Carole Osterweil, Project Leadership in Uncertain Environments

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As project managers, it seems that more projects are difficult in non-conventional ways. As we try to do our work, the environment changes. Or the political environment changes. Suddenly, what you thought you were delivering may not be.
Carole OsterweilIt’s not me feeling like that. My mentoring group often talks about how projects don’t work the way you think they should. Carole Osterweil wrote a book about it.
Carole recently spoke to me about how it is possible to lead projects in a changing context. Amongst her other consultingcommitments, she is one of a handful of Project Academy coaches working withCranfield University and PA Consulting to support the UK Government’s drive toincrease senior project and programme management capability across government.So she knows first hand what leading projects in the midst of turmoil is allabout (Brexit, anyone? ).
Her book, Project delivery, uncertainty and neuroscience: A leader’s guide to walking in fog, was published in the early part of 2019.
Carole, let’s start at the beginning. What is the difference between project leadership and project management?
This question was explored in a recent APM report, Project Leadership: skills, behaviours and knowledge.
According to the authors, project leadership should be future-focused. It involves setting direction, dealing with people, and working with stakeholders. Projectmanagement tends not to focus on the progress made but rather on the organization of the project.
The authors also noted that project managers may find it difficult to transition to project leader. This is due to the fact that you must let go of many of the activities that make you a successful manager. This is where it is crucial to learn to take a step back and work strategically on theproject instead of focusing on the details and working on the project.
Project leaders are more likely to operate in unstable and volatile environments with greater autonomy. Environments that require quick judgement in ambiguous situations.
You speak of ‘unordered environments’. Can you give us an example?
In an unorganized environment, so much is happening on so many fronts it seems impossible for anyone to keep up or influence the direction of the future.
Brexit providesgreat examples. Many people from both the private and public sectors work tirelessly on Brexit-related projects. They never know what they are working towards and then something happens.
You cannot rely on past patterns to predict the future in an uncontrolled environment. To return to Brexit, who would have known that Theresa May would call an emergency election and lose her majority in parliament?
Or that Gina Miller, an individual, would sue the UK Government over its plans to implement Brexit legislation. Or, that this challenge would be successful — with the result that Parliament had to take its plans to the UK Government for a meaningful vote’.
In unorderedenvironments things are in a constant state of flux, emotions run high andreputations are at stake, adding to the complexity. We see groups of MP’s gathered around a single agenda only to abandon it days later in the case of Brexit. This lack of order is a sign that there is a complex systemat at work. There will eventually be a dominant agenda, but as Theresa May discovered, there is no forcing it.
What’s your top tip for working within a VUCA environment
VUCA (Volatile,Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous)environments can be stressful andanxiety provoking, and we know from neuroscience that when we’re stressed andanxious we lose the ability to see or think clearly