7 essential goal achievement tips for project managers

Great explorers had to achieve goals and manage their teams through complexity and into the unknown just as project managers must do today. Learn from one such explorer.

Leading successful digital transformation projects and new business opportunities requires navigating uncharted terrain. Turning to the lessons from the past can help leaders and other project managers achieve success.

That's one takeaway from Management Lessons from the Great Explorers, written by Ralph L. Kliem, a project management consultant and trainer.

Staying focused on a goal can help project managers overcome any obstacles, which is critical to achieving success, according to Kliem. In the case of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, he faced many internal and external hardships, including mutinies from crew members, poor food sources and unrelenting weather conditions.

In the face of obstacles, Magellan remained determined to pursue what would become his final expedition, Kliem wrote. His travels took his fleet of ships across the Atlantic Ocean. He led the crew through a strait now named after him in South America and into the Pacific Ocean, eventually landing on what he named the Spice Islands.

Today's project managers face different challenges than Magellan. Still, achieving their goals requires dedication, focus and commitment. Magellan was an expert in those skills.

Project managers should be flexible, Kliem wrote. Disruption will occur, no matter how smoothly a project is moving along. Some of those disruptions may come from team members who don't believe in the project's vision from the outset or are fatigued by lack of success.

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There are concrete ways to anticipate employee challenges before they occur, such as a well-defined project plan to help determine goals ahead of time. A project charter can help project managers and team members consider goals that help the project stay on track and within budget.

Patience also plays a role in success, Kliem wrote. Magellan and his crew were working with limited information about their global journey ahead of time. That uncertainty sowed discord within the crew. However, Magellan's previous leadership experience kept him committed to his goal. The project can move forward if only an estimate is available as long as the leader has strong leadership skills.

This excerpt from Chapter 4 of Management Lessons from the Great Explorers offers tips for goal achievement, demonstrating how clear objectives can help project managers find success.

The lessons of Ferdinand Magellan

Keep the goal in the forefront of your mind. Magellan knew the importance of focusing. When others, including his direct reports, wanted to return even after discovering the strait for which he was named, the desire to turn back infected just about everyone but him. His vision, coupled with his goals, sustained him to the end of his life.

Expect resistance the longer the goal takes to achieve. Sometimes achieving a goal does not happen immediately. Many crew members failed to have the patience to continue. The mutinies occurred even during the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The crews' realization that provisions were limited only made many of them want to quit as they traversed down the coast of South America. It was not until Magellan demonstrated the necessary resolve to suppress insubordination by whatever means necessary that he was able to reach his two goals, finding the strait and arriving at the Spice Islands. Interestingly, the trip across the Atlantic Ocean was shorter than the one across the Pacific Ocean but most of the insubordination and mutinies occurred when crossing the former.

Be aware that an estimate does not imply accuracy. Information about the globe was limited in the days of Magellan despite the previous exploratory successes by other explorers and merchants. Once Magellan and his crew passed through the strait, everyone entered the unknown by crossing the Pacific Ocean to the Spice Islands. No one knew how long exactly the expedition would take nor that they would face a limited quantity of provisions. Unlike Magellan who kept his eye on the objectives, the others seemed more concerned with keeping themselves alive. In other words, everyone else's head was looking down while he was looking ahead while traversing the unknown. Magellan, who so often in the past had dealt with the unknown, demonstrated the need for patience when progress appeared nebulous at best.

Be flexible in the pursuit of the goal. Magellan's resolve was a positive feature of his personality; however, it was also a liability. He was at times inflexible, even upon receiving realistic suggestions from his immediate reports. When he held his council after discovering the strait, he appeared to have already made up his mind despite most of his direct reports expressing the practicality of returning to Spain. He also failed to listen to his men when he decided to resolve the internal conflict within the Philippines, resulting in his demise.

Prepare to make unpopular decisions. Related to the last point, Magellan had no problem making unpopular decisions, even if it resulted in insubordination by his direct reports and mutiny among crew members. In fact, his resolve seemed to increase in the presence of insubordination and mutiny, which proved to be the right decision. He knew that tolerating such behavior would only increase negative behavior and jeopardize achieving any of the goals set for the expedition. In other words, he expected pushback and was prepared to deal with it accordingly.

Be aware of one's own personality faults that can degrade situational awareness when pursuing a goal. Magellan's arrogance occasionally interfered with his judgment. Despite warnings from his crew, he decided to participate in the struggle between the leaders of Cebu and Mactan, letting his arrogance and ignorance overcome him and impair his situational awareness. In the end, it proved tragic for him and his crew.

Recognize multinational groups can become quite challenging. People from different cultures view the world and experience it differently. These differences can result in conflict. Magellan experienced it when many members of the crew did not feel he should be the commander of the fleet since he was not of their nationality, being originally Spanish and then Portuguese. From the perspective of many of the captains and the crew, he was still a foreigner, thereby adding to the tension that existed throughout the expedition.

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