SMART Project Leadership

‘Working hard and working smart sometimes can be two different things’ – Byron Dorgan


A Pragmatic Project Leader is keen on working SMART. Leading IT business transformation projects can be demanding at times and you often have to keep many balls in the air at the same time. Day in and day out you are operating like a juggler who is skilled in keeping several objects in motion. Working HARD is not necessarily the right answer to deliver best value to your stakeholders. Many people associate working HARD with working long hours. Oftentimes if you look at how HARD working people manage themselves through the day, you notice that there is room for improvement.

What does SMART Project Leadership mean? It is a different SMART that most of us would think about initially. Specific, Measurable Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound? As much as that is very useful for defining goals, SMART Project Leadership is a bit different.

SMART in that context means: Simple, Meaningful, Aspirational, Result-oriented and Time-sensitive.

In the 1960, the US Navy came forward with a well-known design principle: “Keep it simple, stupid”. I am a big fan of that principle and apply that to my leadership style every day. Why would you complify your thinking, words and actions when the initiative that you are leading is already demanding enough? People and organizations have a tendency towards exploiting their knowledge and experience to levels that are most of the times not required to complete a particular task. A key contribution of the Pragmatic Project Leader is to bring things back to reality and a major enabler to do that is to simplify the problem and context. By doing so, you bring people back where they need to be, back to a situation where they can be productive and can deliver.

Thoughts, words and actions need to be meaningful otherwise there is no value in pursuing them. In a project environment they can only be meaningful if they contribute to the project goals. Everything you do in a project must at the end of they day positively influence the outcome. Successful Project Leaders understand that and make that happen by demonstrating the right behaviour and taking corrective actions as required.

Projects are about delivering a unique product or service in a certain time line. When you start a new initiative, there is a high level understanding of what the project is about. Let’s call that a dream or vision. There is a high level of ambiguity and a strong desire to make a change. The Visionary Leader is they key person to communicate what that future looks like, and the Pragmatic Project Leader is shaping the path towards it. He has the plan to make-things-happen. Both are (must be) very aspirational in their behaviour to get the commitment and alignment of the key stakeholders as well as the project team. That aspiration, that high level of ambition and positive attitude towards change is crucial.

Pragmatic Project Leaders are result-oriented and realize value for the organization though practical, structured, well thought-through and well communicated plans and actions. The focus on getting results is well balanced with managing people. If there is an imbalance, there is a significant risk that the team does not have enduring and sustainable performance.

Time-sensitivity is another key dimension. A good example of this is work prioritization. The Pragmatic Project Leader has the plan to get to the future state and knows best what’s important at any point in time. Sharing that insight with the project team and key stakeholders by clearly articulating what the best order is of events and why, is a major contribution to overall project success.

Working HARD at times, when it is needed is a good thing. When the project is going through peak times, working HARD makes a lot of sense. Putting in the required hours and going the extra mile is what’s being expected then. Consistently working SMART is what you are really after. If you make that a centre piece of your daily approach to work, your clients will be very appreciative.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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