Leading a campus-wide initiative: What can go wrong?

This is a post about leadership. It’s about the responsibilities of the individual asked to lead a campus-wide initiative.

Here’s the context. You are leading something like a website relaunch, a redesign of the alumni magazine, or the deployment of an intranet. You’re a smart person so you’ve already rounded up executive support for the project and you have a strategy. You even have a project charter that clearly articulates goals, objectives, and a project plan.

What can go wrong? Plenty. Here are just a few possible scenarios:

Stakeholders are confused about the project goals.
As the project lead, YOU are the voice. It is up to you to be the regular reminder of project goals and talk about what’s included and what’s not. Don’t be afraid to, “Rinse. Repeat.” It’s also your job to help people understand the overarching strategy. Don’t be frustrated by the job of regularly informing your campus. Use the strategy you have in place as a foundation for talking about what the project entails. Expect to participate in internal communications about your project; in the long run, good communications with your campus will keep expectations in check.

The project is “growing” and now includes work you didn’t plan for.
Scope always creeps. It’s just a matter of how much. It is incredibly difficult to control the scope of a campus initiative. Frankly, internal stakeholders are looking to any new project as a way to solve a problem they have. (This is why your meeting about selecting a new CMS becomes an opportunity for people to talk about how much they hate your email software.) In order to launch or publish or go live, you have to have an endpoint. A limit to what you’re doing — a defined scope — means you’ll actually finish. Once you have a scope, you can’t be afraid to say it out loud. That’s how you enforce it. In my experience, people respond well to honesty. I’ve been known to say, “The team is working 24/7 to get done what’s already in scope. How about we add that to our list of phase two items? We understand it’s important; we just can’t make it happen in the time we have left.”

Your boss is focusing on consensus and risking the success of the project.
Sometimes, your boss is the biggest barrier to your leadership on a project. This may be because people in management positions filter every decision based on the personal risk it means for them. Sometimes, they have seen other projects fail miserably and they are trying to protect you (and themselves). Sometimes, they are good managers of the present but they are not thinking long term and they do not have vision. In my view, this is the real reason that campus-wide projects need an executive sponsor who can take the heat on the team’s behalf. Keep your boss informed but use your executive sponsor for cover and for making progress.

Meetings of your advisory committee aren’t productive.
Focus on the word “advisory” and keep in mind that YOU are the expert. Step into that role and build on the momentum from your past successes! When working with your committee:

  • Go in with the best answer. Propose a plan or solution that the committee “advises” on.
  • Avoid asking open-ended questions. Frame the way you ask for feedback and set a deadline for getting it.
  • Ground your recommendations and plans in best practice, research, and data.
  • Talk informally to members of the committee to get their support for a particular idea or recommendation before formal discussion at a meeting. Ask your supporters to speak up if needed during the meeting.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a vote. Sometimes, consensus takes too long.

Campus politics are getting in the way.
Yes, it is your job to manage the politics. Get over it and move on. Remember, leadership is about discipline. It’s about what you do and what you don’t do. It’s about having a vision for a project and understanding that not everyone will like the choices and decisions you make. When all else fails, stick with your strategy. Keep calm and follow the plan. Consult with your executive sponsor and refer back to the project goals and objectives to make your case. Sometimes, I was known to ask, “Why did we start this project and invest valuable resources if we only wanted to keep what we already have?”

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