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Managing a project? Your success depends on more than just good planning.

an engineer's desk

Projects are vehicles for innovation and change. When an organisation wants to advance, re-pivot or innovate they assign the challenge to a ‘project’ and start eagerly planning. Whilst some have success, more often than not projects lurch from one deadline to the next, losing money and support as they go.

Dr Kishore Sengupta

Dr Kishore Sengupta

Dr Kishore Sengupta, Reader in Operations Management at Cambridge Judge Business School, believes this is due to an overreliance on project ‘mechanics’ and a lack of understanding about what it takes to build ‘project capability’. Kishore comments, “Too often we see projects in isolation. We view projects without context and fail to adequately bring our experience to the process”.

So what are the common traits of successful project leaders and what skills can leaders look to develop in themselves?

The six common traits of successful project leaders

Based on extensive research, analysing hundreds of projects around the world, Kishore Sengupta identifies the six common traits of successful project leaders:

  • Successful project leaders think beyond the mechanics (i.e. deliverables, resources, and timelines) of a project.
  • They see how their projects fit with the ‘bigger picture’ objectives and goals of the company.
  • They can assess the unique characteristics of a project (for example a project based on innovation versus a project with clear deliverables) and can adapt their management approach to suit the objectives.
  • They have a good grasp on the potential risks of a project and their impact before getting started.
  • Strong leaders are not reactive. They will manage uncertainties and re-pivot quickly.
  • They can spot problems early and have the leadership skills to communicate and deal with issues before they start to impact on the overall success of the project.

What you can do as project leader

So what can you as project leader do to develop your skills and improve your project success rate?

  • Work on your influencing skills. Projects are all about managing and influencing people, especially around uncertainties.
  • Make sure you negotiate the scope of the project so it works for the overall strategy of your business.
  • Don’t be too rigid in your management of the project ‘mechanics’ – keep your eye on the end goal.
  • Communicate with the people in and around your project. Share the challenges as well as the successes, you’ll be respected for doing so.
  • Set identifiable, clear goals and deadlines but don’t be too rigid. Your ability to cope with uncertainty is crucial.