Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Big Hit or Big Flop: Extreme Outcomes for High-Status Project Leaders

A project manager has had a remarkable track record.  Surely, it makes good sense to assign him or her to lead the next high-profile project in your organization. Right? Not so fast. Balazs Szatmari, Dirk Deichmann, Jan Van Den Ende, and Brayden King have published a fascinating new study titled “Great Successes and Great Failures: The Impact of Project Leader Status on Project Performance and Performance Extremeness.” They find that high-status project leaders may be prone to extreme outcomes: perhaps another blockbuster hit, but just as likely, a major flop.

The scholars examined the video game industry in depth. They studied 349 games developed between 2008 and 2012. Kellogg Insight summarized the findings:

Leaders with high status, the research revealed, are prone to extremes—big successes or big flops—while moderate status is associated with the highest average level of project performance. Why? With status comes everything a leader needs for a project to succeed: resources, support, the faith of executives and team members. But there is peril, too: high-status project leaders are often overburdened. And precisely because of their status, the people around them may not offer honest feedback. “We tend to be too deferential to people who we consider to be higher status. And where we give deference, what we should be doing is increasing our scrutiny—or at least, scrutinize them as much as we do people of lower status,” King says. “There is greater potential for them to let their egos take control and produce something that sounds good to them but that is in reality a terrible idea.”

Naturally, organizations should not avoid assigning important projects to successful leaders.  What can they do, then, to mitigate the risks identified in this research?   First, they need to create a system of continuous feedback, beginning early and often.  Don't let the project get too far without shining some sunlight on it, and allowing multiple constituents to offer constructive feedback.  Yes, you can trust highly successful project leaders, but that doesn't mean they should delay obtaining input and critique from others.  Second, for each project, regardless of the track record of the leader, milestones must be established at the outset, and leaders should be accountable for providing comprehensive updates on the progress toward those milestones at regular intervals.  Establish clear criteria for evaluating the project at each milestone meeting.  Openly discuss the exit strategy if the project flounders; in other words, be ready to cut your losses, rather than throwing good money after bad simply because of the leader's track record.  Third, be sure to utilize a peer review system or devil's advocate.   Encourage feedback from someone outside of the project.  If it's not their baby, they will be able to provide more objective input.  Finally, examine the project team closely.  Has the team not invited any new members since the last project led by this particular leader?  Has the team grown too like-minded over time?  Is there someone on the team who is respected for their willingness and ability to offer unvarnished advice and criticism?

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