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Manager-less projects – it will never happen…

If you’ve ever tried leaving a project on its own for a while, you’ll know that manager-less projects won’t take off in the short term, says Prof. Eddie Obeng

Who would want to be a London taxi driver? They do all that work studying the ‘Knowledge’ and developing their social skills only to find that driver-less cars are now being tested on public roads.

Similarly, who would want to be a project manager? You do all that work studying the Project Management Body of Knowledge, get certified and develop your stakeholder and leadership skills. But now there are plans afoot to test ‘manager-less’ projects in organisations!!!

“Driver-less cars?  It will never happen.” That’s what we used to confidently say. And then the experts worked out that they only needed five systems to make cars driver-less. The systems had to answer these questions: where am I? (GPS); what’s coming up next? (Video);  where are the other cars? (RADAR); am I on (a safe) track? (LIDAR); and am I doing OK when I’m parking or doing small manoeuvres? (ultrasonics in wheels). Five systems plus a small computer to knit the answers together and voilà, you have a driver-less car!

“Manager-less projects?  It will never happen”…

Have you ever had to leave a project on its own for a while? Your other half has insisted on an uninterrupted holiday, right in the middle of a project? My guess is that in advance you did a number of crucial things.

You probably held several reviews to see exactly where the project was really up to. And, in each session, you probably also did a ‘preview’, scanning the future horizon for things that could go wrong so that you could work out how to avert them before an avoidable phone call ruined your holiday.

I bet you put a lot of effort into making sure that all the team were aware of their own, and each other’s, accountabilities and deliverables. You probably even worked out how to get them to remind each other. You also spent time with people leading other activities your project is dependent upon, to check that they had no surprises planned.

I suspect, too, that you thought hard about your stakeholders and worked out whom you needed to update before your holiday. You probably put a lot of effort into reducing the project owner’s ‘anxiety gap’ (the difference between stakeholder expectations and reality), and had a word with the project owner to be sure that there was no anxiety gap at all.

I also have a sneaking suspicion you re-calibrated the overall purpose of the project, and decided whether it was still on track.

Finally, I suspect you put in place a way for the different groups – team, stakeholders, project owner, client – to share information and to ensure that all actions were effectively coordinated.

And it worked. You had a great holiday!

But it worked because you had already built open and trusting relationships with your team.  So they did better than you asked.  It worked because you had already engaged with your stakeholders. It worked because you had already understood the complex challenges and political concerns of the project owner. The interconnections between the hard tools and methods and the soft human side is far too difficult to replace with data or a system.

Manager-less projects?  It will never happen!

Professor Eddie Obeng is learning director of virtual business school, Pentacle. He is also author of ten books including All Change, Perfect Projects and Putting Strategy to Work.  He holds the Sir Monty Finniston award for his pioneering work in the human side of project management and in the frameworks and tools for different types of projects.

Follow him on Twitter @EddieObeng