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What Organizational Leaders Can Learn from Project Management

By Susanne Madsen
August 2, 2022

I often run project management training sessions and workshops for people who manage projects. Many of them aren’t career project managers and don’t even have the words project manager in their title. They are hired into an operations or business function and one of the many roles they have is to run projects in parallel with their BAU work.

All team members need to be skilled at implementing change

Teaching project management to everyone including people who are not career project managers is becoming increasingly popular. Fewer and fewer people have roles that are restricted to doing the same activity day after day – be it selling, processing, building, organizing, or marketing. Change is happening in all corners of a business, and people need to be equipped to lead projects irrespective of their role, industry, or level of seniority.

Take finance as an example. Most of the people who work in the finance department will be tasked with routine jobs such as running payroll, approving new vendors, processing expenses, and chasing debtors. But they will also be involved in improving how the department and the company does business by making positive changes to the payments system, general ledger, and inter-departmental workflows. It does, of course, happen that external experts are hired in to help with these changes, but there will always be a need for someone inside the company to work with them – right from the most junior to the most senior person in the department.

Surprisingly, project management isn’t boring

To teach staff about how to implement change, I typically run workshops that combine people skills and the more traditional project management skills. During the training, I get the attendees to define and plan a project so that when they leave the workshop, they will have used every single tool inside the classroom first. We also analyze stakeholders, talk about human behavior, and explore how to create a high performing team.

Many people perceive project management as a boring discipline, but after the training, they realize that is it an essential – and often simple – skill that has the potential to address all their pain points, from poorly defined scope and deliverables to unclear roles and responsibilities, lack of buy-in and over-optimistic scheduling. Far from the dull and boring image they had in their minds, they have become excited about a framework and a set of tools that can help them to better collaborate and engage the team to deliver real benefits to their clients.

Senior leaders need project management training, too

But most telling, perhaps, is a common remark from the attendees that they wish their managers had attended the training, too. The drive to improve project delivery in organizations won’t happen solely by training those who work on the team – and increasingly, companies are beginning to recognize that. To succeed, we must persuade organizational leaders and head of departments that they, too, are instrumental to making change happen and that they, too, can benefit from learning about project management. I’m not just referring to senior leaders understanding their roles as sponsors and steering committee members, but something more fundamental. At its core, project management teaches us to be specific about what we’re trying to achieve, why we want to achieve it, how we will achieve it, by when and who will make it happen. To make change happen, project management doesn’t just teach us about the mechanical process, but it also teaches us about collaboration, engagement and leading the wider team to a successful delivery. These are fundamental skills to any leader – even to those that are not involved in change projects.

Be clear about expectations

Let’s look at how senior leaders can benefit from being more specific, for example, about what they expect from people on their teams and what each task involves. What often happens is that managers and leaders are too vague when asking someone to do something, and when it isn’t done to their standards, they either complain or take back control of the task. Many managers oscillate between micro-managing staff and leaving them to it without any supervision, not realizing that there is a much more elegant way to do it.

The elegant way of getting work done well is by, first, agreeing what a good outcome looks like. The question that needs to be answered is, “When my staff say that they have completed this task, how will I judge whether it has been done well?” A good project management tool that can help here is the MoSCoW technique, which stands for must-have, should-have, could-have and will-not-have. In project management, we often use it to prioritize requirements. The organizational manager and the team need to agree right from the outset what people must deliver as part of this task; what they should deliver; if at all possible, what they could deliver if they have extra time (these are nonessential, nice-to-have’s); and what they will not deliver this time around.

If an executive, for instance, asks a team member to create a board presentation for them, they could specify that the team member must create a presentation in PowerPoint that contains at least ten slides and that each slide must have a visual element as well as text and must relate directly to the organization’s 5-point plan. They could also agree that the presentation should be peer reviewed; and proofread, if at all possible, by another member of the team. Furthermore, the presentation could contain extra background information in an appendix, but that’s really not critical. Finally, the presentation will not be provided in printed format.

After having agreed the MoSCoW requirements of the task, they should also discuss how often they will touch base with one another. Candidly agreeing with regular touch points is important because it will help people to not feel micro-managed.

Collaborative planning creates buy-in and commitment

Another example from the world of project management that can be of great benefit to senior managers is to be more collaborative in their approaches – for instance, when they need to solve a problem or produce a plan for an operational activity or for a project. One of the mistakes that most managers make when producing a solution or a plan, is that they create it on their own. They do perhaps get some input and may also ask people to comment on it or review it at the end. But they aren’t creating it in a collaborative manner. The result is a solution or a plan that few people buy into because they haven’t been part of creating it and because they don’t have any skin in the game. This forces the manager to use a push approach to get work done and to be directive because the team isn’t intrinsically motivated.

The alternative is to get all the key players to collaborate right from the outset – that’s everyone who will be involved in executing the work. The best way is for the manager to organize a workshop – or at least ask someone else to facilitate it on his behalf. The idea is to create a forum where team members are invited to contribute and to be part of the process. Far too often do managers believe that collaboration is the same as simply working with other people. But true collaboration is about sitting at the same table and jointly producing an outcome that works for everyone. That’s by far the best way to gain buy-in and commitment for something.

Motivating staff

The last example I will share is that in project management training, we spend a lot of time understanding how to best communicate with different types of stakeholder personalities and what it takes to motivate the team. This is certainly something that’s highly relevant to senior leaders too. Surveys show that a large part of the workforce feels disengaged and that managers aren’t sufficiently skilled at understanding the people who work for them. In a similar way to how we map out and analyze stakeholders in a project environment, senior leaders could benefit from mapping out and analyzing their staff with the aim of producing strategies for how to better engage and motivate them.

Some of the questions that senior leaders need to ask during this process are:  What’s in it for my team? What would make each person come to work even if they didn’t get a salary for it? What would people like more of and less of in their daily work? How can we celebrate our achievements better? Who do I need to spend more time with? How can I make people feel that their contributions are valued?

In answering these questions, leaders need to be careful not to guess the answers, but to have one-to-one conversations with people where they ask open questions and truly listen to their teams.


Teaching project management skills to people who aren’t full-time project managers is becoming increasingly popular. Change is happening in all corners of a business and people need to be equipped to lead projects irrespective of their role or level of seniority. Not only does operational staff find that project management can help them with problematic areas relating to scope, schedules, and disengaged team members, they also indicate that senior managers and leaders inside the organization would benefit from this kind of training, too. In particular, senior leaders could learn from being more specific about the work they delegate, being truly collaborative in their approaches, and understanding how to fully engage and motivate their teams.

Susanne Madsen

Consultant and Trainer, International Institute for Learning

Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised leadership coach and mentor for project and change managers. She has partnered and founded the Project Leadership Institute, which runs leadership programmes to help project managers become better leaders in the workplace.

Susanne is also an award-winning author of “The Power of Project Leadership“, which is now in its second edition, and is described as “a must-read for everyone in the project world”.

Susanne is known for developing leadership development programmes globally and has worked with many high-profile companies such as JP Morgan, Citigroup, Philips, BAM and NXP to name just a few. Visit her website at https://www.susannemadsen.co.uk.

Susanne Madsen, Author

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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