How to empower project team?

Today, we will talk about the subject of how to correctly empower the project team in process of project management.

Correctly empowering project team is to give the team members full space to develop and inspire their creativity. On the other hand, empowering project team allows project manager to focus on work of management rather than dealing with specific technical issue. For instance, project manager should spend more time on paying attention to project status and managing stakeholder’s engagement, which would certainly push the project forward significantly.Here are two cases which I have been through.

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Case 1: Empowering the team entirely.

There was a project of which the objective was to test a new product component used for upgrading the current client’s product. That project was like a piece of cake for us because we had achieved so many similar projects before. Therefore, at that time I thought it would be unnecessary for me to spend a lot of time to pay attention to the project. Then, what I did was to find a team member who I trusted very much and gave him all the power he needed. I said to him: “I totally trust you being in charge of this project. Since we know each other so well, I believe in your ability and if there is no serious problem you do not have to report to me.”

After several months, the project was in its midway and the client suddenly reached to me and said: “Why had you not sent us your testing plan to us for review before your team started the test? Your project team had tested a lot of parameters but none of them is related to our core requirement !” Apparently, the team member who I trusted fully had made his own decision on testing scope and that lead to the client’s dissatisfaction.

That reminded me a saying which I had read before: “Lead the team! If you do not know how to do it, you would have to do all the work until you die. ” Managing and empowering the project team is much like flying a kite, which means: “In order to let the kite fly up high in the sky, you would have to use a string to control the kite all the time, otherwise it would fly away and be missing.”

In the upper case, it was like the string which should be attached to the kite had been broken and the entire project was completely not in my control. In the end, the project status was bad.


Case 2: Do everything by myself.

The second project was to integrate the newly bought company with our product platform. That project was new to us, which means we had no previous experience of similar projects. Even worse, there was no similar experience which can be used for reference in the entire company. Therefore, the project was so important to our company that if we failed the outcome would be unimaginable. After a detailed analysis of the situation, I decided to do the project by myself.

In the project, I personally developed a detailed project plan and handed it over to project team members. What the team members had to do was to just follow the plan. After a period of time, I felt exhausted, and the project was not going very well. I did an analysis of causes and I found that all the team members would report to me regarding to all detailed information of the project, including: technical plan, work priority, and even issue like how to correctly report a bug.

In this way, it was not only that the work efficiency was very low, but also that all team members had no sense of belonging. As a result, even though the project had achieved its objectives, the team members would not think that as an achievement of theirs. Therefore, doing everything by myself instead of empowering the team is not always the best method. In order to motivate the project team, as project manager, I still have to give enough space for team members to fully achieve their subjective initiative, and let them actually feel they are making contribution to the project.

In the upper cases, we can see two types of extreme leadership: totally not managing the team, and managing every detailed work of the team.

What should we do to achieve adequate management? That means letting the kite fly up high in the sky without losing control in your hand.

In PMBOK, there is such a description regarding to a leadership style called “Laissez-faire”: allowing the team to make their own decisions and establish their own goals, also referred to as taking a hands-off style.

Laissez-faire leadership does not mean to letting things go completely, it means to empower the team but the still be in charge of the project. In other words, the power of project execution can be given to the team, but responsibility of management still belongs to project manager.

In order to achieve Laissez-faire leadership, there are several things we can try:

First, allocate the project tasks to the team based on the team members’ strengths.

In early phase of the project, we first need to know about the team’s strengths, to make sure if they have adequate skill sets to complete relevant tasks or not, skill sets like: technical experience, ability of communication and coordination, and decision making. These skill sets would help them accomplish the project work by their own.

Second, develop a task accountability system for the team.

In Laissez-faize leadership, project manager still have to take his responsibilities of managing the project, responsibilities like: review project team’s key decision, and monitor project status.

Third, determine the power level/limit of decision making before empower the team.

It is known to experienced software developers that all software users have their own permission level, such as administrator, super user, or normal user, and so forth. Empowering in project management is just like that. As project manager, we have to determine each team member’s skill level and sense of responsibility, to make sure what kind and what level of decisions they are able to make and be responsible for the decisions.

In summary, this article demonstrates what is the adequate level of power we should give to the project team when empowering them, and how to achieve Laissez-faize leadership in project management.


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