The Death of Project Management

Bryan Barrow in front of a bookshelf
Bryan Barrow

This is a guest post by Bryan Barrow.

After several years we seem, at last, to be over our fixation with zombies. Again.

It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time that the zombie movie genre comes around, each time bringing a new generation into its cold, dead clutches.

I am reminded of the zombie movie each time I have a discussion about project management versus project leadership.

I’m not referring to the mental state of those on either side of the argument, rather the way that just when you think the discussion has died down and the argument is resolved it comes back to life.

As you know, the way to kill a zombie is to hit it hard on the head. So, in the hope that I can do my bit to end the debate, here’s my take on things.

Project management is that branch of management devoted to the process of change; the orchestration of people and resources through a series of activities, tasks and processes to bring about a transformation from a state to another, different state.

  • Irrespective of the industry, we’re always seeking to orchestrate a transition from one reality to a new reality.
  • Projects are temporary endeavors whether the timescale is measured in hours or decades.
  • People may come and go during the life of the project and while for each of them the project may seem like a permanent endeavor the project does not last forever; they are meant to come to an end.

Leadership is that branch of management concerning the development, nurturing and utilization of influence as way of motivating others to some end or objective.

There are many ways that you could describe leadership, but from a project management perspective it is associated with power, influence, persuasion, campaigning, direction and motivation.

  • Where the leader outlines a vision, the manager works to take people towards that vision.
  • Where the leader describes a future state, the manager organizes teams and resources to realize that future state.
  • Where the leader announces a change in direction, the manager works to ensure that the new direction is the one that people follow
  • Where the leader outlines a strategy, the manager endeavors to ensure the successful delivery of that strategy.

Here are three reasons why the debate between project management and project leadership just won’t die.

1. Failure to execute strategy is seen as a project management issue

First, there’s a big problem in business concerning how to implement strategy. Business leaders see this as their number one challenge. It’s relatively easy for them to define a strategy, much harder to deliver it.

Somewhere, something is going wrong between vision and execution and many see it as the failure of project management to successfully deliver strategy.

I don’t agree: it’s not project management that is missing, it’s the environment in which projects are being run that needs improving.

2. The need to develop leadership potential instead of systems and tools

Second, there’s a real need to develop the leadership potential of project managers. If leadership is concerned with influencing and motivating people then project managers need to be skilled leaders, not just successful administrators.

Unfortunately too much of the discussion around project management skills is still rooted in hard skills and techniques: planning, scheduling, risk management, budgeting.

Instead, it should be focused on those skills which are vital for leadership: envisioning, goal-setting, listening, speaking, collaborating, negotiating, supporting and reinforcing, coaching and mentoring.

3. The need for vision and direction, not just faster delivery

Thirdly, at an individual level members of project teams need to develop their own leadership potential, starting with the way that they lead themselves.

Gone are the days when you could work in one company for the whole of your working life. As a result the structures and support that used to provide a lifelong career and career guidance are gone.

Developing a vision and direction is still important in order to develop your career and most people need help with this.

Again, coaching and mentoring are important here, not just to pass on knowledge and skills but also to develop vision, purpose, self-motivation and accountability.

Death to project management, long live project leadership!

So, where do we go from here? In order to make the most of the future of project management and move forward as a discipline we need to stop talking about project management and start talking about project leadership.

Here are three ways that you can do that:

  • If you’re a member of your organization’s leadership team, you create the conditions in which people work. This includes people working on projects. Create the conditions in which they can deliver great projects. In particular, forge a link between the projects that they work on and the business strategies that they underpin, in a way that is clear and compelling.
  • If you’re a project manager you should be developing your soft project management skills so that you become a better motivator, mentor and coach to the people on your projects.
  • If you’re a member of a project team, you need to remember that you need to develop a vision for the future just as much as your organization does, otherwise you risk becoming a zombie, shuffling from one job to another without a vital, beating heart that brings you to life.

No matter what level you currently work at, if you take action to develop project leadership you will reap rewards for years to come.

About the author: Project leadership expert Bryan Barrow works with Project Management Office (PMO) Managers, Project Directors and organizations that need to deliver more of their projects on time and within budget, so that they achieve their strategic objectives. For nearly twenty years he has run his own consultancy company which works with both public and private sector organizations. He specializes in organizing and facilitating collaborative planning workshops that create credible plans, generate commitment and build in effective governance. He also provides coaching and mentoring to help develop the skills of the next generation of project leaders. Bryan publishes his subscription-only newsletter Project Leadership Tips every month. Subscribe at