Empowerment and momentum

Back in my early engineer days, when I became Technical Manager, responsible for a small design department counting less than 20 engineers and technicians, it seemed to me that my -undoubtedly-prolific and creative mind had got, at last, the huge lever that it was lacking to substantiate so many -undoubtedly- brilliant ideas !

Soon after came the first noticeable disillusions… Apparently these ideas met unexpected skepticism, not to say opposition, among my department members. Curiously enough, the innovations and moves I suggested had been approved by my hierarchy, after I defended and justified them by thorough analyses and comparisons.

Thus… why would this bunch of dummies not admit it was simply the way to go !?

The answer came some time after, when I found a sentence in a management book. Sorry for the author, as I cannot remember which one. The sentence was more or less:

“It is way more difficult to convince your collaborators than your boss. However, the truth to be said is that you spend far less energy in it !”

No need to mention that I felt instantly ashamed to notice how weak my efforts had been to really explain, justify the convincing analyses to my team, and more, to listen to them about what could challenge them, and how they can take an active part in it.

Above the lesson learnt for the rest of my life as a manager, what is nice in my present job is that I cannot act in such a dumb way anymore. When you are intervening in a company as a project coordinator, the teams’ skills and experience are always impressive. It is particularly true for usual AppTek customers, in Aerospace, Energy or any top added value business. Any move or change you suggest must be confronted to the team experience, and you often find more challenging opinions in discussions with the field persons than with the top management, which, after all, has designed the strategy with you !

This is where the responsibility of Project Manager takes its nobility. Some see the Project Manager as the guy who will guarantee the reach of project objectives in due time. Well… that is not wrong, indeed. The trick starts with how you are going to do it, and how you are going to spend the limited amount of energy you have, as an ordinary human being.

Any reader who does not feel like an ordinary human being can stop here… Sorry for wasting your time !

Here comes the second quote of this paper. Fortunately, I know who is the author, which is already a big improvement in my demo:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”

Abraham Lincoln (who BTW was far from an ordinary human being !)

Ask yourself how much you spend in empowerment of the team you work with. Again, as an external Project Manager, this is the most powerful lever I use in all the missions I am in charge of, and I would not accept any of the consultants working with me to act in a different way.

Some could think this is only related to the ethical aspect of the interventions, but I believe this is even more linked to the effectiveness of the mission.

The Project Manager, at the early stage of a project can identify the tasks, estimate their duration and chain them, calculate the necessary resources, launch the project through their suitable allocation and check their correct implementation. This looks as the minimal energy spending, since, as a professional, he is quite efficient in making this initial assessment, makes a minimal number of mistakes and knows by experience how to monitor the project through well-targeted Key Program Indicators.

The issue lies in the huge amount of energy he will have to spend on the long term, to keep the momentum he has created through his organizing skills. Checking, coordinating, fighting for each reporting or mid-term objective will wear him out, especially because he seldom has any hierarchical position regarding the team members. And even when he has… does it really reduce the effort ?

Empowerment of the team is key at the early stage of the project, to guarantee that the momentum will not fade along the tricky way to go. The first task the Project Manager will put on the schedule is immersing himself in the team, sharing the vision and accepting any question or criticism on the strategy. Here, there is nothing like the so-called “pedagogy”, word so widely employed by managers (and even more by French politicians), with the underlying certitude that if their teams do not agree upon their strategy, it is without any doubt the result of a lack of knowledge, or even intelligence. We are talking about a confrontation, in the true and noble meaning of it : test theory on field, strategy against experience, ideas against reality…

This confrontation will allow him to enrich his own vision of the project, or even identify some unseen key obstacles with the appreciable anticipation to avoid them. Moreover, this will be the opportunity to spot the most suitable resources, map the influence networks that will become the inner machinery of the project, and distribute power and responsibilities in a much smarter way than starting from a pre-conceived model. In other words : the only opportunity to ask people to play with their strengths, instead of attributing them a prejudiced standard role.

Through this process, team members will slip into their role like into a tailor-made suit, and the Project Manager will benefit from responsible, committed actors on whom he will be able to rely, and who will require minimal effort in checking, controlling and steering. Another positive effect will be the team members’ general assurance to really be key to success, as they will know the real power they have been awarded, instead of a minimal and flimsy delegation.

Obviously, this may require to reconsider the actual involvement of some people deemed necessary, or to involve unexpected resources, whether they are internal or external. But a Project Manager is pragmatic, and not dogmatic: he will do it !

Sorry guys, this initial phase cannot be short. This brings us back to our dear Abe words : it takes time to sharpen your axe but how effective the tool is, after that !

…And with such a minimal effort the tree is chopped down !