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The link between personal autonomy and project performance

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I once attended a conference called People Deliver Projects. This mantra has stayed with me ever since.

The Leadership Focus Group in the People SIG has been exploring autonomy recently and we have perceived a valuable intersection between personal autonomy and project performance. Specifically, Tim Elliott and Oliver Randall have been synthesising their thinking and experience, with further contributions from Rob Blakemore, Wai Wan and myself.

Autonomy matters to project professionals because People Deliver Projects, and people matter. Our project teams aren’t filled with machines — yet.

The APM Body of Knowledge says of Leadership: “The project … manager understands how to get the best out of each person,” and “Team members share responsibilities and work collaboratively.” Autonomy.

Without autonomy, what would our profession be?

Why this?

We want to prompt debate within the community by sharing a short visual conversation-starter, which you will find attached to this blog.

Personally, I live for smaller projects with aspects of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). They demand a thoughtful and skilled response, i.e. that I am prepared to act with autonomy.

These VUCA projects tend to be fast, so project professionals can find themselves making what Richard Branson calls “One-way door decisions” at pace. In such environments, leading with values and experience comes into its own – being time-efficient though not infallible.

Mental models like this can help me self-coach to avoid both being too directive and not directive enough; they help me to stay adaptive to my situation.


“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” George E. P. Box.

We don’t claim that the model we share here is theoretically comprehensive, or universally true. What it does offer is a structure that may support personal reflection.

For me, balance is the foundation. It permits the gap in between stimulus and response that Stephen Covey described as “Be Proactive.”

Projects often involve pressure and conflicting priorities; ‘blowing up’ in the face of obstacles is rarely effective. My preferred strategy is to keep the phrase ‘Get curious, not frustrated,’ in mind, or as a former colleague keeps remind me, ‘Calm is a superpower.’

Our belief conditions how we approach our projects:

A clear project vision is a belief that can help mobilise and unite a high performing team. Other beliefs that may impact our leadership include the (in)efficacy of different methods based on experience, or even a pessimism about people that advocates micromanagement, e.g. McGregor’s Theory X vs Theory Y.

The honesty we receive — or feel able to show! — directly affects the level of usable information that we, and others, have about the project. It can be a painful tool to hold, though, as it cuts both ways; there are times when your inclinations and worldview will clash with those of your colleagues. Sometimes, maintaining harmony and overlooking differences of opinion helps. While uncomfortable, I find radical candour more transformative for relationships and for results.

Adaptive structure refers to the rules, policies and governance that we put in place as project professionals. Specifically, not just our ability to tailor effective governance, but also to monitor and adjust that governance as the situation dictates:

In large organisations, standardisation is the tool of choice to manage the complexity of scale — and a volatile standard fails its purpose. At their worst, standards breed an inflexibility that fails VUCA situations. 

Inclusiveness here is both narrower and broader than Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. It encompasses the extent to which project teams collaborate and participate together towards a common goal.

In recent years, one way I have shifted away from command-and-control is to replace instruction with inquiry: ’What would it take to make <outcome> happen?’ This promotes the triple benefits of recognising creativity; creating a safe space to explore options; and assuring focus on valuable outcomes over predefined plans.

Can we really?

It’s a common sentiment in projects that, ’We have to take what we’re given and make it work.’ Sometimes that’s even true. However, autonomy is influenced by internal factors unique to each individual and inviolable by others.

Taking back your autonomy — in the sense we mean here — involves accepting accountability for how you respond to events, and your impact on others. It’s the opposite of resigning yourself to being a victim of circumstance, without power or influence.

Where next?

The next step is to have the conversation! What does this mean for us as professionals? What does this mean for us as leaders?

For example, the Body of Knowledge continues on to say that leaders need “To put effort into understanding what different people need in order to perform effectively and to provide the support required. The leadership role is increasingly understood through an authentic, emotionally intelligent, collaborative and ‘servant’ lens.”

How can leaders understand their impact, for better and worse, on the autonomy of their teams?

We cannot hope to nurture autonomy in others without modelling it first ourselves. We must not crush it in others to better our own.

What aspects of this model resonate with your experience? How do you see the relationship between autonomy and project leadership?


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