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June 30, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 6


The dynamics of complex projects and the changing nature of work demand skills beyond traditional project management — they call for project leadership.

The nature of work today has moved project management far from its beginnings in command-and-control organizations defined by rigid hierarchies and clear lines of authority. For complex projects, mastery of the traditional dimensions of project management such as cost, schedule, and performance is necessary but insufficient. In a world where decentralized teams, international partnerships, and working alliances among government, industry, universities, and nonprofit organizations are increasingly the norm, the leadership of complex projects also requires advanced skills in areas such as negotiation, persuasion, and collaboration.

The problems that complex projects seek to solve are novel in nature — they are often “firsts” or “onlies.” The Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and the James Webb Space Telescope are all examples of complex projects focused on novel problems; new technologies or processes had to be invented to accomplish them. The teams that have undertaken these projects have been multidisciplinary, bringing together experts in technical disciplines, business processes, logistics, information technology, and a variety of other domains, working virtually across time zones, geographic borders, and sectors.

The watchword for complex projects is adaptation, not stability, as many variables remain outside the control of the project manager throughout the duration of the project. The lack of direct control in a complex project environment goes against the grain of a traditional managerial culture, which values control. “Managers see themselves as conservators and regulators of an existing order of affairs with which they personally identify and from which they gain rewards,” wrote Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik in a classic article on the distinction between leaders and managers. Since complex projects are undertaken explicitly to transform the existing order — think of the science discoveries enabled by the Hubble Space Telescope — their very nature is antithetical to linear management. Similarly, the innovation required for project success does not always take place as planned or scheduled. Complex project leadership requires the ability to adapt to constantly changing dynamics. In this context, rigid control-based approaches represent a finger in the dike.

What do I mean by leadership? A project leader needs the ability to articulate a vision of project success that motivates excellent people to adapt and innovate. Projects are first and foremost about people, and one of the critical responsibilities of the leader is to define reality for the project team. This demands a clear understanding of the project’s context — both its internal storyline (the narrative that team members tell each other) and its place in the broader scheme of the organization and the world. Project leadership also calls for a level of comfort with risk and uncertainty. Complex projects inherently involve a great deal of risk, and they are subject to uncertainties that fall outside the control of the project leader. An unanticipated spike in the price of titanium, a change in political leadership, or a foreign policy issue with an international partner can have direct consequence for a project. Navigating through those uncertainties and finding a way to succeed is the essence of project leadership.

The best way to illustrate the nature of project leadership is through stories. One that comes to mind is a story that Dennis McCarthy, the deputy project manager of COBE, has recounted in an Academy case study about the challenge of finding a way into orbit after the Challenger accident. COBE was slated to launch on the Shuttle, and its design reflected the capabilities and limitations of the Shuttle. With the Shuttle grounded indefinitely, COBE’s future was in doubt. The morning after the accident, still reeling from the shock of the loss of the crew, Dennis called a meeting of everyone involved with the project. “I pulled everybody together, and we decided to keep going. My job was to get this into space, whatever the way.”


That is the essence of project leadership. There are many such stories across NASA.

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