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Principles for Successful Projects

Or what we talk about when we talk about project leadership.

Do the right thing.

Always serve the best interests of the project, the client, and the team. Do what you know to be right, even when it is hard. Often times that means acknowledging and confronting difficult truths, and finding thoughtful and sensitive ways to discuss those issues with people who will be displeased. Doing the right thing requires a lot of courage, but pays off in winning the respect and trust of clients and colleagues.

Always deliver value.

Focus on delivering value to the client. Ask yourself daily (hourly if need be) what can I do that will be most valuable to the client and/or project? Ask yourself if the thing you are working on, or about to work on, is the most valuable thing you can be doing, and if not, what would be more valuable, and why aren’t you working on that?

Do what is needed.

Don’t let your job title or description limit what you contribute to a project. Do the things that are needed which you are capable of doing. Be sure to communicate with your team about what you plan to take on, and be willing to negotiate with them about sharing responsibilities.

Use your words.

Communicate with your colleagues, teammates, and clients by talking to them. Simple, direct conversations eliminate vast amounts of confusion, misunderstanding, and misalignment.

Communicate meaningfully and often.

Don’t just go through the motions of communication. Talk about what is relevant and important to discuss. It may be that you have a lot less to say (which is fine), so long as what you talk about is what really matters. Do this at every opportunity you have to talk with your team and client.

Communicate until understood.

Active communication, like active listening, means checking that the person you are communicating with actually understands what you mean and how to act on that information. Don’t simply “throw it over the wall” and hope it is received.

Explain the consequences.

Non-technically-oriented (and even some technically-oriented) people will not understand the consequences of how work to be done (or redone) affects things like schedule and budget. Explain what things mean in terms your audience will understand and grasp their impact.

Understand the needs versus the requests.

Don’t assume that how clients express what they want is the same thing as what is actually needed in the project. Dig in until you understand the need and not simply the ask. Don’t assume the solution they request is the best for solving the problem they have — they may not have insight into all possible solutions. Understand the problem they intend to solve with the solution they are requesting, and offer advice on their options for solving it.

Have honest conversations.

Honest conversations mean not avoiding uncomfortable or difficult topics. There are good reasons for everything — unpack the circumstances and explain it honestly and directly. Don’t be afraid to say precisely what you mean.

Be accountable for project success.

Be a leader in the project whether you have been assigned a leadership role or not. Lead by example by taking real ownership of your work and by stepping up to help guide others where you have a particular skill, experience, or knowledge. Speak up when you see something that isn’t right. Permit yourself calculated risks and failure. Give yourself permission to take calculated risks and to fail. The best way to implement change is directly in your projects, the place where you actually work and focus your energy. This takes project leaders who have the courage to take calculated risks, break process where needed, try new things, experiment, and innovate. Sometimes that means you are defining the process each time out, sometimes you are redefining in the middle of the project, but really you are redefining it better each time out rather than reproducing mediocre results (or worse, reproducing the same failures).

Allow others to take responsibility.

Don’t micromanage others — allow them to be responsible for their work. This means allowing them to make mistakes and fail. Help them learn from the mistakes, own them, and make fewer (or better) mistakes in the future. Micro-managing makes everyone rely solely on the micro-manager, and leaves no incentive to take ownership of their work.

Build trust.

You build trust within and beyond your team and project by delivering on the things you say you will do. Words are cheap, only results matter. It’s not enough to say, “We should make this change because it will really help,” if there’s no action to produce the resulting change. People lose faith and trust when you don’t act on ideas you suggest.

Exercise your empathy.

Be aware of the circumstances others are facing and act appropriately. Think about things from their point of view — try to understand what they are facing and how that may be shaping their behavior. Appreciate that we are all human beings with strengths and weaknesses, and no one is trying to be difficult on purpose. It takes effort and hard work to stay mindful of this and show empathy to others.

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