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Spencer Holmes


Managing Director and Training Consultant

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The seven facets of leadership pt 6: Motivation


In part 6 of a series, Spencer Holmes describes a new approach to the development of project managers to meet the current challenges of organisations in all sectors. This week: Motivation.
This week we look at the topic of motivation as it relates to project leadership. Maybe it's the difference, ultimately, between project management and project leadership. There are hundreds, nay, thousands of us out here managing projects but those who we'd describe as leading projects seem to have some personal edge; a driving force that makes it easier for them to get things done.
Since my original work in spinal injury rehabilitation I have been fascinated about why two people with pretty much exactly the same level of injury would rehab at vastly different speeds and end up with radically different lives as a result. I was exposed to cognitive and social cognitive theories of motivation at that time and have ever since believed this holds many of the answers.
Project Leaders defines the 'motivation' facet in that it..."refers to the extent to which the individual is able to motivate himself/herself as well as others. High scores on the motivated dimension refer to individuals who are intrinsically motivated and passionate about their work; such individuals are usually able to inspire others, too..."
"Some of the best projects come from organisations / parts of the world where resources are most scarce and leaders and managers are forced to use their creativity to overcome barriers."
It is firstly important to consider and possibly develop one's intrinsic motivation in order to motivate others; an ability that differentiates leaders from managers.
We have heard levels of dissatisfaction based on "well, I didn't chose to manage this project so I can't be expected to love it...everyone thinks it's a bad idea" and similar. Whilst you could say this project manager has been badly selected, we also - usually under our breath - want to say "start loving it, make a good case for killing it or do everyone a favour and do something else".
Now that we are on facet 6 we can start to look at combining our understanding of each to make more potent formulae for leadership to suit different situations. To give four examples:

Motivation + positive intolerance

The Nelson Mandela example given in article 4. The power of Mandela's vision for a fairer state enabled him to take tough decisions, risk unpopularity and work round the clock to affect change

Motivation + creativity

Some of the best projects come from organisations / parts of the world where resources are most scarce and leaders and managers are forced to use their creativity to overcome barriers. In a stimulating talk on new thinking for motivation and creativity, Dan Pink explains how challenge and choice have replaced typical contingent rewards as motivators at work. This is good news for project people as projects are shopping lists of opportunity to try new things and challenge targets if seen from a motivated starting point.

Motivation + pragmatism

A recent example shared with me from an experienced programme manager who has managed global systems integration for Accenture, Barclays and Astra Zeneca: He spoke of the need to come away from strict methodology when the project required expediency. The point being, the less motivated project manager would be more likely to stick to the script, avoid risk, and, worse still, blame the process for project delays.

Motivation + communication

Just think of your own experience and compare an educator / trainer who was highly motivated by their subject; try Ben Zander on leadership for example, and the less inspiring figures who'd slump ahead a snoring summer classroom.
We could go on. Suffice to say, the ability to motivate yourself is the essential basis for excelling in any other facet. Without it, forget it. So, how?
To simplify years of cognitive and Gestalt psychology research we often use a length of elastic to explain the process. Once you set a goal, you stretch the elastic. There is an obvious difference between where you currently are and where you intend to be. The degree of stretch depends on how challenging you perceive that goal to be. The tension in the elastic we can call motivation.
"If others are setting your goals for you, and you don't buy into them (poor leadership) motivation turns to tension, or stress."
Of course, if others are setting your goals for you, and you don't buy into them (poor leadership) motivation turns to tension, or stress. Too much and the elastic snaps of course, no energy, lethargy, avoidance, depression.
Humans like stasis; this stasis is ruggedly protected with a thick sheath of 'comfort zone' and so, day to day, we change little, keep our reality 'as it should be' and take few chances (most of us). The goal upsets stasis and we have two choices to reduce the tension.

Choice 1         

Move towards the goal. This requires lots of change as you are moving away from 'normal' e.g. learning a new language / to drive / to swim / to present etc. Our comfort zone sheath does what it can to stop all this unnecessary effort so the goal has to be mighty compelling. In Frankl's words, must have true meaning. A recent TV dramatisation of Geldof's obsessive driving of Live Aid from daydream to reality shows how this compelling meaning can overcome ridiculous odds.

Choice 2

Move the goal towards current reality, dilute it until it goes away all together. It is relevant writing this at the point in the year where a vast majority of New Year's resolutions have been abandoned. That 'new you' was just too tough to achieve.
Still visualising the elastic, when 'reality' and 'goal' are in the same place (whichever of the two choices above you plumped for), the energy / tension / motivation disappears. This, theories believe, is why inexperienced mountaineers have accidents on the way down the hill, and why most motor accidents happen close to home. If the goal was 'get to the top', the energy stops before the more hazardous downward stretch. If the goal was 'get home' the brain goes into neutral when surroundings are ultra-familiar.
Project managers need to know this. So many projects, nearing their goal, are characterised by waning enthusiasm and general levels of apathy. This is why the elastic's gone – we haven't made 'what's next' compelling.
So, from a trainer's point of view, project management is very easy to turn into a course on intrinsic motivation. Let's face it, on the average PM salary, we're wasting our time talking about the financial trappings!
To clarify the point a menu for 'Project Management as Intrinsic Motivation'
  • Projects, distinct from 'business as usual' should have a clearly stated end goal that produces meaningful benefits, this should make it easier to visualise, get excited about and move towards
  • Projects have defined targets that should act as regular opportunities to attain one goal and move forward to the next. We say 'goal set 'through' not 'up to''
  • Project plans are basically sequentially ordered menus of opportunity to learn new skills and challenge oneself if you choose. Elements are relatively well planned and so opportunities to do something different, e.g. travel to do a supplier audit, run a stakeholder meeting, learn new software, dig a drainage trench out of a jungle, should be easier to stick in people's diaries
  • Projects usually run in teams with a wider pool of humans (stakeholders) variously involved. This offers limitless opportunity to practice social intelligence, negotiations, influencing and the like. Of course, many are motivated by the sheer camaraderie that comes from a team working to a shared goal
  • Projects usually involve subject experts whose experience and knowledge can be a great source of motivation for those of us still keen to learn
  • Every project is different, variety is the spice of life after all
  • Despite the best attempts and worse propaganda of project management trainers, crises do occur on projects and the resultant pressure can forge lifelong relationships and stimulate superhuman problem-solving efforts
When we describe projects to a new class, we speak of two key factors. Levels of 'complexity' and 'novelty'. Projects become more or less challenging according to their location on these axes.
Whatever the specific DNA of the project, it will always be in some way new and at some level complex. If Pink and Frankl are to be believed, this is the raw material of modern human motivation, as long as we can find within it - and within ourselves - meaning.
To read pt 5b, click here

Spencer Holmes is the managing director of Global Project Leaders Ltd. He runs projects, trains and consults globally on the subject. His passion is for helping project managers develop the resilience required to thrive in an increasingly pressurised world. His company can be found at

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Spencer Holmes

Managing Director and Training Consultant

Read more from Spencer Holmes

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