The project manager needs to control and direct her team with the help of her project management tools. The notion of a self-managing team seems to undermine the ability of the project manager to control and direct. What is really going on here?
I always thought it was a curious notion, the self-organizing or self-managing team. What the heck was that? How could we not have a leader or otherwise someone with authority to make hard decisions or resolve disagreements when needed? I’ve seen many gaggles of people who I doubt had any notion of self direction!
Leadership is paramount I was sure. There is only one catch I realize. The leader can’t do everything. In fact, the leader can rarely do much of anything, but provide motivation and guidance. Which means most good team are in fact good because they pretty much run themselves. OK, I’m beginning see some merit here.
In Putting Your Project Management Team At Risk I mention how I would get my teams so well organized and targeted, that I literally didn’t have to do much of anything. This, I thought, was the pinnacle of good management. Think about it. If the team can operate most of the time without their “leader” then what we have is a self-managing team. The team does have direction and guidance it is following. Within that direction and guidance, they are free to operate pretty much as they see fit. Even innovating is acceptable, as long as it doesn’t violate their boundaries or primary mission.
I’ve written that in some successful projects I’ve never told people how long or how hard to work. In some cases I never called a meeting and these were year long projects (see The Leap To Exceptional). In my own writings I find I keep having to change all the “I”s to “we” because, when I think about it, while I may have laid out a plan or set up a strategy, the actual work – that resulted in the success – was always a group of people other than just me.
One of the big things I regularly talk about is getting the schedule right for a project. Usually, to get a team or organization on the right track with schedules, I first have to remove some bad management practices or otherwise work around them. What I’ve often found however, is that when I free a team from “downward directed schedules” the team doesn’t do any better at setting their own schedule. At this point in a team’s development I usually need to give them some guidance – often being very directive – on how to put together a schedule estimate. Once they have a technique that works – and they know why it works – I am then not too worried about the schedule they produce.
So I came to realize that many of my successes were because I was creating a self-managing team. The team was given some fairly specific guidance on how to go about their business, but once they learned the approach, they were free to set their own schedules and priorities. (See also Being Slightly Out Of Control Is A Good Thing).
One of the other self-managing things I’ve always done is to ask people to first do a good job and then get the task completed. This almost always startled both the people I asked as well as the other managers. In one case, once I stressed in a very time limited situation that we needed a rock solid fix to a problem first and then get it done as fast as possible, I had another manager call me up on the phone and berate me for stressing that we needed good quality first. He said that quality is always understood and hence should never be mentioned! I could also tell that, since he too had also been pushing the team, he felt that since I emphasized quality and he did not it had made it seem like he only cared about the schedule.
The folks I worked with over the years would consistently tell me that I was the only one who ever actually asked for good quality and actually meant it. I came to realize that by asking for quality first, I was giving the individual (or team) the right to self-management and they got to decide when it was good enough to release the product or declare the project complete. (For additional ideas, see Ron Armstrong’s article on Requirements of a Self-Managed Team Leader.)
Helping a team become self-managing is about giving them the direction and guidance they need to be successful. While it may seem like we are giving up some control, we are in fact empowering them to act with energy and innovativeness while being grounded by strategy, methodology and goals.