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Leadership Is Taken, Not Given – Part 3: Execution and Closeout

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In our last post, we introduced the concept of Defining Moments for projects and their leaders. Unlike in life, they are predictable–they arise at certain points, or “hotspots,” of projects.

We’ve already covered the hotspots pertaining to planning, but as the ancient saying goes, “A mediocre strategy well executed is better than a great strategy poorly executed.” As such, this post will demonstrate effective leadership during the Execution and Closeout phases of a project.

Mission to Execution Disconnect

Defining Moment #3: Execution

In Part 1 of the series, we discussed the project manager’s paradox: the responsibility to control projects without tangible authority in the organization. This paradox is why the axiom, “Leadership is taken, not given” is so much more than just a cliche for project managers.

An effective way to take control during execution with minimal antagonistic confrontation is to keep projects in a natural rhythm and cadence. The key is to always keep the balls off your side of the net. Worry about your own responsibilities and leave the aspects of the project you can’t easily control to those who are responsible for them. When you take care of all the Next Steps that are incumbent on you, then the “balls” tend to be returned back to you in a regular rhythm.

Tennis Balls Side of Net

The reason it works is because it leaves no room for the blame game: when everyone’s done 75% of what they’re supposed to (for example), then whenever the project isn’t where it needs to be, both sides will tend to blame the other side for the 25% they didn’t do. But when you go into meetings with every one of the Next Steps on your side ticked, it doesn’t take long for the other members of the project to fall in line, knowing that anything that goes wrong is on them.

This is the fundamental criteria for controlling a project. Notice how objective control is in this context. When you ask project managers if they’re in control of a project, they often given an answer along the lines of “I feel like it’s going well.” But control is not a matter of opinion: you either are or you are not keeping execution processes on a regular, cyclical basis; collecting actuals for cost, labor, and schedule on a weekly (or monthly) cycle; and analyzing variances to the baseline.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other factors in project success. Some projects that are within control fail, just as some projects that are out of control flail their way to success. The idea is to maximize your success rate, and you do that by satisfying the objective criteria for project control.

But we operate in the real world, so we don’t want to give the impression that projects will be completely free of conflict. Even when everyone does what they are expected, things will go wrong and adjustments will have to be made.

These adjustments are pivotal. If companies were to do a postmortem on all of their failed projects, the most common finding for project failure would be traced back to scope creep. As the saying goes large projects fall a year behind one day at a time. Massive project reconfigurations are generally the result of a mixture of denial and negligence on the project manager’s end. Project managers who are in control–whose fingers are always on the vital signs of the project–are able to accommodate for the unforeseen by revising the plan, re-baselining, planning contingencies, etc. When the scope creeps up and the project manager goes in denial–being a wishful thinker instead of a leader–then problems materialize, which means budgets are exceeded, deadlines are missed, and specs aren’t met.

Iron Triangle

As we covered last week, though, being proactive will involve confronting pain. Change management–even if it’s done incrementally as part of a regular, rhythmic process–will still involve negotiating an arm of the Iron Triangle: you can’t have better, faster, and cheaper. We also emphasized in Defining Moment #2: Initiation the importance of making it clear to stakeholders that unforeseen things will happen and, in those cases, an impact analysis will cost time and money and change management will involve a compromise of either schedule, budget, or scope.

Preparing stakeholders for this, though, won’t make everything a cake walk in the execution stage. Effective project leaders must be deft at operating in the gray area, negotiating the optimal solution. Notice, we say “optimal” and not “perfect” because there will not be a perfect solution. As the saying goes, negotiation’s done right when both sides are dissatisfied. The problem solving itself often isn’t even the toughest part of this process; it takes certain acute soft skills to be able to make everyone agreeable to the solution.

In summary, the most resistance-free path to success is to keep the project in rhythm by keeping all the balls off your side of the court. When you do this, you are in control of the project, which gives the project the best chance (note: not guaranteed) for success. However, projects still seldom cruise to success following the plan perfectly–customers will add requirements, servers will go down, resources will perform below expectation, etc. In these cases, project managers must remain proactive, making incremental accommodations to the plan, and when the project is impacted, negotiate in the gray area.

Defining Moment #4: Closeout

Since we’ve been preaching praction, proaction, proaction all throughout this series, it might not come as a surprise that the real secret to a successful Closeout is success in the preceding processes. Whatever problems have gone unresolved from Definition, Initiation, and Execution will snowball and amass in Closeout. When there were unclear completion criteria in Scope Definition, then you’ll end up delivering what you think you promised but the customer won’t get what they thought they bought. When parts of the project aren’t incrementally closed out during execution, then you end up trying to win with a Hail Mary instead of stringing together a series of first downs.

There are of course responsibilities that don’t commence until Closeout (eg: you have to follow-up on out-of-scope activities and handoff to the stakeholders), but Closeout is a defining moment insofar as it’s when proactive leaders who took the reigns on potential problems as early as possible shine. Conversely, it’s when managers who had no control of the project start to feel all of the pain they sought to avert.

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