How to get good project outcomes when you are not the boss
PR professionals are involved in a wide range of projects that require planning, coordination and implementation with others. This usually means working with inter-departmental or cross-functional team members. One of the most common problems arising in such projects is how to lead or shape the project when you have no formal power or authority over the other team members.
How can you get good team results when you are not the boss or if someone else is nominally the boss and is quite ineffectual?
Fortunately, there are various ways you can informally lead or influence a project outcome. You can lead such areas as communication (obviously!), team recognition for milestones achieved, project reviews, change management, measurement and reporting cycles.
These techniques are also suitable for projects in which you are formally the leader, because they help you avoid the problems of potential resentment and lack of cooperation that may arise when you outrank the other team members.
There are three general ways to increase your project control: project processes, influence and measurement. In this article we will look at influence, which is largely about communication.
The biggest single cause of project failure
Many project management experts believe communication is the single most important factor in the success or failure of a project. For instance, Dow and Taylor believe communication problems represent 90% of the reasons why projects fail (2008, p. xxix). This view is supported by Baker, cited in Ramsing (2009), who puts the figure even higher: ‘95% of all project problems are caused by poor communication’. Technical problems are relatively easy to resolve, but miscommunication can cause lingering problems unless the project leader puts in place a competent communication plan up front.
Most people’s experience in teams starts with their role as a contributor. If you are good contributor you tend to get appointed a team leader at some stage. Usually team leaders don’t have much formal authority or direction; they are left to manage or supervise a project as best they can.
The key to success is good people management, and this comes through good communication. The reality is that good communication is labor intensive – it needs sufficient time to be allocated to it. Time is always a scarce resource, and communication can be let slide as more tangible matters are dealt with. However, unless project leaders discipline themselves to allow enough time for proper people management of a project, they pave the way for problems.
Time is the key element
PR people always find time is a precious resource. We have to multi-task various activities simultaneously. In prioritizing our time, we should put the project management or coordination at the top of our task list, or close to the top. It is an easy trap to fall into to think the various members of the team will be working diligently on their part of the project and that they can be relied upon to complete their work adequately if left alone. But this doesn’t happen enough in real life. Instead, team members either let their project tasks slide down their to-do list as other priorities hit them, or they do some things wrong that need to be noticed and corrected by the team leader.
Another scenario is that many team leaders can’t easily make the transition to leading; they are still in ‘doing’ mode, doing the technicians’ work rather than spending their time on people management and communication. It is easy to slip back into old habits and become too ‘hands-on’, especially when you can do the tasks better than the team member. Your more important work is to lead others by becoming a generalist. Are you able to let go the ‘doing’ tasks?
Astute time allocation
For large projects in which people are working full-time, a rough guide is that team members do the technical work for about two thirds of their time and spend the balance of their time on meetings, email, phone calls, miscellaneous administration and personal activities.
In top organizations, less than 5% of project leaders’ time is spent on technical work, while 85% of their time is needed on people management and project coordination.
Team leaders working full-time on a project ideally should have a team of up to 8-10 team members, and they should spend about 10% of their time per team member for the duration of the project. Time would be spent on team meetings, meetings with individuals, email, collecting and writing progress reports, telephone calls, problem-solving and other interactions. Obviously a smaller team would need less time spent on leading it, and more time would be available for the leader to spend on other activities.
Dow, W., & Taylor, B. (2008). Project Management Communications Bible. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing.
Kendrick, T. (2006). Results without Authority: controlling a project when the team doesn’t report to you. New York: American Management Association.
Ramsing, L. (2009). Project communication in a strategic internal perspective. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 14(3), pp. 345–57.