Collaborative project leadership

program management from the project manager's perspective



Program management has become the recognized way of managing projects that deliver a strategic objective. Project managers who work on the projects within the program have new challenges. One way to obtain project success on a program is for the project managers to work together using collaborative project leadership.


Program management has become the recognized way of managing a group of related projects in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008a, p. 5). Project managers who work on the projects within the program have new challenges. One way to obtain project success on a program is for the project managers to work together using collaborative project leadership. Professional project managers know that for a project to be successful, it must be completed on time, within budget, and according to project requirements. They also know that in order to obtain project success, project managers need to both manage and lead project activities. Project success is easier to accomplish if project managers are responsible for their own projects. However, the project environment becomes more complicated when project managers who are responsible for their own projects must now work with other project managers as part of a program. The problem is that professional project managers who are proficient at managing and leading their own projects must now work collaboratively with other project managers to lead components of a program. This means that the project manager no longer has full control of all project activities. In addition to knowing how to manage processes, and how to lead the team, project managers must now also know how to collaborate with other project managers.

The purpose of this paper is to provide an understanding of collaborative project leadership, and more specifically, to provide a look at program management from the project manager's perspective. To accomplish this, we will review the purpose of project management and then discuss the importance of program management. As a foundation, we will discuss leadership in detail, explaining the difference between management and leadership, and explore some leader contingency theories. We will then focus on the project manager as a leader, with a discussion on what it means for the project manager to lead, and on the significance of trust. After we have a clear understanding of leadership basics, we will take a deeper look at leadership and discuss the importance of collaborative leadership.

Project and Program Management Overview

Projects are common for most organizations. But what exactly are projects, and why are they important? A project, as defined by the Project Management Institute, is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result (PMI, 2008a, p. 5). More specifically, projects are a means of organizing the activities required to produce a specific output, within a specific period of time, and based on defined requirements. Projects can be small, such as developing a proposal or revising a manual, or large and complex, such as implementing new technology across an organization with multiple locations. Regardless of the size or level of complexity of the project, the key to project success is how it is managed. Project managers use project management, which is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements (PMI, 2008a, p. 5).

In the past, project management was focused solely on the implementation of a single project. For some, the emphasis has shifted from the individual project perspective to a multiple related projects perspective, where organizations now use program management as a means of coordinating the efforts among multiple related projects. By using programs, the project manager can obtain benefits and control that are not available from managing the projects individually. Because a program is a means of achieving organizational goals and objectives, often in the context of a strategic plan (PMI, 2008b, p.5), it is important that the program deliver its intended outcomes and benefits. For example, a hospital management organization may have a strategic objective to improve its ability to schedule patients across its 15 hospitals within 5 years. A program is then initiated to coordinate the 15 projects required to implement the patient scheduling applications across the 15 hospitals. As indicated in The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2008b, p. 11), Exhibit 1 provides a comparative overview of project and program management.

Comparative overview of project and program management

Exhibit 1: Comparative overview of project and program management.

Program management requires project managers to look beyond their individual projects. As part of a program, projects must align with the decisions driving the program. Processes, tools, templates, timelines, and approaches are dictated by the program. One of the biggest challenges in the program environment is coordinating the activities of a single project with that of the program. Having to align project decisions with the program constrains project decisions and also forces the project managers, who would normally work independently, to work together in a collaborative fashion. Solutions for one project must be relevant for other projects in the program. It is still important for the project to meet their quality, schedule, budget, and customer satisfaction expectations, but now the definition of success has been broadened to include the degree to which the program satisfies the needs and benefits for which it was undertaken (PMI, 2008b, p. 11). Projects are viewed as a means for an organization to improve technology, reduce costs, increase efficiency, and remain competitive. And the accomplishment of a project within a program can start providing benefits before the entire program is complete. With so much riding on the success of a project, it is now apparent that processes, tools, templates, and metrics are not enough. Because of the complexity of programs, the new project structure, and the new definition of success, project managers will need to develop new skills. What is needed now is more leadership.


Leadership versus Management

Cleland (2004, p. 220) states that a leader does the right things and a manager does things right. Doing the right things leads to effectiveness and doing things right leads to efficiency. Kotter (2001) also has a view that differentiates management from leadership. Kotter (2001, p. 86) states that management is about coping with complexity, whereas leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change. By looking at management a little closer, we see that managers effectively cope with complexity. Management is achieved by developing and implementing systems to plan, organize, direct, and control activities. When we look at leadership a little closer we see that leaders efficiently cope with change. Leadership is achieved by developing and selling a vision and also aligning the people needed to accomplish the vision. Simply stated, one manages processes, whereas one leads people. Project managers learn to manage processes during the beginning of their project management career. Process management is easy to learn and is a basic skill requirement; leadership, however, is more difficult to learn and is often overlooked as a necessary skill.

Leadership Contingency Theories

Contingency theories provide a foundation for the importance of leadership and suggest that leadership effectiveness is dependent on the situation. Similarly, contingency theories suggest that the project manager's effectiveness is dependent on the project environment. To validate this assumption, two contingency theories are presented: the Fiedler Model and Path-Goal Theory.

Fiedler Model

The Fiedler contingency model proposes that effective group performance depends on the proper match between the leader's style and the degree to which the situation gives control to the leader. Fiedler assumes that an individual's leadership style is fixed (Robbins, 2005, p. 301). This theory focuses on a leader's preferences for dealing with relationships over tasks or tasks over relationships, stating that both the leadership style and situational factors combine to determine leadership effectiveness. The Fiedler model explains why an effective leader in one situation may prove quiet ineffective in another situation, which in turn indicates that the skills used successfully on one project can be seemingly ineffective on other projects (Ferraro, 2008, pp. 283–285). This would suggest that a project manager who is comfortable defining tasks, using schedules to monitor tasks, and who is primarily interested in the status of the task, would have a difficult time building relationships with other project managers. This task-oriented project manager may be effective at managing projects but may also have difficulties working with other project managers in a program environment. Kerzner (2009, pp. 222–223) had a different view, which is that an effective leader is neither a pure task nor pure relationship behavioralist, but maintains a balance between these two roles. Kerzner's view allows for more flexibility on the part of the project manager, who now needs to manage project tasks as well as build lasting relationships with other project managers.

Path-Goal Theory

Currently, the most influential contingency approach to leadership is path-goal theory, developed by Robert House. The essence of path-goal theory is that it is the leader's job to provide followers with the information, support, or other resources necessary for them to achieve their goals. The term path-goal is derived from the belief that effective leaders clarify the path for their followers and also make their journey along the path easier by reducing roadblocks. In a project environment, followers are generally team members; however, in a program environment, followers can also include project managers. To further emphasize the importance of leadership, House identified four leadership behaviors:

  1. The directive leader lets followers know what is expected of them, schedules work to be done, and gives specific guidance on how to accomplish tasks.
  2. The supportive leader is friendly and shows concern for the needs of the team members.
  3. The participative leader consults with the team members and uses their suggestions before making a decision.
  4. The achievement-oriented leader sets challenging goals and expects team members to perform at their highest level.

In contrast to Fiedler, House assumes that leaders are flexible and that the same leader can display any or all of these behaviors, depending on the situation (Robbins, 2005, pp. 306–307). Again, flexibility on behalf of the project manager is the key. Project managers must also function as leaders in order to work cooperatively in a program environment.

Project Manger as Leader

Leadership drives change. To lead is to go before or with, and show others the way. To lead is to guide in direction, course, action, and opinion. A good leader has the ability to motivate others to accomplish an objective. As a leader, the project manager must command authority and be able to inspire and motivate the project team. The project manager sets the general direction of the project and allows team members to provide input along the way. During difficult times, the project manager must remain calm and be able to provide solutions to get things back on track. As a leader, the project manager should develop and sell the project vision, set the direction and pace of the project, coach and empower the project team, and facilitate communication with all project stakeholders. A common leadership proverb states: If you think you are leading and no one is following you, then you are only taking a walk. The success of today's project manager is mostly the result of leadership. Can the project manager conquer the forces of authority, responsibility and accountability to efficiently lead the project? Exhibit 2 provides definitions for authority, responsibility, and accountability (Cleland, 2004, pp. 70–73).

Definitions of authority, responsibility, and accountability

Exhibit 2: Definitions of authority, responsibility, and accountability.

Authority is based on power. For the project manager, the power can be based on position or it can be granted through influence; by reason of a person's knowledge, skills, interpersonal abilities, competency, or expertise. The project manager has the authority to execute within the boundaries of the project and is accountable for project delivery. To be accountable means to accept the consequences of the outcomes. In order to be accountable, the project manager must have the authority and responsibility or the means to influence the outcomes. A key component in the project manager's ability to influence others is trust.

Leading by Influence

Influence is the ability to get others to participate. To lead by influence, a project manger must become proficient at performing project responsibilities and work to build good relations with other project managers. However, a key factor in being able to lead by influence is character. Character is the inward motivation to do what is right in every situation. An effective leader has good character. Character development takes place every day. Your character determines who you are. Who you are determines what you see. What you see determines what you do (Maxwell, 1999, p. 4). And, finally, what you do determines your ability to influence others. According to Hill (n.d.), in “Character First!,” character is defined as the qualities built into a person's life that determine his or her response, regardless of circumstances. Exhibit 3 identifies some key leadership character qualities.

Leadership character qualities

Exhibit 3: Leadership character qualities.

The Significance of Trust

Trust is the positive expectation that the other person will deliver. It takes time to form a trusting relationship because trust requires a form of knowledge and familiarity about the other party. Trust is a key component of the project manager's ability to be a successful leader. When trust is broken, it can seriously impact performance and may not be easily restored. According to Robbins (2005. pp. 320-322), there are three types of trust in organizational relationships: deterrence-based, knowledge-based, and identification-based. Deterrence-based trust is based on fear; knowledge-based trust is based on the behavioral predictability that comes from a history of interaction; and identification-based trust is achieved when there is an emotional connection between the parties. Identification-based trust is what is needed for project managers to work together. Collaboration flourishes in a climate of trust (Cleland, 2004). One project manager will often have to act as the agent for the other. Trust promotes more efficient communication and coordination. There needs to be a mutual understanding of roles and responsibilities and the goals of the project. Project managers must work towards the best intentions for the program. Trust among project managers is displayed in the loyalty they show towards each other.

Collaborative Leadership

As already stated, project managers need to work together in a collaborative manner. Collaboration occurs when all members of the team share a common purpose, when there is mutual trust, and when everyone uses agreed upon approaches for the work (Gottesdiener, 2002, pp. 55-56). To work collaboratively, project managers must work with other project managers within the program to make sure both the project and program goals are met. Activities must be consistently aligned among projects, communication must be transparent among projects, and learning must be shared among projects.


Collaboration requires detailed planning. Planning effectively for a program requires a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches (PMI, 2008b, p. 46). Top-down planning occurs from the program perspective, whereas bottom-up planning occurs from the project perspective. To accomplish top-down planning, the program manager must first identify the projects for the program and then identify the major milestone dates for each project. At times it may be necessary to coordinate milestone dates for key activities such as testing or training, among projects, to gain greater efficiency, by sharing resources. After the milestone dates have been solidified, project managers must apply the bottom-up approach. Bottom-up planning requires that each project manager prepare detailed plans to align with the predefined milestones. This approach, top-down and bottom-up collaborative planning, is iterative, time-consuming, and requires a lot of coordination. Trust among project managers is a must, because a win-win means sharing information and sharing responsibility.

Project Control

Collaboration is also about control. Project managers in a program environment must work together to master problem solving, decision making, and communication. Project managers forge strong personal bonds when they work together to manage issues and risks, and solve problems. At times, resources may have to be shared among projects. Project managers who have strong behavioral skills are more likely to involve other project managers in decision making, and shared decision making is one of the hallmarks of successful program management. Good project managers listen to their project stakeholders. But more importantly, good project managers listen to the other project managers on the program.

Lessons Learned

Lessons learned from one project must be documented for use on the next project. Lessons learned is the learning gained from the process of performing the project (PMI, 2008, p. 429). We learn from our own project experiences as well as from the experiences of others. Sharing lessons learned among project team members prevents an organization from repeating the same mistakes and also allows them to take advantage of organizational best practices. Too often, capturing lessons learned is seen as optional, and only if time permits. Learning should be deliberate. Lessons learned should be documented and stored in a manner that allows for easy retrieval. Project managers should be prepared to take advantage of the key learning opportunities that projects provide and also be prepared to consult with other project managers.


In the past, project management was focused solely on the implementation of a single project. Now project managers are working on programs, and they need to coordinate the management of multiple related projects with other project managers. Project managers must understand how their projects fit within the overall program, and they must be willing to share their knowledge and resources for the common good of the program. In order for this to occur, project managers will need to incorporate more leadership skills, specifically the ability to lead by influence and develop relations based on trust. Collaborative leadership occurs when project managers trust each other and openly decide to work together. Collaborative leadership will ensure that individual projects align with other projects in the program. Planning, problem solving, and decision-making are all completed in the best interest of the program, and lessons learned are shared among projects. Collaborative leadership is important for the success of a program and is a choice that each project manager within the program will have to make.


Cleland, D.I. (2004). Field guide to project management (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Cleland, D. I., & Ireland, L. R. (2004). Project manager's portable handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ferraro, J. (2008). The strategic project leader: Mastering service-based project leadership. Boca Raton, NY: Auebach Publications

Gottesdiener, E. (2002). Requirements by collaboration. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Hill, T. (n. d.). Character first! 49 Character qualities. Retrieved June 19, 2007, from

Kerzner, H. (2009). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling (10th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Kotter, J. (2001). What leaders really do. Harvard Business Review, 79(11), 85–96. Retrieved August 10, 2008, from Business Source Complete database.

Maxwell, J. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Project Management Institute. (2008a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2008b). The standard for program management (2nd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Robbins, S.P. (2005). Organizational behavior. In Capella University (Ed.), OM8004–Managing and organizing people. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing

©2009, Sandra F. Rowe, PMP, MBA, MSCIS
Originally published as part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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