By: Carsten Lund Pedersen, Postdoc, Department of Strategic Management and Globalization, CBS, and Professor Thomas Ritter, Department of Strategic Management and Globalization, CBS.
Most people work with various projects during the course of their career. And most organisations implement their strategy through projects.
Yet few people are aware of the different types of project leader, which type of leader they are themselves, which types of projects are best suited to various types of employees, and how all types can contribute to the organisation’s development.
We’ll take a closer look at all of this here, and give you the tools to find out what type of project leader you are, whether you are working on the right kind of projects, and whether your colleagues are diverse enough to develop your business.
What are the different types of project leader?
Our research, which is published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR.org), suggests that there are four different types of project leader. We have tested these types on a number of different people in many different fields.
Our matrix includes two questions:
1) Does the project fall within the company strategy?
2) Can you make a realistic business case for the project?
These two questions give an overview of the four different types of projects that each work for a particular type of project leader (see the diagram below). In other words, the different types of development projects are typically implemented by different types of employees.
Top managers should therefore have an overview of the number of these different types of employees, or at least be aware of the types of development options that they miss out on if they don’t have them all.
The four types are described in the figure below and here in the text:
They go consistently for development projects outside of the company strategy, where you cannot make a precise business case. The prophet experiences a ‘revelation’ and they try to find ‘disciples’ in the organisation who also believe in the project.
An expert goes after projects where a clear business case can be made, but the projects lie outside of company strategy. The expert gives well-founded arguments but the organisation needs to change in order to pursue the project.
A gambler chooses projects that lie within company strategy, but they do not have a clear business case. Therefore these projects are ‘a gamble,’ where you take on a certain amount of risk to pursue a potential, yet uncertain, gain.
They feel comfortable with projects that lie within the existing company strategy, and where there is a clear and realistic business case. Here, the executor can focus on their core competence, i.e. to implement the strategic project.
The magic combination
However, the magic only really happens when all four types are present and collaborate within the same organisation.
For example, consider one of Denmark’s recent business success stories, the architecture firm, BIG.
Their success can largely be attributed to the interaction between the creative ‘gambler’ Bjarke Ingels, who takes part in competitions while pursuing his design strategy, and the more operationally focussed Sheela Søgaard, who can be described as an ‘executor.’
It is through this interaction that the organisation is challenged and can further develop.
Take the quiz: What type of project leader are you?
When we talk with business leaders and their employees about the four types of project leader, they often understand them intuitively and can quickly tell which type of leader best describes themselves and their colleagues, and how well their employers retain and motivate each type.
As researchers, we see this as validation of our matrix, as it illustrates the four types in practice and supports the notion that it is a meaningful typology.
If you’re not sure which type best describes you, then you can try taking our quiz.
The quiz does not say anything about the types of projects that you are working on right now, but it will tell you what type of project leader you are.
For example, you might be ‘a prophet’ by nature, even though you mainly work on ‘executor’ projects. Such a mismatch often leads to dissatisfaction and frustration.
How good are we in Denmark?
When we look at the four types of leadership among practitioners in Danish companies, we see that there is room for improvement.
Quite often, we find organisations dominated by one type and others are driven out. For example, we have met smaller start-ups established by ‘prophets’ and ‘experts,’ which lack ‘executors’ to further their development.
We have also met larger organisations (in both the private and public sectors), where ‘executors’ have taken over to such a degree that the organisations have become decidedly bureaucratic.
In our view, these organisations also need a few ‘prophets,’ ‘experts,’ and ‘gamblers’ to challenge their organisational mind-set and drive new developments.
Leaders look for their own type
In our eyes, the biggest disadvantage for Danish organisations is that project leaders look for organisations with primarily the same type of leadership and co-workers as themselves.
It is unfortunate as differences drive business development and growth.
So we see this as a great potential that Danish companies are yet to fully exploit.
Diversity in leadership works best
Companies also tend to place ‘experts’ and ‘prophets’ in separate locations, in innovation labs, corporate garages, and start-up hubs, for example. This geographic separation limits collaboration between the different types.
Danish companies could start to address some of these issues by asking themselves: “What type of employees do we employ?” “Are they working on the right projects?” “How good are we at maintaining and motivating the different types?”
Answering these questions could be the first step towards future developments in an organisation.