Effective project leadership

a combination of project manager skills and competencies in context

 

 

Jenny Krahn

Francis Hartment

Project leadership is an interesting and increasingly popular field of investigation. It is an area growing in relevance and importance as projects are being delivered in a more complex and uncertain environment— one which, many would argue, requires more leadership.

Much of what we know about what makes up the leadership of effective project managers, including the skills and competencies that contribute to it, takes the form of lists of important project manager skills and competencies. These lists can make use of grouping or sorting (into technical, business and social skills, for example) and some are very complete. However, they are also static. While the lists are useful in that they provide a starting point by which to understand what is important for a project manager, or a way by which to assess progress, it is difficult to deduce from the lists which skills and competencies are most important for a particular project manager in a particular context. It is also not clear which of the skills and competencies fit with particular elements of the work of the project manager, or if these should change with changes to the characteristics of the project being delivered by the project manager. This investigation sought to identify important skills and competencies, project characteristics that would affect the importance of these skills and competencies, and potential gaps between the skills and competencies and the work of the project manager.

Background Literature

Leadership and Management

There are differences between the fields of management and leadership, and a common theme reflects agreement that, as the business environment experiences greater change, uncertainty, and volatility, more leadership is needed (Kotter, 2001; Mintzberg, 1994). In a paper reprinted in the Best of Harvard Business Review, Kotter discussed many of the differences between management and leadership—two fields that he asserted are different but complementary. He assessed that management involves dealing with complexity— including such elements as setting goals and budgets, establishing detailed steps, allocating resources, solving problems, and monitoring the results. Effective management brings order and consistency. Kotter further asserted that while management is important, it is the increases in the complexity and volatility to the business environment that create a need for greater leadership. He also said that leadership involves dealing with change and includes such elements as setting and communicating direction, developing vision, and aligning team members, stakeholders, and others.

Bennis and Thomas (2002) described similar themes on the topic of leadership. In doing so, they suggested that leaders should have four skills or competencies: adaptability (the ability to surpass adversity—and as a result, become stronger), engaging others (motivating others to a shared vision to achieve together and creating shared meaning), a compelling voice (effective communication of the shared vision), and integrity (the presence of authenticity and strong values).

In his paper on seeking a better way to integrate the elements of management, Mintzberg (1994) stated that most management authors seem to focus on only one aspect of the role of managing. This causes a lack of focus on the role as a whole, and results in a fragmented look at managing. Further, he noted that the work of managing cannot be separated in behavior, even though it can be thought of conceptually in terms of things such as doing, leading, and controlling. Mintzberg asserted that within the field of management, the topic of leadership has experienced more focus than all other areas of management combined.

Project Management and Project Manager Skills and Competencies

Project management is a field of growing importance to industry, gaining greater levels both of interest and use (Pinto & Kharbanda, 1995; Tavares, 2002). However, effective project management has also become more challenging as the environment within which projects are delivered has become increasingly volatile and complex (Coulson-Thomas, 1990; Goodwin, 1993; Mendzela, 1998). Making it more difficult are changes to the characteristics of the project and team, such as changing business relationships, new technologies, heterogeneous teams, and more diverse stakeholders (Manning, 2003; Thompsen, 2000).

In a business environment that is changing, calling for the managing of projects that are also changing, effective project management requires a broad mix of skills and competencies. Those associated with people and process—such as communication and planning, as opposed to those focusing on the technical elements—have become increasingly important for project success (Day, 1998; Goodwin, 1993; Thite, 1999a, 1999b).

The effectiveness of the project manager is critical to project success. Jiang, Klein, and Margulis (1998) asserted that the project manager is the most critical element for projects to be delivered successfully. Others agree that project manager performance and project success are strongly linked. Zimmerer and Yasin (1998) noted that the main cause of project failure is a lack of project manager leadership and Anderson (1992) identified project manager ability among the most important elements leading to strong project performance.

The strong connection between project success and project manager effectiveness mans that it is valuable to understand which skills and competencies are most important to project manager effectiveness. However, the available literature examining the skills and competencies of project managers is still largely included in lists or groups that appear to assume that there is a static set for all projects.

According to Crawford (2000), project managers require the right combination of skills and competencies to be most effective. However, much of the literature is based not on empirical investigation but project manager opinion, and is not necessarily well-reflected in bodies of knowledge. Relevant literature shows that available literature examining the skills and competencies of project managers is still largely included in lists or groups that appear to assume that there is a static set for all projects. Textbooks provide lists of project manager skills and competencies with descriptions (Gido & Clements, 2003; Mantel & Meredith, 1986), and professional associations—such as the Project Management Institute (PMI)—publish lists and groupings of project management skills and competencies, such as PMI’s thorough Project Manager Competency Development Framework (Project Management Institute, 2002), which gives groupings of project manager skills and competencies in the form of a self-test. Journals also lend considerable insight into the key project manager skills and competencies to effectively lead projects and teams. The skills and competencies listed are often diverse, including technical ability, detail-orientation, leadership, human issues and others (Cowie, 2003; Dawes, 2002; Lampel, 2001; Thite 1999a, 1999b).

It is valuable to have lists and groupings of project manager skills and competencies. However, the environment within which projects are delivered changes; and projects can be very different from one another. Therefore, it is valuable to assess the way in which the importance of specific project manager skills and competencies is impacted by these changes.

Project Characteristics

The environment within which the project manager works is impacted by the type of project being managed, or the characteristics of the project as well as the business environment, team characteristics, and other factors. However, the impact of these on elements of projects (e.g., team composition and project manager selection) is frequently not taken into consideration. Specifically, as outlined above, it is assumed in many areas of the literature—as reflected by the static nature of lists of project manager skills and competencies— that all projects involve the same work and can be managed most effectively with the same project manager skills and competencies.

While project characteristics are not consistently examined, some authors do take into consideration the impact of such factors as the business environment and project characteristics, and have created classification systems. Shenhar (2001), for example, used technological uncertainty to differentiate among project types. Others have also considered characteristics as a way by which to better understand the needs of the project. Rad and Levin (2003) evaluated project manager and team member skills as a way to identify an organization’s friendliness towards projects.

In general, when project characteristics are used as a way by which to classify projects, a very small number (often one) are included. Tampoe and Thurloway (1993) related factors to project environment, and de Korvin, Shipley, and Kleyle (2002) related others elements to the phase of the project life cycle. Moreover, another form of investigating projects by one classification is the many studies that examine factors related to project management by industry (Edum-Fotwe & McCaffer, 2000; Grant, Baumgardner, & Shane, 1997; Wateridge, 1997).

Project Leadership

Project leadership is a relatively new field of study, and thus relatively under-investigated. Sotiriou and Wittmer (2001) stated that even though general leadership has been a focus of investigation for more than one hundred years, relatively little empirical research has focused on project leadership.

While project leadership is a topic of growing interest, there are challenges to its investigation. One of those is captured by Slevin and Pinto (1991), who themselves asserted that successful project management requires effective leadership. However, they stated that its study is complicated by the fact that it is a topic that is simultaneously well-known and little-known. A second challenge in the study of project leadership is the wide range of meanings ascribed to the concept by different authors. In his paper titled Technical Project Leadership, Thite (1999a) stated that for his study, he used the term technical leadership to reference the leadership that is provided to technical and scientific staff. Other authors considered project leadership to mean something different, such as a skill for effective project management; others thought it involved such elements as interpersonal relationships and facilitation (Gemmill & Wilemon, 1994; Kezsbom, 1988, 1994). Still others used the terms project leadership and project leader interchangeably with the terms project management and project manager (Puccinelli, 1999; Sense, 2003).

Kotter (2001) noted that there is an increased need for leadership when working in a volatile environment and dealing with change. This paper asserts that leadership is important in a project environment—as projects generate change—and characteristics can differ from one project to the next. Consistent with this view is one description calling the project manager’s role a leader-intensive undertaking (Pinto, Thomas, Trailer, Palmer, & Govekar, 1998).

Investigation Background

The main objective of the research was to better understand key elements of effective project leadership. To do this, a review of literature sought to identify characteristics of project leadership, gain insight from general leadership, and identify key project manager skills and competencies. Consideration of the field of project leadership revealed that it is a concept not understood consistently, but used in a variety of ways. General leadership reflected an interest in recognizing the importance of leadership to project management, and highlighting the importance of the context within which the leadership is taking place and the value of this concept to an increasingly volatile business environment. It was also deemed important to understand the relative importance of what project managers do to determine whether the skills and competencies they were thought to require really would support their effectiveness in leadership.

The key concepts investigated include the key project manager skills and competencies important to project success—ad whether or not they change for different projects—and the fit between the most important project manager skills and competencies and the work of the project manager.

Approach and Research Phases

The investigation of project manager skills and competencies, project leadership, and related concepts included three phases. The first was a Delphi Study that engaged project management experts from across Canada. Participants were found for this study by asking professionals involved in project management to recommend someone they considered excellent in their role related to projects (including sponsors, project managers, and team members). In total, more than 75 project professionals were recommended, and 60 were available to participate in the study. The first phase focused on identifying and rating the most important skills and competencies for project managers and the project characteristics that would impact which skills and competencies are most important. Specifically, the phase was also intended to establish whether the relative importance of project manager skills and competencies changed if different project characteristics were present.

The second phase of investigation involved gaining input from focus groups. The availability of these sessions was publicized in a variety of ways, including through local associations, such as the local PMI chapter, professional groups, and contacts of the researcher. Project professionals showed considerable interest in participating in the focus groups and, in total, three focus group sessions were held. An objective of this phase was to establish how effectively the most important project manager skills and competencies addressed the work to be completed by project managers.

The final phase of research involved a survey that was intended to confirm the findings of the first two phases of research. Participants were sought for the survey using a snowball approach with participants from the second phase contacting additional project professionals.

Results and Discussion

The three phases revealed that, when project professionals were asked to rate the importance of project manager skills and competencies, they did not qualify the ratings, and the top ten were relatively consistent among types of participants. Second, there were considerable discrepancies among the project manager skills and competencies rated most important when a specific project characteristic was present. Third, there was a gap between the work expected to be most common for the project manager and the skills and competencies seen as most important, and a gap between what project managers and project sponsors considered most important. Finally, project leadership can gain key insights from general leadership literature, such as taking context into consideration; and the importance of project leadership being different from, but complementary to, project management.

Project Manager Skills and Competencies in Context

The expert participants who participated in Phase 1 provided a relatively consistent view of important project manager skills and competencies. The top ten of a list of 50 provided to participants were rated according to their importance for a project manager to be successful. The ten were rated in the following order:

  1. People skills
  2. Leadership
  3. Listening
  4. Integrity, ethical behavior, consistent
  5. Strong at building trust
  6. Verbal communication
  7. Strong at building teams
  8. Conflict resolution, conflict mgmt
  9. Critical thinking, problem solving
  10. Understands, balances priorities

While many of these skills and competencies appear on lists cited in the literature above, the order of importance changed considerably when project characteristics were introduced. For example, when expert participants were asked about the importance of a shorter list of project manager skills and competencies (including the top eight from the general list above), their order of importance changed.

The change in order of importance of project manager skills and competencies is reflected in Figure 1. When asked about the importance of project manager skills and competencies for a project with a very large scope, respondents indicated that the top five skills and competencies for the project manager to be effective include: leadership, relevant prior experience, planning, people skills, and both verbal communication and strong at building teams. This is of particular interest because while most of the skills and competencies included appear in the top ten list, the second-most-highly-rated, relevant prior experience appears in the bottom five on the general list of 50 project manager skills and competencies. Its importance in this context is substantially higher. A second example of the impact of context is for a project with a high degree of uncertainty. Risk management and expectation management were rated far below the top ten given above. Figure 1 reflects that these are deemed critical when the project is highly uncertain, as is planning, which also rates below the top ten. Finally, a novel project that requires considerable innovation is seen to require leadership and people skills, but also less-highly-rated skills and competencies such as self-confidence. Again, this reflects the considerable change in the importance rating when the environment within which the project manager is working changes. Additional project characteristics used in the investigation show similar trends, with significant changes to the order of the most important project manager skills and competencies in the presence of different project characteristics (Krahn, 2005).

Most important project manager skills and competencies in the context of a particular project characteristic

Figure 1. Most important project manager skills and competencies in the context of a particular project characteristic

Based on the investigation, it is very clear that different project characteristics require a different mix of key project manager skills and competencies. While many authors have taken one or more project characteristics into consideration when investigating project factors, such as team effectiveness and communication, it is clear that there is a wide range of project characteristics—many of which have not been sufficiently considered in terms of their impact on elements of the project. It is also interesting to note that the top ten skills and competencies given in the general list above appear related to people and leadership, while on the project characteristic-specific lists, such elements as planning appear to be more closely related to management.

Most important project manager skills and competencies and work (view of the project manager)

Figure 2. Most important project manager skills and competencies and work (view of the project manager)

It is also reflected by the perspective of the project sponsor that the work and the skills and competencies of the project manager are somewhat inconsistent. For example, while project planning was considered the most important work for the project manager to be effective, the skill most closely associated, planning, was not listed in the top five given by sponsors.

The Fit between Project Manager Work and the Most Important Skills and Competencies

The most important work of the project manager is somewhat inconsistent with the skills and competencies deemed most important. As shown in Figure 2, the project managers in the sample listed the most important skills and competencies relatively consistently with previous participants. However, two of the most important work items for the project manager—reporting and also monitoring and controlling—may not be well addressed by the top skills and competencies listed. The lack of direct overlap between the project manager work and their skills and competencies identified in individual focus groups was surprising to participants. Some commented that they would have expected more direct links between the two important areas (Krahn, 2005).

Most important project manager skills and competencies and work (view of the project sponsor)

Figure 3. Most important project manager skills and competencies and work (view of the project sponsor)

Consideration of the project manager work in Figures 2 and 3 also reveals that there is some difference between project managers and project sponsor about the work of the project manager that is most important. Not surprisingly, project sponsors consider communication from the project manager to the project sponsor to be very important; while the work to motivate the project team is considered more important by project managers than by project sponsors (Krahn, 2005).

Impact of General Leadership on Project Leadership

The results of the investigation show some consistency with insight provided by general leadership literature. Specifically, it has been suggested that, when such environmental characteristics as uncertainty and volatility increase, there is a greater need for leadership. The research findings suggest that, when some project characteristics are present—such as a novel project that requires considerable innovation—more leadership-focused skills and competencies, such as people skills and vision, become more important. This also strongly supports the assertion that the context within which the leadership occurs impacts the level of leadership needed. It appears that project manager skills and competencies associated with project management and those associated with project leadership may be most effectively used on projects when used in combination according to the type of project being delivered.

Conclusion

Many factors contribute to project success; one of the most important is the effectiveness of the project manager. The investigation discussed in this paper reveals that a static list of project manager skills and competencies may not most effectively reflect the skills and competencies that will be most important for them on projects. This is particularly relevant because projects have differing characteristics and are delivered in a changing business environment, and different combinations of skills and competencies may be most important.

The study showed that the most important project manager skills and competencies change significantly when the project characteristics and the project environment change. Specifically, the top five most important skills and competencies for project managers are very different when a project has a particular characteristic, such as being very large or having a high level of risk. Because these changes to the key project characteristics of projects impact the skills and competencies associated with effective leadership, a list of elements for most effective project manager leadership cannot be static. Overall, these findings show that the ways in which project manager skills and competencies are presented in literature is limited. They further indicate that to be the most effective leader, the project manager requires a changing mix of skills and competencies, depending on the project being delivered.

The results also show that the work of the project manager may not consistently be a good fit with the skills and competencies viewed as most important for project manager success. While there was some overlap between the most important project manager skills and competencies from the general list, when compared with the most important work of project managers, research participants indicated surprise at the apparent gaps.

According to literature, project leadership is becoming more important to the field of project management. As noted, Kotter (2001) stated that while management is about effectively dealing with complexity, leadership involves dealing with change. The nature of projects is changing—becoming larger, more complex, having heterogeneous teams and greater uncertainty—as they are becoming more prevalent. In this context, it is increasingly important to have a clear idea of the work involved to deliver projects successfully, and knowledge of the best combination of skills and competencies for the project manager to be most effective.

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©2006 Project Management Institute

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