Reframing Your Project: A Leadership Primer

Reframing your project:  essential leadership skills for project managers


Projects are the means for driving change in your organization.  Establishing a project management framework is a vital ingredient for a successful outcome, but to really drive change in an organization, and ensure that value is driven out of the project, leadership skills are required.  Project managers and project sponsors must be able to navigate their organizations and have the essential skills to:

  1. Green light the project
  2. Get scarce resources assigned to the project
  3. Remove roadblocks
  4. Satisfy the competing interests of stakeholders
  5. Motivate cross functional teams
  6. Influence laterally across silos
  7. Drive change

An organization is a complex ecosystem that can have a profound effect on a project.  To achieve each of the results above, a project manager and sponsor must have a blend of competencies including the ability to accurately read situations and see it from different perspectives. The classic leadership book Reframing Organizations (Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal) identifies four distinct lenses by which you can view an organization or a project:

1. Structural Lens: emphasis here is on structure, roles, responsibilities, and standard operating procedures.  The goal is to minimize the impact of silo behavior and to ensure information is shared, even if the news is not always good. Often organizations need to consider restructuring when there is significant enough change in how they do business.  For instance, many organizations are adopting agile practices which emphasize cross functional teams dedicated to a product or service.  Project leaders need to consider a project structure that is conducive to getting the work done but doesn’t conflict too much with organizational constraints.  Project leaders also know the extent of their direct authority is impacted by whether an organization is distinctly top-down driven or a matrix orientation.  In either scenario, project leaders ensure roles and responsibilities within the project team are clearly communicated including handoff points.  Project leaders are also very sensitive to the construct of their project’s governance, ensuring they know when their project is under review and who to provide status.

2. Human Resource Lens: emphasis here is on people.  Project leaders need to consider the working conditions in which their projects operate.  How to balance getting results while not burning out staff.  How to motivate individuals to gain commitment and how to support teams through their stages of development. Projects are a great way to help people learn new skills and possibly gain career advancement as a result of the project. Projects also force change on people, so project managers need to be skillful in:

  1. Communicating information about change so folks can get used to the idea.
  2. Creating a supportive environment for change so folks can be ready for it.

3. Political Lens: emphasis here is on power and conflict. Effective project leaders are skilled negotiators who understand they are fighting for scarce resources.  In order to protect their projects they have strong coalitions of supporters who advocate for the project.  Stakeholders all have competing interests, so it is critical for a project manager to address expectations and be sensitive to the fact that not everyone will get everything they want, but hopefully the project can deliver what they absolutely need.  A politically sensitive project lead is careful to manage the channels of communication in the project and to always demonstrate competence in speaking for the project.  In a political sense, people will follow who they like or who is validated by other powerful people.  Project leads know well they must leverage their influence to gain the trust and support of people who on any normal day work for someone else.

4. Symbolic Lens:  emphasis on culture, values, rituals, and stories.  Project leaders know how to use their project plans as a story to motivate teams. The kickoff meeting is a great example of a ritual where the urgency of the project and its benefits are communicated, typically by the senior sponsor.  Throughout the project the communications surrounding its status includes reminders of the goals, the challenges, the successes, and the heroic efforts of the team to deliver.  Project leaders also use the ritual of celebration to close down a project and document its lessons learned.  Lessons learned become stories or analogies in future projects to explain situations, problems or decisions needed, so a common understanding is achieved.  Effective project leads understand the role that ritual, story-telling and acknowledgement of mission have in gaining loyalty to their project.

Project managers and sponsors succeed when they not only leverage their procedural skills in running projects, but also their business leadership skills to effectively navigate their organizations.  Effectively navigating organizations requires a multi-frame awareness that ensures the right tactic is employed to remove roadblocks, motivate people, and optimize opportunities.

For a full list of our career-changing Project Management courses and for more information on corporate training, click here or call us at 1.800.288.7246.


References: Bolman, L. & Deal, T. (2013). Reframing Organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jolley-Bass

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