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Project Leadership: The Power of Empowerment

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The Branch was delighted to have Airbus Defence and Space in Newport host this event on 5th March 2020.

Our speakers, Sarah Walton and Marion Thomas, from Extraordinary Project Management, took a fun look at project leadership and empowerment, using a dog walking analogy and a lot of audience participation.

Sarah and Marion kicked off the session with some questions to the audience about their views of empowerment – did they feel empowered, did they empower others?

Empowerment is important, people feel more fulfilled which can lead to greater creativity, higher performance, more confidence, mutual trust, higher commitment and fewer surprises: the dead moose in the room!

Empowerment is a 2-way process, a team sport. It is constant and dynamic. It can be envisioned as a tightrope walker on a rope which is being constantly adjusted by the leader to help the follower to balance and perform to their very best. It requires being open to new ideas, learning from mistakes in a positive way, seeing the whole person on each other, valuing contributions, being positive and encouraging, giving clear boundaries and authorisation, (to maintain control), and have excellent communication with the sharing of expectations. The latter can be helped using the Johari Window model. The golden rule is to be curious about yourself and what you need.

There are five essentials for effective empowerment:

  • A collective team target – everyone needs to understand the bigger picture, the big whys?
  • Clear roles and responsibilities.
  • Clear boundaries
  • Learn, review and adapt
  • Encourage judgement to be used – stop and think. More haste, less speed.

It must be right for your team, organisation and circumstances.

Sarah and Marion addressed the common question about whether it is better to lead and control? Projects can and do work like that, but it depends on the leader as well as the maturity and experience of the team. It does not leverage the team’s skills and knowledge and so can be less effective. The leader should avoid a team of ‘yes-men’. Which approach is used needs to be appropriate for the context of the leader, the team and the organisation. The leader needs to know themselves and their team. Both approaches have pros and cons, and some times with tight deadlines and less experienced teams, command and control can be more effective in the short term.

There is a risk that empowerment can lead to chaos if the leader and followers are not ready for it. If that happens go back to the 5 essentials and adapt how you are empowering. Check everyone understands the common target, review roles and responsibilities, check the boundaries, learn, review and adapt, use judgement. You have to adjust the tightrope to help the follower perform.

The audience were asked to discuss in pairs their experiences and metaphors they would use for empowerment. Ideas shared included:

  • The Minions - a happy tribe seeking direction
  • Taking a penalty – a skilled confident volunteer in the team – how to empower this?
  • The devil wears Prada – as a sponsor – how to manage them, how to train them?
  • A child’s first day at school – support them, give them a safe place to return to.
  • Story telling examples are a powerful communication tool.

In summary, the takeaways from tonight are that successful empowerment takes two, it is a team game, it is dynamic and needs constant review to balance and adjust, and it sits within a container and context of project controls and governance.

As usual the slides are also on APM Slideshare.

Martin Gosden
SWWE Branch Chair




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