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On Leadership, Management, and the Specific Context

Based on my studies, I was able to uncover the common practices employed by successful project managers in order to cope with our dynamic environment. These practices of planning, control, collaboration, and communication have been described in four previous books that I authored or co-authored.14 However, only in recent years and with the help of the contributors to this book, I was able to better understand the crucial role of project leadership in project success, as well as the meaning of project management in this dynamic environment.

In my studies, I found that even the most effective planning, control, and risk management systems cannot eliminate the need for coping with frequent unexpected events and numerous problems throughout the life of a project. Most of the problems encountered throughout project life are technical; that is, they can be solved with knowledge and procedures already at hand. Although solving problems such as how to accelerate project speed or replace a contractor might require great flexibility and high responsiveness, these issues can be accomplished without challenging conventional habits and practices. They just require good managerial skills.

Other problems, however, are adaptive, that is, they are not so well defined, do not have clear solutions, and often require new learning and changes in patterns of behavior. For example, adaptive problems might require the project manager to bypass company procedures in order to ensure that the best contractor in town will be selected to cope with an infeasible design or in order to instruct the designer to think outside the box and develop creative solutions to cope with unreasonable cost constraints. In order to address these adaptive problems, the project manager must be willing and able to make significant changes and to challenge the status quo. These problems require leadership.15

The studies also reveal that while all projects require both leadership and management, the way in which leadership and management are exercised depends on the specific context of the project.

Peter Drucker argues that several assumptions regarding the realities of management have been held by most scholars, writers, and practitioners since the study of management first began in the 1930s. He maintains, however, that today these assumptions must be unlearned, particularly the assumption that “there is (or there must be) one right way to manage people.” Drucker further argues that this assumption is totally at odds with reality and totally counterproductive. Johns presents evidence that management researchers are inclined to downplay the context or the specifics of a given situation. According to Johns, it seems that context-free research is somehow perceived as being more scientific and prestigious than context-specific research.16

For the most part, the project management literature has not given explicit treatment to context issues and has thus implicitly endorsed the “one best way” approach, which was the favorite phrase of Fredrick Taylor, the father of “scientific management.” Thus, the emphasis in the literature has typically been on the “standard” or the “common,” rather than on the “unique.” Melgrati and Damiani make this point very eloquently: “Project management ideology is paradoxical because it focuses on repetitive aspects and ‘marginalizes’ the uniqueness and originality that should instead characterize the project.”17

However, there have been some notable exceptions, such as proponents of Agile Project Management, giving voice to a new approach that challenges the “one best way” and recommends tailoring the project management process to the situation.18

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