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5 transitions for effective project leadership

Inspiring project success
These new findings explore how expanding your cognitive and emotional capacity can help busy project leads tackle their project challenges

At some point in their career, senior leaders of complex or major projects will feel or have felt ‘in over their heads’. The onslaught of challenges that such projects bring can be relentless and push the limits of anyone, both intellectually and emotionally. When this occurs, adding new skills to your toolbox may not be enough: you need a bigger toolbox.

Our work over the last five years with senior project leaders in our Executive Leadership in Major Projects program suggests that ‘getting a bigger toolbox’ is about expanding your cognitive and emotional capacity to deal with tough project challenges. This may require a shift in the way you look at yourself and the world you live in, and can have a significant impact on your effectiveness as a project leader of major or complex projects.

We identified five transitions that show if such a shift has occurred or is occurring, and argue that enabling and supporting this sort of shift requires a very different approach to leadership development than the usual skill development approach.

1. Orchestrating dialogue

Some people see their project as a ‘thing’ (or asset) that they try to deliver, whether it is a building, software application, policy, or something else. This is a common perspective for young technical specialists or engineers. Others see their project as a system of resources, stakeholders etc. that they must manage or even control in order to deliver the asset. Project managers must be able to step up from an asset to such a system perspective. A third way of looking at projects is to see them as conversations. Someone who sees a project as a conversation will focus on orchestrating dialogue between the right people, at the right time, about the right issues. Such dialogue will then shape the system that delivers the asset, without necessarily getting in the detail of all of those conversations or trying to control its outcomes. Each of these three perspectives emphasises something different and is therefore best suited to a different task. However, executive leaders of major projects must be able to operate from this third perspective to avoid feeling in over their heads.

2. Guiding collaborative meaning-making

A second transition, which connects to the first, is that effective leaders of complex projects need to move beyond effectively communicating the ‘facts’. Instead they must help a broad range of stakeholders give meaning to the context, purpose, vision, rearrangement of social relationships and activities that make up the project. For example, people do not protest against a traffic tunnel because it is a hole in the ground. They protest because of what they think it means for them in terms of their health, house value, safety, amenity etc. The importance of meaning-making cuts across a broad range of leadership practices: the stories project leaders tell that reflect how they see themselves; how it can help build connections with teams and stakeholders; the meaning that is attributed to the project; how to describe and translate a strategic vision; or when explaining whether a project is ready to move forward to implementation.

Image of cohort 3 participants networking

3. Drawing on practical wisdom and judgment

We found that highly experienced practitioners increasingly rejected a blind reliance on generalized tools and techniques that appeared too simplistic or naïve. The complexity of context, the need for interpretation, and the role of negotiation and alignment of different groups of people creates a richness that cannot be fully captured in prescriptive decision-making tools and techniques. Instead of relying on supposed ‘best practice’ or existing tools, a project leader may use their wisdom and judgment to question and make new tools if the situation requires. However, if they lack the experience needed to have developed a sense of what ‘good’ looks like, they may be better off relying on ‘best practice’. Consequently, this transition also poses a risk to those whose confidence exceeds their relevant experience (‘hubris’).

4. Developing a range of power sources

Our research offered insights into the importance and many different forms of power in the execution of complex or major projects. While these projects may have the potential to generate significant additional value, some stakeholders will fear they may be disadvantaged and resist the project. Resistance is best reduced by using influence, and by genuinely listening to stakeholders and being empathetic to their interests. However, effective project leaders must also recognise when it is necessary and acceptable to the broader stakeholder population to use force, for example in the acquisition of property for an infrastructure project. Leaders of complex or major projects must therefore be able to carefully ‘feel’ their way through the concerns of stakeholders and negotiate a pathway for the project.

5. Negotiating project success

The concept of project success is complex and it may not always be clear what will be seen as project success or project failure. At its most simplistic level project success may be measured as delivering on time, within budget and in line with specifications. However, the research showed that on occasion parts of projects were spun off, specifications reduced, or time lines extended, enabling the project to still declare success. However, this manipulation of time line, budget or specifications to declare success is of less importance than whether a project was able to deliver value. The challenge is that value is much more ambiguous and difficult to capture. It may depend on stakeholder perspective, short or long term value, or alternative projects and outcomes that were rejected and the perception of success is therefore dependent on negotiation between people, instead of merely some sort of objective measurement.

In combination these 5 changes signal more than just some extra skills that were picked up by an effective leader of major or complex projects. They signal a fundamental increase in the capacity of the person to deal with the cognitive and emotional challenges of these projects.

Table: Transitions required for effective leadership of complex projects

These findings are based on the paper Project Leaders in Transition: Manifestations of Cognitive and Emotional Capacity by Dr Maurizio Floris and Professor Suresh Cuganesan, University of Sydney - John Grill Centre for Project Leadership, which has been accepted for publication in the highly regarded International Journal of Project Management (forthcoming).

Abstract: This research identifies key transitions for experienced leaders of complex projects who participated across three cohorts of our 12 month intensive project leadership development program. These included transitions towards orchestrating dialogue between the right people, at the right time, about the right issues; guiding collaborative meaning-making to align key stakeholders; drawing on practical wisdom and judgment to progress complex project challenges; developing a range of power sources, and sensing a pathway through power dynamics; and negotiating project success for key stakeholders based on a broad concept of value. There is no claim that all project leaders in the program demonstrated all these transitions or that the list is comprehensive. However, this research makes a contribution to project leadership by arguing that these transitions are manifestations of an increase in a more deeply rooted capacity to deal with cognitive and emotional complexity, rather than simply the acquisition of new knowledge or skills. We argue that this difference matters, particularly for senior leaders of complex projects who believe that their past ways of experiencing projects (both cognitively and emotionally) no longer suffices for the complexity they now must deal with. It also matters because expanding one’s capacity to deal with cognitive and emotional complexity requires a very different approach than the acquisition of new knowledge or skills.

Please contact if you would like a copy of the research.