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In 2002, Colin Powell, an American statesman and retired four-star general in the United States Army, published one of his bestsellers: “The Powell Principles: 24 lessons from Colin Powell, a Legendary Leader.” The lessons are concise, clear, straightforward and very valuable to any Leader. If you have the opportunity to read this book, please do so. I am sure you will enjoy it as I did.

What are the 24 lessons? I am listing them here below so you get an idea of  what Powell is talking about. For this blog post, I am selecting 3 of them and share my opinion with you of how a Pragmatic Project Leader can best apply them. Here is the full list:

  1. Promote a clash of ideas
  2. Be prepared to piss people off
  3. Establish trust
  4. Walk the talk
  5. Pick the right people
  6. Listen
  7. Be vigilant in details
  8. Be a disorganizer
  9. Check your ego at the door
  10. Let change lead growth
  11. Seek consensus (but don’t be ruled by it)
  12. Fit no stereotypes
  13. Simplify
  14. Let situation dictate strategy
  15. Push the envelope
  16. Close with the enemy
  17. View People as partners
  18. Challenge the pros
  19. Don’t rely on charts and title
  20. Trust those in the trenches
  21. Make optimism a top priority
  22. Have fun in your command
  23. Strive for balance
  24. Prepare to be lonely

I can tell you that it wasn’t easy to select 3 lessons learned, as most of them are intriguing and worthwhile to address. Because I have talked about trust in one of my previous posts, I did not select ‘Establish Trust’, however my opinion is that this is the most prominent critical success factor of a project. What I did select is the following:

  1. Pick the right people
  2. Listen
  3. Let change lead growth


Pick the right people

 People aren’t just a piece of the puzzle, they are the puzzle. Or more accurately, they’re the solution to the puzzle – Colin Powell

Picking the right people for your project team is crucial. It is almost as important as establishing and maintaining trust. That’s a topic I have published a post about before. But how do you pick the right people as a practical project leader? That is not an easy task. Sometimes you come in when the selection has been completed and people have been assigned to the project. Making changes at that point in time is hard to do. In that case, do a thorough assessment and notify the Executive of potential skill gaps and risks you have identified. Most likely the Executive assembled the team, or at least approved it. Escalating your concerns to the Executive in a structured and informative manner is all you can do. After that: start rowing with the team you have! If you do have the option to build your team from scratch, think about the following.

Understand the complexities of the solution, the organization, the culture and the business context before you start with defining the required skill set and mix you need in order to deliver. If the initiative that you are leading has a substantial business transformation component, you want to make sure that the people you select are aligned with the vision of the end state that you are going to move towards. They must believe in the ‘product’ that the project is about to deliver. If you don’t have that certainty, you are probably going to feel pretty lonely soon and struggle with manifesting the change. As orchestrator you want people in your team that want and can sing from the same song sheet. They must be able to identify themselves with the notes and the lyrics.

How do you make sure that you are looking for the right skills? If you don’t know that for sure that’s perfectly fine, you just need to consult an expert in those particular areas and ask for input. Executives expect you to assemble the right team, not to have deep expertise in all aspects. Feel good when you don’t know as long as you are aware of it. Once you have defined the right skill set, there is one other step to take before you can start the recruitment process. You want to attract people that have the right attitude, values and beliefs. Ultimately, we all know that any team performs and delivers when people work well together. It sounds simple and it truly is. As Pragmatic Project Leader you want to work with people that are intelligent, humble and hungry. It is not only about knowledge and experience, it is also about personality. Teams perform well when personalities match. Too often I see that selections are made on the candidates resume and much less on the fit with the team. Intelligence and being humble need no further clarification. Being hungry does. What does that mean? People who have a motivated interest in joining your project and want to take the extra mile to deliver, are the ones who are hungry and are the ones you want to have in your team. They will become your front runners. When the going gets tough, they will step up and safe your bacon. Consider selecting a candidate who has less knowledge and experience, but who is humble and hungry, because that’s something that you cannot change and you have to live with that.

Once you have selected your team players, the journey begins.  Your responsibility is shifting towards managing the team and coaching each of the players such that their individual talents grow and their output and contribution to the project gets optimized. In every project that I have been part of, the team is going through ups and downs, through stages of development. As Pragmatic Project Leader you must be aware of that team dynamic and your role is to manage the relationships between the players. It is your moral obligation to grow people in their careers. That is often one of the motivations why people want to join your project.

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman came up with the memorable phrase “forming, storming, norming, and performing” in his 1965 article, “Development Sequence in Small Groups.” He used it to describe the path that most teams follow on their way to high performance. Later, he added a fifth stage, “adjourning.” If you aren’t familiar with that concept, I recommend to read it. In my future posts about team performance, I will come back on it


Good listening begets good listening. Ideas get exchanged faster and more reliable – Colin Powell

Or like Stephen Covey said: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As practical project leader you are in a lot of meetings, conference calls, conversations and other forms of gatherings, where a lot of information is being exchanged each and every day.

Now, how often are you in a meeting where you notice that people are simply not listening, and over time topics circle back over and over again? As practical project leader you want to intervene when that happens. The best way to do that is to listen actively, thoroughly grasp the subject and speak up at the right moment. When is that? When your gut tells you to. When you speak up paraphrase what you have been listening to and ask for confirmation from the people participating in the discussion. Make it an inclusive discussion by inviting people to speak up who have been quiet before. You want to do that with people who have a serious stake in the outcome of the meeting. It is your responsibility as Pragmatic Project Leader that the right people participate, listen, speak up and make timely decisions.

There are in my mind two very effective ways to obtain valuable information that benefits the project by putting on your listening hat. The first one that I am a strong advocate of is what is often called ‘management by walking around.’ You are engaging with individuals or group of individuals on the project floor in an informal way and asks open questions about work and life. These meetings can have positive side effects as well like team motivation, team integration and collaboration. The second one that I find effective and often have are 1:1 coaching sessions, where you help improve the talented individual by making a connection between performance, contribution to the project, career development and aspirations in life. Coaching can become a fascinating aspect of practical project leadership. If you want to read more about coaching, search for books and/or articles about the GROW model.

Let change lead growth

Leaders need to encourage a philosophy in which change becomes equivalent to growth and growth becomes equivalent to satisfaction – Colin Powell

It is imperative that if you want to achieve your dreams you must change. Think.Change.Achieve is the core concept of PM Consult. Organizational change management is a key component of our advisory services. The capability to manifest ‘Change’ through an IT business transformation project is as important as expertise of business process and technology design and delivery (the solution). But why do organizations not treat it as such when they initiate new projects?

Oftentimes there is a lot of talk about organizational change management, but it hardly translates in concrete, consistent action plans that leadership follows through. There is no shortage of opinions of what must change, who must change by when and what happens if change does not occur. Having said all of that, it seems that organizations  have little experience of how you make ‘Change’ happen. Not giving ‘Change’ the right priority is really too bad and unnecessary. One of the symptoms of a failing organizational change management team is that they only perform ‘communication activities’, whereas the core focus should be on alignment, commitment, transformation and implementation.

If you read literature about why projects fail, the organization’s inability to change is over and over again mentioned as a root cause. I think that one of the reasons why this happens is that organizations do not value change management activities as they should, because it is hard to make its effectiveness tangible. It is not an easy task to find a correlation between for example ‘executive alignment sessions’ and the organization materializing the vision of the end state.

There is a saying “without great risk, no great reward”. Organizations that want to move to a new, promising future end state must change and therefore intrinsically must take risk.  And that is exactly where the problem lies. Typically organizations are risk averse and only want to pursue activities that can be planned in detail and tightly managed.  Organizational change management does not fall in that category. On the contrary, business process and technology design and delivery, the more tangible aspects of an IT business transformation, do. Organizational change management must always be ahead of the curve, meaning it starts ahead of business process and technology design and delivery.

How can we change this situation? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make the business case! An investment in change multiplies investments in business process and technology and therefore overall business value of the initiative
  2. Formulate a transparent, action oriented change management plan. Sell that plan, get alignment and commitment
  3. Recruit adequately skilled organizational change management experts on your project and follow their advice
  4. Assign a change leader who is comfortable to take great risk when necessary. Actively manage risks in favour of achieving the goals and future end state. Ideally the visionary leader that I talked about in one of my previous posts is that change leader
  5. Make the execution of the change management plan a productive journey with meaningful deliverables that contribute to the success of the project. Make it an instrumental part of project status meetings and Executive briefings

Change is fun. That is the exciting part of IT business transformation projects. Embrace and it pays off.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©