Setting Boundaries: Autonomy for Team Members

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Project managers aren’t bosses in the traditional sense of the word. Generally, they’re leaders of a specific collaborative initiative comprised of highly talented individuals, most of whom probably don’t need to be micro-managed. Indeed, some of the team members might react negatively if they feel their creativity, energy and vision are being suppressed by an overly domineering project manager. On the other hand, if a project manager gives them too much license, then the undertaking might fall apart as strong personalities and wills overwhelm the team’s sense of mission. Determining just how much freedom of action your group should have requires real concentration on the “management” side of project management.


“It’s always a balance on how much freedom the project team members should have, especially in the information technology field, where you will still run across individuals who will speak of themselves as creative artist types and find processes, deadlines, schedules, status reports and all that kind of stuff to be barriers to their way of work,” said Karen R.J. White, PMP and a director in the professional services group at PM Solutions.


In some cases, your organization might decide how much autonomy to give project team members, White said. “A lot will depend on the project itself and the corporate culture and guidelines,” she said. “If you’re in an organization where you’re doing a firm fixed-price project for external customers, then your project team members probably won’t have as much freedom. There are certain hard rules that need to be in place around the architecture of the project, around who is authorized to spend the project’s money and who is authorized to make decisions regarding scope.”


Most of the time you’ll have to figure out what project team members can and can’t do and how much you’ll need to keep an eye on them. The best way to determine this is simply by socializing with them. “You have to interact with the project team,” White said. “I know of a lot of project managers who are very proud of the fact that the only time they talk to their project team members is when they’re in their project meeting once a week. You’re not going to get it that way. I have found that it’s really important for me to get to understand performance patterns of each of my team members. Who works better in a very structured, very disciplined ‘step one, step two, step three’ approach, as opposed to those who need a looser framework?”


Generally speaking, experienced professionals you’ve worked with before and in whom you have confidence and trust will need much less supervision. Conversely, there are certainly personality traits, though, that will suggest that a team member will need more attention than the others. “If you have someone that operates in the ‘closed door’ mindset—the person that doesn’t open up in project team meetings, who always seems to be huddled down behind their monitor—my experience is that’s a person who perhaps needs a bit more attention to draw them out,” White explained. “They’re not going to volunteer their issues or be forthcoming. I also watch for the guy who’s overly gregarious, somebody who’s always visiting and talking with somebody else who’s not getting their work done either.”


As for management styles, you’ll usually have to commence the project with a firm, in-charge approach, but you shouldn’t rely on this technique throughout the initiative’s life cycle, White said. “Everyone gets hands-on management when the project starts. It’s safer to err with too much management then not enough when the project is starting, and then you can loosen up. It’s kind of like the reins on a horse. If you’ve never ridden on that horse before, you’re going to tend to be very corrective. But as you get more comfortable with the horse, you’re going to keep letting the reins go a little bit, to the point where you’re very slack on them.”


White said that many information technology project managers grow out of the software engineer role, and because of their hands-on temperament, it’s often difficult to relinquish control over every aspect of a project. “We tend to be by nature very detail oriented,” she said. “It’s very hard for us to let go and not worry about all the details. I have a little reminder hanging on my bulletin board that says, ‘Do you really need to know?’ How is your knowledge of that detail going to influence the outcome? It’s a skill that really differentiates someone who can be a project manager. That’s one of the attributes that an organization should look for when they’re trying to grow somebody into project management: Can this person delegate and let go appropriately?”


–Brian Summerfield,

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