What does it mean to be an adaptive project manager?

28 July

While project managers represent a wide spectrum of geographies, industry segments, purposes, and organisational structures and cultures, they all share one common activity: dealing with change. From the inception of a project to its close, project managers face constant streams of change from multiple dimensions in environments where imperfect information, unpredictability and multiple unknowns are rules rather than exceptions. An adaptive project manager understands this dynamic and applies a number of techniques to embrace and deal with the challenges these conditions present.

First and foremost, adaptive project managers know how to quickly identify and anticipate likely future events, needs and trends. But identification is just the starting point. Heifetz, Grashow and Linksy, authors of “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”, say the single most important skill for “exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis”. This means developing more than a surface understanding of the drivers, behaviours, and motivations that underlay current and future changes. Without this awareness, the likelihood a project manager would be able to successfully influence the multiple stakeholders who will be affected by the changes is remote. But diagnosis is just the start.

An adaptive project manager also knows how to effectively articulate what is needed to move forward. They facilitate communication with, between and among stakeholders to build a collective understanding and support for action. This communication goes beyond mere recitation of the facts at hand. The adaptive project manager recognises and adapts specific messaging to the individuals and groups whose efforts are critical to achieving a successful outcome.

Finally, the adaptive project manager is truly empathetic. This means sensing and embracing how change affects all stakeholders, not just those who will benefit from it. It also means not just being open to challenges and feedback from stakeholders but encouraging it. And then, through continuous learning and transparency, adapting that feedback and adjusting responses accordingly.

As Heifitz et al. explain: “adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” Knowing how to diagnose, anticipate, and articulate what is needed to address those challenges with empathetic messaging moulded by continuous learning forms the skill foundation of the adaptive project manager.


Posted by Cris Casey. 

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