prevent disputes.

5. Quality. The people running modern manufacturing plants know if products are off quality in seconds, not months; they can spot a small defect before it creates an expensive problem. The key to monitoring project quality is careful development and evaluation of the project plan before implementation, combined with short-interval monitoring of leading indicators.

6. Issue resolution. Two ways to bog down a project are to let issues go unresolved and to kick every issue up to leadership for resolution. Leaders need to set ground rules for which issues can be escalated and which must be resolved by the project team. And, to ensure that issues are addressed in a visible, rational, and data-driven manner, leaders must provide project team members with basic situation-appraisal, problem-solving, and decision-making skills.

7. Communication. Today’s organization is communication rich. A project team may be spread across several locations, continents, or time zones. Its members may come from various vendor and customer organizations and include contractors and consultants. They may never meet each other, and this project won’t be the only thing they work on. Voice mail, e-mail, teleconferencing, instant messaging, Blackberries, and cell phones can be more distracting than helpful. In the end, communication has one role in a project: to direct and reinforce work getting done. A common language for and approach to projects is a fantastic start, but the leader must model and coach their use to create clear communication that works.

8. Performance environment. The challenge is to provide a performance environment in which all those involved in projects are given an equal chance to succeed and are rewarded, while meeting their personal needs and expectations. That means paying careful attention to all the elements of the performance system: setting clear responsibilities and goals; giving people the needed resources and skills; providing consistent, effective consequences for behaviors; and supplying timely, useful feedback on performance throughout the project.

Leaders must be “out there” with customers, competitors, and employees, looking for ways to bring about positive change and guiding people toward new paths. If people don’t know where to go next, they will likely go nowhere.

Andrew Longman of Kepner-Tregoe is the coauthor of The Rational Project Manager (Wiley 2005).


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