The art of leading large projects to success

Size does matter- these three simple words made famous by pop culture are extremely relevant to leading huge business projects.

A Mckinsey article uses the term ‘ultralarge’ to describe such projects- typically valued at $1 billion or more. These projects, which could take up to five years or more to finish offer a unique challenge to leaders what with the intricacies of decision making and parameters involved.

While the ‘science’- the processes and systems often implemented with incredible engineering skills-  are key to the success of such projects, the article draws our attention to what it terms as the ‘art’ of huge project management. This latter refers to the soft skills and related mental attributes required for ultralarge project leadership.

Based on extensive research, they have identified certain qualities successful leaders display in this context.

These come under three broad categories:

1)Practices in the setting-up phase

2)Practices in the delivery phase


Let’s take a look at each of them.

The world of large project leadership is quite distinct

1.Practices in the setting-up phase

Defining the shared vision and culture

A team without a shared purpose or culture is poised to fail. Unless the objective is clear to everyone involved and they have a certain degree of passion to achieve that objective, the team would be like a three legged horse- it wouldn’t go far.

This is especially true in the case of large projects. Due to the longer execution times involved in such projects, it would be harder for the team to sustain their interest in the project until the end unless the objective resonates strongly with them.

The Temenos Vision Lab(TVL) is extremely relevant in this regard. Developed based on 25 years of business consultancy experience and psychological insights, TVL helps a team realize a Compelling Shared Vision.

Bringing together the right team

Every project calls for a particular set of skills and mindsets. For a successful project execution, it is important to have the right team members with the relevant attributes.

In TVL, using the proprietary tool called Influence Maps, the team members explore their inner selves and share their values and aspirations with each other. This helps you gain insights into the mindset of the individuals, their approach to work, and also the arenas in which they could improve.

The steps in Influence Maps

As a leader, you could help bolster what’s lacking in them, and encourage further development of attributes which could help in the project.

Allocating risks appropriately

Risks are an inevitable part of any project- especially large projects.

Rather than thinking of tackling them as and when they arise, the intelligent leader could anticipate them and allocate the risks to those team members who are most well equipped to handle them if/when they arise. The better understanding of each team member which TVL enables as mentioned before helps in this regard too.

Building relationships

Be it your own team members or the contractors’, it is imperative that the leader establish a strong relationship with them- one that is both transparent and fair.

Granted that it’s a business endeavor that has brought everyone together. But for smooth proceeding of the project, the leader should establish a relationship that goes beyond the contractual or business-like.

In building and sustaining strong relationships, one key aspect or ‘force’ within a container(team) you should understand is safety. It refers to the limit beyond which pushing a transformation would be counter-productive. If you overstep that boundary, your subordinates would rebel and the relationship would fumble.

2.Practices in the delivery phase

Investing in the team

As mentioned before huge projects take significant time to finish. During this period, the team members would need to continually evolve and keep acquiring both hard and soft skills. The leader has a responsibility to see that this consistent and meaningful evolution does happen.

One of the major stumbling blocks in the path of a change agent’s evolution are the misapprehensions and fears regarding processes and changes they may have acquired in the past.

The Clean Slate session- included in the TVL- is a powerful antidote to this. By enabling individuals to identify and eliminate the negative mental aspects that pull them back, the change agents could move on with only those attributes that would help their further professional evolution.

Ensuring decision-making without delay

Like most cliches the adage, “A stitch in time saves nine” is true.

Decisions made in a timely manner would not only help keep the project moving onwards, they could also help avert potential disasters. And it is something that successful leaders are particularly good at.

The capability of timely decision-making is linked to the aspect of ‘Here and Now’- which refers to the ability of a change agent to be present- both in time and space in the current moment. This attribute is learnable and makes the change agent focused enough to take decisions without a muddied mind.

Prompt decisions help move the project smoothly towards the future

Adopting future-facing performance management

Regardless of the amount of work you put into establishing relationships and nurturing skills among your team members, performance from individuals may be found lacking at some point in time. That’s not an ominous proclamation, rather a realistic observation.

In these situations, the leader should initiate dialogues with the concerned team member that would bolster accountability in the latter. Such interventions should ideally be done as soon as a problem with performance is identified. It could even be a pre-emptive measure to prevent problems from arising in the first place.

In such scenarios, the leader could benefit from the attribute of ‘attunement’ which is the ability to glean accurately the contents in the mind of the person they are interacting with- in this case the team member. An accurate grasp on the thoughts of the person helps you guide them in a direction more meaningful to the future of the project.

Nurturing desired behaviors in the team members

Inspiration is the key when it comes to driving desired behaviors in your team members.

For that, the leader should stay inspired themselves.

This is possible if their approach to management or the project itself is aligned with a strong personal vision. Just as a compelling shared vision would help the team stay motivated, a True Personal Vision would form the inspiration for the leader, in turn helping him/her inspire others.


Leading the project as a business

Ultralarge projects are more akin to a business than a standalone project, in that the number and complexity of decisions the leader would have to make are atypically large. Savvy leaders of huge projects enter the picture with this understanding, mentally equipped to tackle business-level challenges in the context of a project.

To view the project as a business- as a larger entity than what you are used to see in the context of a project is important. Context is the collection of different attributes pertaining to a project- from its past to the financial elements to the distinct skills and experience of each team member, and more. You could explore deeper the concept of Context here.

Being accountable for the results

Having mentioned the larger number of decisions to make, it must be added that you should also be accountable for the outcomes of these decisions. And when a particular outcome is negative, instead of making excuses or blaming colleagues, the successful leader would own the outcomes, and take the appropriate measures to remedy the situation.

Unfortunately, consistent failure to take accountability of one’s action could be a blind spot in a leader’s internal makeup. The good news is that Influence Maps offers a potent solution to avoid the trap of leadership blind spots. You could explore this idea in more detail here.

Working in sync with the contractor

Solving problems together in a relation based on trust- that’s the core of a leader’s relationship with a contractor.

While it’s important to form a good rapport with your subordinates, equally important is it to work along with the contractor for mutual success. And of course, it’s not just with an individual contractor that you establish this rapport, but with an entire contract team.

In this context, the idea of sympathy gains significance. Sympathy refers to the ability to accurately judge the mindset of others in a group.

Ensuring all team members are on the same page is an art unto itself

Knowing when leadership is required over process

While systems and processes are essential cogs in the machinery of the project, a leader should also be aware of the limitations of these. There would inevitably be times when a leader would have to interfere to smoothen out some hiccup.

Knowing when you step in and when to let the processes run is a strong mental attribute of successful leaders.

The aforementioned intervention could even be the spur that causes a team member’s inner archetype- the truest essence of the change agent within a transformation- is activated. Activation is a fascinating element observed in transformational containers, and is worthy of deeper reading.

Pertaining to nudging your followers into an empowered position, you should also watch the following video talk by David Marquet- a retired U.S Navy Captain and author of the leadership book, ‘Turn the ship around!’

Banner image: Photo by Pavel Nekoranec on Unsplash

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