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Six Things to Consider Before Assigning a Project Leader

By Ron Montgomery (1343 words)
Posted in Project & Process Management on December 27, 2012

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By Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC

Finding the right person for the job is always an important hiring decision, but often overlooked when assigning project leadership roles.  Why do you think that is the case? Many times project leadership roles are “assignments” instead of “appointments”.  That distinction creates a mindset that can set your project, your employee, and your company up for failure.  Ask yourself: Does your company assign your best employees to lead your important business projects, or do you appoint the best project leaders to do the job?  A great subject matter expert does not mean he or she will be able to successfully mediate between functional teams and a steering committee, work & communicate across departmental silos, or drive cross functional teams to meet deadlines.  These are unique change management skills that will make or break your project’s success.


Here is a real world example of a project doomed to failure because company leaders assigned a project manager for the wrong reasons.  Don’t make this mistake in your organization; it can demoralize your best employees, hurting more than the project’s success, but the day-to-day flow of your existing organization.  Set your business, and your employees up for success by learning from the mistakes of others.


Lessons Learned from a Project Doomed to Failure

Jim had been with the company for 20 years and had worked as a systems analyst during the implementation of the current accounting software package 15 years ago.  He knew the software package better than anyone, and had been the leader of the support and maintenance team for the past 10 years.


Jim’s company had changed greatly over the years, and the vendor of the old accounting system had gone out of business.  It was time to replace the system, and everyone knew it.  A Steering Committee consisting of business and technical executives was formed to sponsor and direct the replacement of the system.  The Steering Committee selected Jim as the project manager, and kicked off a software evaluation project to select a new application software package.  Jim was assigned a team of subject matter experts to define business requirements and evaluate software packages against those requirements.  Jim’s team completed Request for Qualification, Request for Proposal, and contract negotiation activities.  The Steering Committee secured the funds to acquire the package and to fund a team to work with the vendor to complete the implementation.  The Steering Committee established a $3.5 million budget for the implementation project and set a goal to implement the system within the next 18 months.  Jim was assigned a team of 10 subject matter experts (SME), including employees and consultants, and began planning the implementation.


Jim worked with his team to develop implementation plans.  The data conversion SME documented 48 pages of issues associated with moving the data from the old system to the new one.  The accounting SME was concerned about the ability of her team to learn the new system in just 18 months.  The I.T. SME was worried about the learning curve for the new DBMS.  Jim listened carefully to each of these SME’s and he thoroughly understood every issue they raised.  Over a 6-week period, Jim conducted daily meetings with his team to try to define an implementation plan that met the Steering Committee’s goal to implement in 18 months.  Jim would commiserate with his team and was sure that the conversion and implementation was going to take several years because of the complexity of the issues.  The project was doomed to failure.  The stress was taking a toll on Jim, as several team members noticed erratic behavior and what appeared to be a drinking problem. 


The Steering Committee recognized that Jim was over his head, and decided to replace him with a new project manager, Phil, who had just joined the company.  Jim took a SME role in support of Phil.  Phil worked with the team to develop a staged implementation plan, beginning with a model office, and then converting one operating unit at a time.  The new plan would take a total of two years – six months longer than the Steering Committee’s deadline.  However, Phil was able to sell the Steering Committee on the approach because it reduced risks and allowed benefits to begin to accrue earlier.    


The project was implemented within the planned two-year timeframe, and there were many difficulties along the way.  A few of the 48 pages of issues identified by the data conversion SME arose and were resolved during the course of the project.  Phil engaged external subject matter experts to help the I.T. SME address concerns with the new DBMS.  The incremental approach reduced the training concerns of account SME.


The case described above is a true story and only the names and a few minor facts were changed.


There are Six Lessons to be Learned by This Case:

  • Success criteria (schedule, budget, and quality measures) defined at the outset of a project can and should be challenged as new information becomes available
  • Being a subject matter expert does not qualify someone as a project manager of a large, complex initiative
  • It is very tempting, and quite destructive, for a project manager to revert to the role of subject matter expert and try to personally resolve the concerns and issues raised by team members
  • Leaders must possess the mental discipline to avoid the temptation to despair
  • Project sponsors and Steering Committee members should be sensitive to the impact of pressures on the team and the project manager and provide support and assistance as required
  • With a complex project, a phased project approach should be considered in order to reduce risks, provide quick demonstration of value, and separate the real issues from those that are merely hypothetical


Project Management is a trained skill.  Take the time in your organization to fill these important roles with qualified employees, contractors and consultants.


Note to project sponsors:  Every major project provides ample opportunity for the organization to learn and improve.  Consider requiring a formal lessons learned report at the end of each project, then take action to translate those lessons into concrete actions for incremental improvement.


{#/pub/images/RonMontgomery1.jpg}Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.


Do you have a management question for Ron?  Post it in our Project Management Community and he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in: 

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Learn How Action Oriented Team Management Can Drive Timely Results.

Communication: Fundamental to Project Success

Four SMART Principles of Project Management


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Comments (1)

James Dykstra posted on: January 2, 2013

Very true!

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