Poorly run information technology projects are often the cause of delays or failure when implementing business innovation. Even the most conservative studies point to low success rates for IT projects — especially the large, so-called “black swan” projects that can cripple an enterprise when they go off-track.
Of all of the factors that help predict project success, the project managers’ competence tops the list. Consequently, it’s in a firm’s best interest to develop the best possible project managers.
For my doctoral study, I asked a group of senior project managers to tell me about the most developmental experiences in their careers. The stories came from 23 companies across five countries. Sixty-four stories later, the results were not surprising.
The project managers talked about losing sleep, working long hours, being in way over their heads, enduring spectacular failures and ultimately learning to cope with the astounding pressures of the job. Through these trials, they learned significant lessons about managing the scope of the work, communicating more effectively and moving from the role of victim to success-driver. They cited formal training at the start of their careers as important, with experience and reflection playing a more prominent role as they progressed.
The project managers also discussed the people who helped them along the way. Colleagues, bosses, senior managers, even customers played a role in helping through coaching, advice or just being a person who could listen. Interestingly, the study participants found that other people played a much more supportive role than direct managers — a fact perhaps related to the temporary nature of most project teams in IT.
Using insights from this research study, the IT services organization in Deutsche Post DHL, a global mail and logistics services group, ran a pilot program in 2013 to help 13 senior project managers develop via the experiences that challenged them every day. Program participants from all over the world were nominated by top management.
These project managers started the program with a homework assignment — to interview 10 people around them and present a concise summary of their strengths and blind spots. Then, at a short off-site retreat, the individuals formed groups with top project leaders in DPDHL acting as coaches and facilitators. The groups met every three weeks to review project status, talk about risks and brainstorm ways to improve outcomes and stakeholder relationships.
This process continued for six months before the entire group held a final in-person meeting. All participants had to present to senior management a concise review of what they decided to focus on improving, how they worked with their coaching group and how their changed behavior affected the project.
A multi-rater assessment of participant project competency showed positive development. Specifically, about 60 percent of group members were perceived as ready to take on the next level of project. In addition, every one of the groups elected to continue their meeting structures even after the formal program was closed. It turned out that a small group of trusted colleagues was the support mechanism these managers were missing.
The pilot also revealed that people who made the biggest gains were those in the middle of a particularly challenging situation. It was best to target people who are staring up the face of a big project mountain.
To build a better project manager, you can’t shy away from difficult experiences and big challenges, but you can help project leaders know themselves better while providing a support structure for them to lean on when times get tough.