When You’re Guessing, Say So! | Leadership Honesty

Finally! It’s your break-through assignment—the chance to lead a project that breaks new ground.

Leadership alert!  Find out whether that ground is hard or soft, rocky or sandy, dangerous or solid before you go too far. Figuratively speaking, you’re now the company’s excavator. Time to get fitted for your hard hat!

Everyone’s counting on you! 

New initiatives come with high expectations. There’s often a lot of hype and eagerness around a new effort but shaky consensus about:

  • Scope—how big or small it will be
  • Resources—the money, personnel, and time to be invested
  • Impacts—the effects it will have, both positive and negative, over time
  • Deliverables—the reports, analyses, communication, and products
  • Roll out—when the effort will be completed and implemented 

Once you’re designated project leader, all eyes are on you. You will likely start out assembling an in-house team. You may get to hire independent contractors or collaborate with experts within your industry or in higher ed. Every one you assemble is counting on you to lead the way.

The hard realities 

Getting selected to lead a new project team is a major opportunity to demonstrate your capabilities. It broadens your visibility and expands your brand. So you don’t want to blow this!

There’s pressure because it’s a “new” initiative. No one has led a project like this before. There have been other new projects, but not with the parameters you’re expected to meet.

That means you’re on foreign ground. No one knows exactly how this project needs to be done. You can ask advice from others, but ultimately you have to figure out what to do.

This can be a lonely and unnerving spot to be in. 

What’s a Project Leader to do? 

Provide structure, first. Then provide process. That’s the surest way to keep your team going in the right direction and your eye on what is and isn’t getting done.

This is what you need:

  • A “charter” for the project that is approved by whomever is senior to you, stating the scope, owner (you’re the leader), expected outcomes, your decision-making authority, budget, and deadlines
  • A detailed action plan with specific accountabilities for each team member and deadlines
  • A budget and system for tracking expenditures
  • A reporting mechanism for the team and you to use that keeps the project owner and/or company at large informed 

Everything on a project, however, won’t go according to plan. Things get messy and uncertain.

Draw on your team and your honesty

If you pretend you know what to do (when you don’t), then give a directive and are wrong, you will lose the confidence of your team and boss.

This is what has worked for me at a crossroads:

  • Meet with your team and/or the owner of the project.
  • Summarize the options/choices on the table.
  • Describe the “what if” scenarios you’ve considered
  • Ask for their input
  • State the course of action that you have decided is best.
  • Ask once more for input and then act. 

I have always told both my teams and my boss, when it comes to complex new initiatives, that ”I’m making this up as I go along.” I say this because it’s honest, helps manage the expectations of the team, and motivates everyone to do their best to make things work.

Embrace calculated risk-taking

Breaking new ground means developing something that never existed before. No one knows how it will turn out. It’s the tried and true business best practices that help us find our way.

That’s why our business fitness is so important. The seven smart moves give us the insights and the relationships we need face uncertainties and keep moving ahead with confidence, even when we’re unsure! Now fire up that backhoe!

What missteps have you seen that have affected a new project/program? What should have been done? I always love your comments!