In Tough Times, Project Management is Not Enough

In tough times, project management is not enough. People get scared and uncertain, and they need leadership to keep them motivated, confident and effective.

Who am I talking about?

Projects do more than inhabit an environment: they create one. They have a powerful effect on the people, procedures and interactions that surround them. The effects ripple outwards, so that when a project starts to go wrong, many people are affected: the project manager and the team, the project sponsor and the project steering group or board that oversees the project, the user groups and business owners, the suppliers, contractors and technical experts, and the stakeholders and bystanders.

So in tough times, “purple bus leadership” becomes essential.

Purple Bus Leadership

A project leader is able to inspire and motivate others to stay calm and contribute effectively in tough times, as well as manage them when they do. Think about two buses.

The Yellow Bus

People have to get onto the yellow bus to get where they have to go. It is well-maintained and safely driven. If it breaks down on the way, the passengers are confident that the driver will know what to do. But they cannot help but feel concerned about whether they chose the right bus, and whether it will be able to get them where they need to go.

The Purple Bus

People hear the driver of the purple bus talking about the destination, and they want to get on. They enjoy the journey and find it stimulating. They trust the driver and, if the bus breaks down, they all get out and want to help. They are confident that the driver is in control and they wait to be told what needs to be done.

Three Challenges in Tough Times

Project leaders face three challenges in tough times: resistance from people who have perceived and legitimate concerns, dealing with problems and adverse circumstances, and staying tough when you’d rather just quit.

Meeting Resistance

In times of change, resistance is inevitable. Dealing positively with that resistance is a great enough challenge at the best of times, but when you are under pressure, it can feel as if the whole world is against you.

Project leaders must understand the psychology of resistance and be able to diagnose the type of resistance that they encounter, understand why they are getting it, and have a toolbox of resources to help them engage with it constructively.

Although resistance can take many forms, it tends to sit at one of five levels, with most fundamental being: “I don’t understand why we need to change.” Here, the resistor is unaware of the external pressures for change and is therefore, quite reasonably, questioning why you are investing time, effort and resources in making a change at all. This is nothing more nor less than the old refrain: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

As we go down through the levels, the resistance gets hotter and more complex to handle. At this first level, you need to make the evidence of the need for change clear, finding the best way to represent it so that your resister can understand and internalise it. At the next level, you are going to have to work harder.

At level two, you are likely to hear something more like this: “I don’t understand why this change.” Now the resister gets the need for change, but fails to see how or why your project is the right response. As you deal with each layer, you are likely to find more beneath it. That’s why I call this the “Onion Model of Resistance”. Read more about this in The Handling Resistance Pocketbook.

Up against it

When something goes wrong, a knee jerk reaction is rarely effective and never wise. Instead, project leaders should deploy the SCOPE process to take control of their response to the problem.

The SCOPE process is a five step process for mentally taking control of a situation.

  • Stop
    Mentally and physically pause. Avoid rushing in.
  • Clarify
    Seek out all relevant facts that will help you understand the situation and its potential consequences.
  • Options
    Identify alternative options for your response, and evaluate each against potential consequences. Select your course of action.
  • Proceed
    Now act decisively.
  • Evaluate
    Review outcomes against your evaluation and, if you are not getting the results you expected, Stop – Clarify, select a new Option, …

Staying Tough

Perhaps the biggest challenge in tough times is to remain tough yourself. By “tough”, I don’t mean “hard” or “assertive”, but resilient. For me, resilience marks an important difference between a capable project leader and a great project leader. When things go wrong, resilient project leaders start to shine. An aura of confidence and optimism draws people towards them, inspires trust and confidence, and creates a willingness to follow.

Maintaining your resilience requires both mental and physical discipline. You cannot take the objective, partially detached perspective you will need if you are tired, mentally drained and physically exhausted. Adrenalin will help, but followers need to see calm at the centre of the storm, so here are some top tips for how to create the basis for resilience in the teeth of adversity.

  • Stay optimistic
    Look at the opportunities and resources you have available to you with a positive eye and keep your focus on what needs to be achieved. In the face of setbacks, acknowledge them, but don’t dwell on them. Learn the lesson and move on to the next thing.
  • Suppress the temptation for blame
    Whether aimed at yourself or others, blame serves no purpose. People know what they have done – the thing that matters is to overcome the problem and all blame will do is foster fearfulness at a time when you most need courage.
  • Be objective
    Look at the evidence of what has happened as objectively as you can avoid the temptation to let false, limiting or magical beliefs cloud your judgement. Acknowledge your beliefs about events, and then challenge them robustly, by testing them against all of the evidence, before you act on them. At stressful times we tend to personalise adversity, or focus on one causal factor – which may not be the most significant, if it is relevant at all.
  • Take care of yourself
    Be sure to make time for good quality food, sufficient exercise and plenty of rest, so that when a crisis hits, your batteries have reserves of energy. If the crisis continues, then make sure you recharge those batteries from time to time.

This essay is linked to Part 3 of Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton.


Brilliant Project Leader

What the best project leaders know, do and say to get results, every time.

Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton

Brilliant Project Leader
Order here

“This has the ability to greatly enhance your effectiveness and capability.  It is a must read for all current or aspiring project leaders.”
Charles Vivian
Head of Programme and Project Leadership
North Highland, UK


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