Getting a Grip on Chaos, Part 2: 9 Core Practices for Leading an Extreme Project

Катерина Булатова

In today’s increasingly dynamic project world, more and more project managers are finding themselves riding an extreme project--a venture characterized by high speed, high change, high complexity and high stress. What does it take to succeed?

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I pointed out that exteme projects live in the chaordic zone, which is the space between order and unbounded chaos. Here, the project manager is a navigator and facilitator of disorder. To succeed in the chaordic zone requires a change-tolerant worldview that I call the quantum or leader’s mindset. This is in contrast to the Newtonian or stabilizer (read “manager”) mindset. Which is your dominant mindset? To find out, scroll down to see Table 1 in Part 1.

The leadership model presented here combines the quantum mindset with nine leadership practices that have emerged out of my work with close to 275 project teams.

The 9 Leadership Practices

These nine leadership practices are not to be taken as the be-all and end-all. Rather, adapt them and build on them to reflect your own leadership style and years of experience. Also, the practices are not linear; that is, they overlap in places and reinforce each other.

1. Lead Yourself

Leader, lead thyself. I have a saying that goes, “Leadership by example is worth 1000 commands.” Here then are hallmarks of self-leadership. The extreme project leader can say:

  • I have impeccable integrity.
  • I am a student of life.
  • I live a healthy lifestyle.
  • I manage my emotional triggers and my moods.
  • I am courageous in telling the truth and practicing intelligent disobedience.
  • I work on my strengths and weaknesses.
  • When I make a mistake, I admit it, learn from it and move on.

2. Exercise Motivational Intelligence

Motivational intelligence helps to keep projects in a good mood. Extreme project leaders know that good-mood projects do better than bad-mood projects. Here are some hallmarks of motivational intelligence:

  • I recognize that projects are people.
  • I appeal to intrinsic motivators (e.g., a sense of purpose, leaving a legacy, professional mastery, autonomy and freedom with responsibility).
  • I’m empathic: I acknowledge feelings before presenting the facts.

3. Form a Mutually Accountable Core Team

It’s shocking to me the number of phantom project teams. They exist on paper only. I say, “No core team, no project. “ The extreme project leader knows how to form a motivated core team. S/he can say:

  • We share a common project purpose and process (for decision reaching, conflict resolution, running meetings, communications, etc.).
  • We hold each other mutually accountable.
  • We have a strong sponsor with political and financial clout.

4. Apply Dynamic Planning and Control

A short way of saying this is: we plan, de-plan and re-plan. Some of the hallmarks of dynamic planning are:

  • We allow project metrics to fluctuate within an acceptable range (e.g., budget between $X and $Y amounts. Same for quality, scope, schedule and projected ROI.).
  • We apply a best-fit project management framework (not limiting ourselves to a prescribed methodology).
  • We keep an up-to-date project uncertainty profile in addition to classic risk assessment.
  • We continually and proactively anticipate uncertainty and incorporate it into our project plan by: decoupling uncertainty-ridden tasks from others; using redundancies; time buffers in between uncertain tasks; dividing the project into sub-projects based on high and low uncertainty.

5. Ensure Integration, Collaboration and Flow

Complex projects are like a jigsaw puzzle where the parts keep moving and changing shape. With so many interdependencies, poor handoffs cause extreme projects to fall apart at the seams. Indicators are lots of rework, schedule slippages, compromised quality and scope. Impact: the venture plunges into a bad mood.

In order to help mitigate the poor-handoff killer of projects, the extreme project leader ensures that there is a shared consciousness. Everyone on the project needs to be able to say:

  • We have a common understanding of the project purpose (not just the objectives) as well as the context and win conditions.
  • We have a product vision: an up-to-date representation of the final deliverable.
  • We have an up-to-date, high-level picture of the entire enchilada, showing all the sub-projects and their inter relationships (e.g., a network or dependency diagram serving as the puzzle’s box top).
  • We conduct frequent project-wide integration meetings.
  • If needed, an integration leader is in place.

A project is only as sick as its secrets. In support of flow, the extreme project leader is able to say:

  • We continually ask: What’s working? Not working? What’s worrying you? What should we do about it? This is what I call exorcising the project of its FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt.
  • We continually and quickly eliminate barriers and problems.
  • We put into practice the motto that says, “Collaborate or disintegrate.”
  • 6. Build Trust and Confidence

The extreme project leader is acutely aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy: “If we think we can, we can. If we think we can’t, we can’t. In either case, we’re right.” S/he and members of the project network are able to say with feeling that:

  • We have clarity of purpose.
  • We have reliable client collaboration.
  • The client sees value early and often.
  • Problems are surfaced and quickly resolved.
  • Transparency and honest communication abound.

7. Unleash Innovation

The ability to succeed in the chaordic zone requires innovation on multiple levels: new products, services, processes, policies and the elimination of whatever blocks the flow of energy through the project body. The chaordic zone is a slaughterhouse for sacred cows. The extreme project leader will set the tone for innovation with practices like these:

  • We question tradition: those products, policies, processes, practices and vendors that block us.
  • We interact frequently with customers.
  • We ask, “Who will win and who will lose as a result of our success?” and take appropriate action.
  • We practice rapid trial and error.
  • We recognize “nice tries.”

8. Encourage Distributed Leadership

The extreme project leader cannot afford to monopolize leadership. If the goal is to foster adaptive behavior in the trenches and to foment new ideas that can lead the project toward its goal, then distributed leadership is essential. The extreme project leader sets the tone:

  • We encourage new insights and game-changing ideas to emerge in the course of action and interaction.
  • We encourage a conflict of ideas.
  • We foster local self-correction in service of the project’s success criteria and metrics.

9. Influence the Influencers

There’s a saying that goes, “I keep my friends close. And I keep my enemies closer.” Projects can create winners and losers. Beyond that, there are stakeholders--during and after the venture--that are indispensable for the project’s success long after we’ve turned the lights out.

The sheer number and power of stakeholder groups in the chaordic zone can be daunting: customers, suppliers, the project office, regulatory agencies, other project managers, the general public, the project office. The extreme project leader will be able to say:

  • I spend 50% to 75% of my time influencing the influencers.
  • I have the courage to speak truth to power.
  • I know how to manage and lead my project sponsor.

Bottom Line

Extreme projects and life in the chaordic zone are not for every project manager. If by nature you see the world through the quantum mindset and you thrive in the chaordic zone, then use these nine leadership practices in good health, tailoring them to fit your personal style.

If the Newtonian-oriented mindset is the natural one for you, then you have a couple of options: Fake it ‘till you make it in the chaordic zone, or find a project management situation that is compatible with your personal orientation and strengths. I learned this lesson the hard way, having spent 22 years at one point trying to get better at something I didn’t like and believing that if I did get better at it, I would eventually like it. Wrong.

Source: Getting a Grip on Chaos Part 2
See part 1: Getting a Grip on Chaos, Part 1: It Takes a Quantum Mindset to Lead an Extreme Project