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Facilitative PM: Balancing Authority and Collaborative Management

As project manager, you more effective if you act as a facilitator rather than a command and control manager, even if you are in the minority of project managers that have clear authority over the resources working on your projects.

The Drive for Control

Many people become project managers to satisfy a drive for control. When applied skillfully, this tendency is powerful. However, at times the tendency along with the widespread belief that managers should be in charge and direct all aspects of project performance, can be a problem. Expecting to have authority you don’t have and unskillfully exercising the authority you do have, can set you up for failure.

Every project manager must strike the optimal balance between authority based and collaboration based or facilitative project management. The master PM generally chooses collaboration even when he or she has authority. At the same time, the master knows when to use authority (one’s own or the influence and authority that comes from others) and how to apply it skillfully.

PM as Facilitator

Projects of any size require facilitation and coordination more than they need autocratic leadership. Facilitation makes it possible for a group to function more effectively. In the context of meetings, the facilitator makes sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard, helps the group to avoid unnecessary conflicts and to manage the conflicts that do arise. The facilitator steers the discussion so that it stays on target, and generally guides the group towards reaching its goals. We can apply the same principles to the project as a whole.

The PM facilitates by enabling healthy planning, communications, effective conflict management and decision-making. The PM ensures that the right methods, tools policies and procedures are in place and being used. The PM protects the team from outside disruptions.

Applying Facilitative PM

Project facilitation especially applies to matrixed projects. In matrixed projects team members from various disciplines take charge of work streams and perform tasks. While they “report” to the PM, the PM does not have direct authority over them. The team members take their authority direction from their functional or line managers. Generally, the PM does not have the expertise to direct the work of subject matter experts.

Often, there is no problem. Functional managers are as committed to achieving the organization’s goals as the project manager, priorities are properly set, expectations about resource availability are realistic, resources are directed to cooperate, etc.

Under these conditions, to be successful the PM must operate as if he or she had no authority. The PM relies on universally accepted project objectives, clear thinking, collaborative planning, effective communication, sponsorship and buy-in to ensure that everyone is pulling in the right direction.

Universally Accepted Objectives

Objectives drive projects. They are set before the project is kicked-off and provide a foundation for all planning, decision-making and project control activities.

If project objectives are in-sync with the organization’s goals, there is great likelihood that everyone will work to achieve them. Leadership and stakeholders like executive sponsors and clients with authority set objectives.

Even though those in authority, from outside the core project team, set the objectives, where the process of defining the objectives is collaborative, it is more likely that the objectives will be correct and stable across the life of the project.

The PM makes sure that everyone on the project understands and accepts the objectives. This is not a one-time task. There must be communication about objectives across the life of the project to remind people. It is all too easy to be caught up in a single, highly detailed work-stream, and lose track of the overall project objectives.

Collaborative Decisions

Objectives drive the project while decisions chart the course. A core principle is that collaborative decisions about key aspects of the project tend to be more effective than decisions made unilaterally by people in power. This is true whether we are talking about setting objectives, creating plans, or designing solutions.

Team synergy is enhanced by opening critical decisions to a collaborative process. This doesn’t mean that everyone takes part in all decisions or that there is need for consensus on all or even any decisions. Nor does it mean that you take binding votes and follow the majority.

Both majority and authority figures’ decisions are often flawed. The right people need to be engaged in decision-making. The right people are the ones with relevant expertise and good judgement. If decision makers are representative of the broader group and recognized by the team as the right people to make the decision, it is more likely that a good decision will be made and that the team will accept it and followed through.

Using common objectives as the criteria for judging the value of decision alternatives, intelligence, experience, good judgement and a willingness to seek an objectively superior solution combine to make sure the decision alternatives are effective and that clear thinking prevails.

The PM facilitates collaborative decision-making so that individuals are open to analytical assessment of options, including their own. He or she promotes willingness to be ruthlessly objective, cutting through unfounded beliefs and egoistic stances. The facilitative PM moderates to make sure people are sensitive to the needs of others, particularly when criticizing their ideas or performance.

Clear thinking

Clear thinking is thinking that is not clouded by beliefs and self-centered clinging to ones own ideas. It combines analysis, a systems view, intuition, and mindfulness. It sees things as they are, objectively. There is acceptance of what is, along with the willingness to direct and manage change to engineer a desirable future state.

The facilitative PM promotes clear thinking because clear thinking leads to more effective performance through more effective decision-making. He or she questions and promotes others to do the same. He or she guides the team in analytical approaches that, for example, require people in conflict to articulate the reasons underlying their positions; their objectives, needs and wants. Distinguishing between needs and wants and identifying objectives make decision making quicker and outcomes more effective. Using critical metrics to analyze and improve performance and provide facts as opposed to opinions further clarifies thinkink..

Using Authority

Clear thinking recognizes that for complex issues there are continuums rather than either-or, black and white positions. It is not facilitative vs. authority based PM. Instead, it is the right balance between them. Both-and rather than either-or.

Authority has its place. Someone must be able to break ties and to make command decisions. There are times when a given individual has an objectively better idea, is more intelligent and more experienced than the others in a team. Other team members may recognize this and defer to the “authority”.

It is also possible that the others want to stick with inferior ideas. When this happens, the person with authority must be ready to make a command decision.

Note the difference between an authority and, a person with authority. An authority draws his or her power from knowledge and experience. A person with authority has power granted by higher authorities and does not necessarily have superior knowledge and experience on a subject.

When using authority, it is a good practice to explain your reasoning. This gives subordinates a sense of why you decided as you did and that may dispelled objections and the common process of second-guessing the decision maker. It also promotes learning and shows respect.

Listen to objections and suggestions while making it clear that they do not bind you.

Putting It Together

Facilitative PM addresses the need to find the right balance between the use of authority and the use of collaborative methods. Overall, engaging team members in effective decision-making based on mutually accepted objectives and clear thinking leads to better decisions and the buy in that leads to optimal performance.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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