Leadership in a world of change
Concerns of Project Managers
UP & DOWN THE ORGANIZATION
John P. Dickinson, Pacific Leadership Inc., Vancouver, B.C., Canada
PUTTING LIMITS ON EMPOWERMENT: The Case for Control
A recent article in the business pages of a prominent newspaper illustrates the dilemma experienced by individuals and organizations when it comes to project management in the 1990s. A management consultant, responding to the apparent failure of many team-based organizational initiatives, fell into the “Yes, but…” trap. “Yes, I'm in favour of teamwork, it can accomplish a great deal in the right setting; but a team can't be held accountable.” “The day a team walks into my office and shakes my hand and makes a promise,” he relays, “then I'll agree a team can be held accountable.” He goes on to make a case for the restoration of the traditional management approach in which the team leader:
• Controls membership
• Assigns work
• Evaluates performance and the quality of team output
• Makes decisions on pay and rewards
• Has the right to remove or replace team members.
His arguments are a 1990s outgrowth of a set of beliefs that should be familiar to most of us in the Western world. They are the underlying foundation upon which the majority of Western institutions are built: namely,
• Shared power and shared leadership don't work, especially in a project environment.
• Never let team members choose their own leaders (or even worse, decide not to have a leader).
• Never let team members evaluate each other's performance (or the overall team performance).
• Don't let the team struggle to find its own resources.
• The organization's leaders know best and will make decisions based on what is clearly in the best interests of the overall organization.
Editor's Note: Guest columnist John Dickinson focuses on the growing evidence supporting the success of alternative forms of organizational leadership versus the tendency to revert to traditional forms of centralized power and tight supevision. He points out that in spite of the inherent truth in the “Law of Requisite Variety” governing the pace of change, pressure toward using classic organizational approaches continues to exist. He questions the leadership role of the project manager of the 1990s and sets the stage for issues to be raised at the PMI 1994 Seminar/Symposium in Vancouver, B.C.
Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP, Feature Editor
In other words, power, responsibility, accountability and discipline are resident in the formal structure of the organization and are assigned to the organization's representative, the guardian of the organization's interests—the chosen team leader or project manager.
NEW ORGANIZATIONAL MODELS
The trouble with this thinking is that the assumptions and beliefs on which this well-meaning advice is based are at odds with the reality of our experience in the last years of this millennium. It is becoming trite to remark on the dizzying pace of change in the world, but change is inescapable—the pace is accelerating and the direction is unpredictable. New technology, events in world economics and politics, environmental challenges, social and demographic forces present us with new challenges and opportunities every day. In the field of general systems theory there is a law known as the “Law of Requisite Variety.” This states that the higher the level of disturbance (pace of change) in a system, the greater is the variety or flexibility required to cope with the disturbance. In other words, if you live in a chaotic environment, you had better be quick on your feet, and be able to dance to any kind of music.
What many successful organizations have done to respond to changing conditions is to seek alternative forms of governance based on a differing set of values, organizational models based on empowerment, a shared vision of the future, consensus building as a preferred decision style, and the creation of organizational entities in which the members and the entity as a whole are truly adaptive—the so-called “continuous learning” organization. Quality-and service-driven initiatives, community-based planning, participative project teams, self-managed teams and socio-technical organizational designs are examples of the labels that we attach to these innovations. The payoff for the innovators is often evident in a variety of ways:
• People working in these innovative environments are truly excited, challenged and motivated, and seek opportunities to acquire and use new skills and knowledge.
• Individuals are comfortable with experimentation and risk taking-they take the initiative to identify and resolve problems, often in highly creative and cost-effective ways.
• The results achieved are often stag. gering-gains in productivity, reductions in costs, radically shortened lead times, quantum leaps in quality and customer service.
• Adaptation to new challenges and the commitment to change occur as the natural consequence of effective team dynamics.
• Output is more closely aligned with the values and ideals of all stakeholders; there are more win-win-win-win situations.
• The bottom line, whether measured by financial results or by program delivery, shows long-term improvement.
LEADERSHIP AND THE PROJECT MANAGER
Despite growing evidence that alternative forms of organizational leadership are inherently more successful in a wide variety of situations, there is a tendency to revert to the traditional ways-centralized power, close control and supervision—when times are tough. It is almost as if organizational innovation is a plaything, an indulgence to be savoured in good times, a luxury not to be taken too seriously when results are in question. This view is also prevalent in discussions of project management. “Empowered work teams are all very well in our day-to-day operations, but in this important new project we cannot take any risks. The consequences of not meeting our goals are too great to take unnecessary chances.” When the project manager is being chosen, the dominant values really become evident. “What we need is someone who will drive the team hard to come in on budget and on time.” “This project needs someone with strong management skills who will maintain tight control over all the elements.”
It seems that projects, particularly ones involving the design, construction and commissioning of equipment or facilities, are different. Typically, the expectation is that the project manager will assume total control and rely on carefully defined tasks, reporting procedures and hierarchical power structures to achieve results—the traditional disciplines of project management, Is there an alternative in these situations? Does the existence of demanding clients or customers, potentially disruptive subcontractors and tough, predetermined deliverables on time, costs and performance eliminate opportunities for experimentation from a practical viewpoint? Is there a place for another vision of leadership in the world of the project manager? Do different types of projects or even different phases of the same one require a variety of styles and approaches?
DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP SKILLS FOR THE PROJECT MANAGER
In many organizations the career route to project management begins with technical competence in a relevant, specialized discipline, progresses to encompass more than one area of specialization, and may include management responsibility for a project segment, or for the project control system. Understanding the information and systems infrastructure needed to support projects is often a requirement, as well. In order to become project managers, candidates must demonstrate their competency in planning, scheduling, controlling, supervising and evaluating the completion of tasks. But where is leadership development taking place? How does the project manager develop expertise in creating a vision, the appropriate use of power, or team building?
Are these legitimate concerns for a PMI Seminar/Symposium? The project management practitioner certainly needs to achieve mastery in the traditional disciplines. It is the contention of the Seminar/Symposium organizers, however, that this is no longer sufficient in a world in which “leading edge” usually connotes yesterday's solutions. By the time each new concept, product, or idea reaches the public-at-large it is already outdated. With the possible exception of the military, where maintaining the hierarchy of control and authority is considered critical to the integrity of the organization and the success of the mission, the world is such a confusing, frustrating, chaotic place that new and unfamiliar ways of doing things are the only way to cope. Project managers are in the business of helping to bring about change.
PMI ’94 will challenge our basic assumptions about the role of the project manager, broaden our understanding of the competencies and approaches needed to be successful in the years ahead, and expose us to some of the key concepts and ideas in the field of leadership that are of value to project management.
John P. Dickinson is president of Pacific Leadership Inc., a network of consultants specializing in organization development, strategic management, leadership development, applied ethics and public consultation processes, based in Vancouver, B.C. He has over 20 years experience in human resources and organization development in North America and Europe, both as a senior executive and as a consultant to both private and public sector clients. For a number of years, he was corporate vice president of human resources for one of Canada's largest diversified engineering and information technology companies, with operations worldwide. He received a degree in behavioural science from the University of Aston in Birmingham, England.
PMNETwork • March 1994