Imagine being the captain of a large cargo ship: You’re on the bridge and steering the ship to it’s destination. You know the destination and set the course. Way beneath you the motor spins merrily – the engineer and his team makes sure of that. The destination and the course does not matter to them. their focus is to keep the motor running and make sure all systems are working properly – no matter where the ship is going to.
Imagine you, as a captain, going down to the engineer and reminding him to check this and that, to make sure there’s enough fuel and that the drive shaft needs a check up soon. Suddenly it gets hard to keep an eye on the horizon and make sure the ship’s on the right course. It’s just not possible to be in control of the bridge and be in the bottom of the ship telling the engineer how to best keep the motor going.
It’s either or: Either you have the larger overview or you have a focus on details. With other words: Either you steer the boat or the lead and distribute work.
Project steering and project leadership
We will change course for a bit because there are to terms that need to be cemented first: Project steering and project leadership.
In general they are called “Project Management” – to manage a project. In Danish we translate it to “Project Leadership” which to me is something completely different. This made me think that we need to different terms for project management: Project Steering and Project Leadership.
Project Steering is about setting a goal for the project and steering the project toward the goal. To do that you need to first make sure everyone knows what the goal is and make milestones so that you continuously can check whether you are on the right course. Next you need to make sure all the tasks that need to be done to reach the goal are prioritized. Because on the way to the goal something will change and you will get smarter – and that’s why the priorities change as well.
Project Leadership is about leading the team that has to do the task. You do that by first trusting that everyone in the team knows what they have to work with and are doing their best. Next you need to facilitate the process: You need to help the team divide the tasks, tak out the hurdles and protect the team against external disturbances.
When to steer rather than lead
Way to often we see a team being steered instead of led. Spread sheets and plans are made without even asking the team. In stead the team gets told what to do, how to do it and who should do what.
This is an effective way of making sure the expertise, experience and knowledge the team has will not come into play. The team becomes a passive wallflower instead of being an active player in the project.
And as a bonus the team gets the blame for not being motivated, participating and committed to the project. But who actually has to do the work?
steering towards a goal
The point is that you should use the tools that fits the task – and the task is defined by which level you are at with the project. If you are in charge of the bigger picture you should steer – if you are in charge of the practical part you should lead and facilitate.
Getting back to the ship – the captain is the one setting the course and steering the ship safely to its destination. The engineer makes sure that the people in the machine room make use of all their experience, knowledge and expertise to ensure that the ship reaches its target destination as fast as possible. That’s two different levels in the project: Keeping the larger picture and facilitation a team.
It’s easy to believe that one level is finer or more important than the other. That’s just wrong! None of the two levels can stand by themselves. It’s in the interaction between these two levels that the project succeeds.
With the best intentions
But why does it happen that you steer and lead at the wrong times? My experience is that you have no understanding of the fact that different levels require different tools.
When you set the course for the project and make sure that you arrive at the target destination it takes steering. When starting the motor you have to lead and distribute the work.
But when the speed is too low it’s easy to believe that if you just pop by the engine room and tell them how to do it the ship will probably speed up. They must be doing something wrong since the speed is so low. Suddenly you are not steering towards the destination, but towards small and often insignificant improvements. And the course slowly will turn away from the destination.
Just like it’s wrong to steer a team it’s wrong to lead towards a goal. You cannot facilitate a team to find a goal for a project. Because the goal is not depended of the wishes of the team. There’s no point in sailing to Kolding if the cargo is needed in Singapore. Then even record time cannot help you.