Kill Your Project Managers – Building Successful Project Teams

Why the most successful project teams in innovative companies are not led by project managers

Successful project teams in companies that want to successfully exploit the present and the future cannot be led by classic project managers. What is needed is a new breed of project managers who act as business shapers. Away from controlling the rigid framework of project management and keeping to time, budget and other resources, they must mobilize people and relentlessly strive to leave the status quo behind.

Successful companies need to reinvent themselves faster than ever before.

Business models, products and services – indeed, entire corporate cultures – are becoming obsolete faster than ever before. Technological progress is advancing exponentially and competition is increasingly coming from unexpected directions, from IT giants to revolutionary start-ups. In addition, the battle for new products or services is becoming increasingly fierce.

The “digital transformation” in the age of ever-faster revolving technological change is not a completed process. Today, change cycles no longer last a human lifetime.

Companies must therefore explore the future while exploiting the present.

They must cultivate a culture of innovation and leadership that fosters new business models and corporate portfolios. In a world defined and driven by rapid change, the ability to adapt quickly and be resilient is the new core competence.

What companies don’t need in this process and have become obsolete are traditional project managers. While in the 1960s the old waterfall model enabled the first moon landing, today the principles of the agile enterprise are shaping successful companies.

In traditional business management, the prevailing attitude is to plan and implement. Risk and uncertainty are shied away from and minimized through planning, implementation and rigorous management. Failure is not an option and is even punished. In contrast, people who work sequentially, plan with high precision, and stay on time and on budget are rewarded.

In areas of low uncertainty, this approach makes sense. But not in areas or times of high uncertainty, where a culture is needed that demands the expansion or reinvention of what already exists. Rapid technological change requires different leadership skills.

We need “business designers”

Business designers continuously search for and work on solutions, knowing full well that not all projects will succeed. They welcome risk and uncertainty by working incrementally and experimenting with many small bets and prototypes. With this approach, they make quick, revocable decisions and test hypotheses quickly and as inexpensively as possible to produce actual evidence to increase investment.

Specifically, business designers have three areas of responsibility with project leadership:

  1. They develop the business in a market-oriented way – from the big idea to the real business. To do this, they should have a general understanding of modern value propositions, business models or the possibilities of technologies.
  2. They would need to be able to break down big ideas into hypotheses and test them through prototypes, for example, to reduce risk. This also implies the ability to abandon ideas that don’t work.
  3. You must be able to inspire and motivate a team through difficulties. The more innovative the projects, the more inevitable it is that obstacles will have to be overcome.

Invest and encourage people to make ideas blossom

Today’s project managers as business shapers must be people who can mobilize the team and stakeholders around the cause and make them believe in the impossible. They are action-oriented, do not get bogged down in Excel analyses, and work tenaciously to overcome obstacles. In the process, they develop ideas and explore new possibilities.

What makes this new role of project manager particularly complex is the need to be able to switch back and forth between grand strategic, rational questions, expert knowledge, and pragmatic experimentation. For all the joy of practical experimentation, a strategic mindset is not to be missed.

Just as Steve Jobs was involved with computers, cell phones or (portable) media players, today’s project managers should also be curious and, for example, be inspired by different industries or trends. After all, real innovation can be found at the intersection of different disciplines. This also requires being okay with swimming against the tide and making pragmatic (complex) decisions based on incomplete or contradictory information.

Project manager as business designer

In summary, successful project teams need new kinds of project leaders who act as business shapers.

No company is invincible. However, the closest to this ideal are those that constantly reinvent themselves in the face of challenges. Companies that want to successfully exploit the present and the future cannot be led by classic project managers.

What is needed, therefore, is a new breed of project managers who act as business shapers. Away from controlling the rigid framework of project management and sticking to time, budget and other resources, they must mobilize people and relentlessly strive to leave the status quo behind.

Britta Daffner ist seit über einem Jahrzehnt in der Technologie- und Daten-Industrie zu Hause. Ihr Credo: Innovation und Digitalisierung von Unternehmen vorantreiben – durch Technologie und moderne Führung. Dafür befähigt sie als Practice Leader Data & Technology Transformation in IBM Firmen dabei, das volle Potential aus Daten zu nutzen und unterstützt als Coach Macher*innen, die in der Konzern- und Wirtschaftswelt etwas verändern wollen. 2021 erschien zudem ihr Buch „Die Disruptions-DNA“ (www.disruptionsdna.de), das dazu inspiriert, die Digitale Transformation aktiv mitzugestalten.

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