Projecting Leadership in the Age of Change

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IBM’s Global CEO Survey, entitled Capitalizing on Complexity, provides insights from over 1500 CEOs worldwide.  Inside this survey come some startling observations.  Just a couple of years prior, CEOs complained of an inability to see the change that was coming to their market, creating real difficulties in determining how to respond.  The problem seems to be that CEOs felt that the business world is “substantially more volatile, uncertain and complex.”  CEOs also mentioned that small changes in the way they do business are no longer sufficient to sustain business.  According to the survey, over half the CEOs felt they can’t manage the increased complexity that is yet to come.

So how does one lead in this age of change? CEOs identified Creativity, Integrity and Global Thinking as the top three characteristics this age will need in its leaders.  Let’s take a look at the most important one: creativity.

What does this mean for Project Managers?  It means you’ll have to step out of your shell and embrace new ways of doing business.  Since Project Managers are the point where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, they’ll have to take the lead on creating this new business environment.  Here’s some suggestions on how to do just that.

Most project managers don’t have to worry too much about figuring out when they need to be creative.   Once the quantity of incoming projects slows down, revenue slows down, backlog gets burned and management gets fired up.  Project Managers will be told to get creative to win business.  So, creativity really does count.   There are three major areas to focus your creativity on: innovation, risk and the customer.

Creativity in innovation isn’t like it was when I graduated college.  Companies once focused heavily on creating products internally that gave them a competitive edge.  Unfortunately, the cost of the NRE for such development is deemed too risky, as management doesn’t want to build a product that may miss the mark in meeting the customer’s needs.   So how do we plan for that type of risk?  You include the customer in the development of the product.   Companies aren’t just selling products to customers.  They are developing partnering relationship where they are in constant contact with the customer so every need is understood and addressed.

As the project manager, you must stay connected to the customer and build a strong relationship.  Your job isn’t to just deliver the product or service that is on contract.  Your task now is to anticipate the next need of the customer and provide a solution for it that your company can provide.  For example, some technology companies are growing beyond just selling their products to selling their products at a lower cost so they can then sell a maintenance and support service contract for multiple years, turning a short term monetary gain into a long term cash flow.  The project manager is becoming the sole interface to the customer, requiring experimentation in customer relationship management and communication to build rapport with the customer, but not just any rapport.  You must build a friendship where your customer will present their problems to you to solve rather than sending out a request for proposal to numerous companies, which brings your competition back into the picture.

Finding creative ways to attach yourself to the customer isn’t the only consideration.   These new relationships are designed to keep customers on the books for longer periods of time, meaning you most likely won’t see a huge inrush of new customers.  Existing customers become the lifeline of the company.  Sure, they’ll go out to seek new ones but you can’t risk losing the ones you have.  This means that you can’t take big risks with them.  You still have to create new products and services but you reduce the risk by including the customer in the development.  Some companies are fortunate enough to get the customer to share in the cost, while others only get their technical guidance on things like capability, functionality, durability, versatility, etc.  In either case, you’re creating a new offering and satisfying your customer’s needs but with reduced risk.  This doesn’t imply that you don’t seek new ideas or simply forget innovation.  In fact, it’s just the opposite with the exception that the risks are slightly more balanced because you get more input into the solution from the people who will buy it and you have the opportunity to influence their expectations to something you can easily meet with success.  However, margins are shrinking and spending too much time on analyzing risk is costly.  Project managers will have to analyze, make a decision and take action quickly.

Lastly, the customer relationship, as previously mentioned is totally different now.  In the past, we could simply build a product and guide the customer to the counter so they could select what they wanted from the menu.  I’ll have a #1…biggie size!  Our objective was getting as many people through the door as possible.  But now, it’s about keeping the same people visiting our store as often as possible.  It’s as if we gone back in time to the old “mom and pop shop” days.  The customer walks in and you know everything about them, including what they need.  Project managers must be able to understand the customer in great detail, ensuring every interaction is memorable and not clogged up with processes that make the easiest tasks overly complicated.  The customer must feel like they are the most important aspect of your business, which shouldn’t be hard to do since they really are.

Project managers are quickly becoming the single point of contact for the customer, no matter where they are.  They call you with any issue and you take care of it, each and every time.  For the customer, every interaction is like reuniting with an old friend and it’s the project manager’s job to make that happen.  Welcome to Project Management in 2012!



IBM Institute for Business Value. Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study.” May 2010.


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