27 November 2009

Choosing a Project Leader

In a recent discussion with a potential client, he told me that he was in the process of setting up a team to lead a cost-reduction project in his 1000 employees company. He explained that this project was crucial to the company's short-term survival, but that he did not want to compromise the company's longer-term competitiveness due to short-term cost reduction initiatives. His question to me was how he could decide which person to ask to lead this crucial project.

I explained that I agreed that putting together the right team would be crucial for enabling the success of this very complex project, and that choosing the project leader was the first, and maybe most crucial, step in this process. However, I also told him that the choice of the project leader could not be looked at independently of the choices required for the rest of the team. We discussed how the key goal of putting together a project team is to have the right mix of skills and experience. We agreed that this boiled down to the members of the team having the right mix of problem solving / analytical skills, interpersonal skills, and technical/functional skills. In addition, the team should span the parts of the organization covered by the project in order to ensure that nobody feels "left out".

The team required for a project depends on the phase of the project being carried out. In this case, the cost reduction project was just starting up (see Determining the Appropriate Deliverables for the First Phase of a Project) and the focus was on developing a detailed understanding of the situation and key issues faced by the company, to make an overview of key changes required (by how much do costs need to be reduced in order to be competitive and profitable?), and to suggest the overall direction of possible improvements. In this case, I explained that the overall team needed to be fairly small, and consist of people that:
·Know the company well enough to understand where the issues and fat lie
·Are not too constrained by "we already tried that…………:"
·Are analytically strong and able to dig up data to support their conclusions and recommendations
·Are able to think "out of the box" and develop strong ideas on how the main processes of the company could be changed (with reduced costs and (often) improved results)
·Are good communicators able to get input from across the company
·Are sufficiently respected within the company that people will listen to them

The potential client told me that he had some people in mind for the project-team, but was worried about their age and knowledge of the company. I told him that in my experience, a team to carry out this type of activities can be quite young, as it often will be easier for them to carry out the analytical tasks and do the "out of the box" thinking. However, this entails that the key role of the project leader will include managing and quality controlling the work of the rest of the team, and being the main interface between the team and the rest of the organizations. Based on this, I explained that the project leader would need to be somebody who has a fair bit of working experience in the company (ideally in different roles), is fairly strong analytically, but not necessarily an Excel-whizz, is able to mentor and manage a team of younger staff, and is able to communicate well with people across the company and at all levels of the organization (see How to Ensure That The Project Team Has Sufficient Interaction with Sponsors and How to Get Buy-In for Project Conclusions and Recommendations) .

In going through the potential candidates for the project leader role, I quickly focused on a candidate with an MBA, and who had gotten to the mid--management level of the company fairly quickly after having worked in two or three jobs across the company and gained experience in different functions related to marketing and production. My potential client explained that it would be extremely difficult to free this person from his current tasks for the duration of the cost reduction project. After a discussion where we talked about how crucial this project REALLY was, he finally agreed that he would need to use the best person for the project.

While this blog is based on a specific example, following the general rules and ideas suggested here will help anybody who is in the process of setting up a complex project.

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