François Dupuy: The Perplexity of the Project Leader

François Dupuy, in his book Are We all lost in Management?, recently translated from French, acknowledges that management sciences have made great strides these last decades, however, managers are still struggling with the same recurring issues. Willing to understand why things are going wrong despite a profusion of management best practices, case studies, coaches and consultants, he starts with analysing the lack of power within organizations. And the Project Leader embodies this lack of power, as shown in this excerpt:

« The perplexity of the Project Leader

That quasi-mythical figure in the life of the organization, the project leader, comes into his own here. Yet at the same time he has come to symbolize the suffering brought about by the new forms of work organization, much of which stems from ignorance of the basic facts of collective action. That is because the project leader is in fact an integrator. His job is to secure the cooperation– another key word in the vocabulary of suffering at work – of individuals or entities that previously enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. The moment they are obliged to work together, and regardless the highly positive connotations of the word “cooperation”, they lose at least some of their protective autonomy. Even worse, they go from zero to indifferent relationships with the rest of the organization to hard, conflicted, confrontational ones, along with the situations of dependency that cooperation implies. The project leader is the person tasked with walking this path. However, the connection between cooperation, dependency, and suffering is not immediately apparent to the actors involved, being concealed behind musky rhetoric about the putative pleasures of working together, of discovering new ways of doing things and with new partners. The less the firm bothers to “prepare” his employees for the ordeal, the quicker the disillusionment. Failure to manage the human consequences of these new forms of working remains one of the sources of the growing malaise in the world of work.

(…) Has the firm at least given the project leader the power he needs to carry out this perilous mission? For that is the problem, and sometimes it’s fatal. For, with every few notable exceptions, this victim of ignorance has only his own good will to rely on and is soon exhausted by the task. A close observer can soon see how his role turns into something else: Where once he was a competent and dedicated team leader, he turns into an accomplished politician, using his cunning, negotiating and forging alliances, and then breaking them, in pursuit of an ever uncertain outcome. He wears himself out in this desperate quest, and it comes as no surprise to find that, in the automobile industry for example –ever the pioneer in this regard- it is increasingly difficult to persuade young managers to take on this kind of responsibility.”

Do you recognize your project leaders in this witty sketch? You probably chose them for their project management skills. But are they also skilled in political games? Do they have a clear vision of the organization powermap? Are they able to manoeuvre within the different silos and find some leeway? Maybe you can start with asking your project leaders how you can help them to (re) gain power instead of focusing mostly on action plans follow-up.

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