EF Workshop
April 18th, 2014

Getting Out of the Way

Sloan Miller

How often have you wished that the project team that you work on or with could make more thoughtful and conscientious project-level decisions?



What would it be like to have a completely independent, well-informed project team, capable of weighing a multitude of options, acting in accordance with the core values and business principles of your organization, and routinely making decisions that benefit the project — in some cases against their own individual selfish short-term interests?



Imagine an entire organization made up of teams such as this. Teams that make these decisions, the ones that you have faith they would, without the need to seek the permission of their management structure.



Over the last few years this has been an overarching drive and target at P’unk Ave. — decentralizing and distributing the activities traditionally held by a project manager to the teams themselves.

We’ve focused on establishing autonomous, multidisciplinary project teams who are aligned with our vision, share core underlying values, and are empowered to make the best possible choices.



While having a shared perspective and uniform understanding of this approach has helped us navigate many hurdles, cohesion hasn’t always come easily. But it has come.



As I write this post, we have four self-sufficient and incredibly talented project teams (each with three or four people). Who are successfully executing on dozens of projects, interacting directly with clients, all with very little outside oversight.



When these teams need guidance, support, or advice our shop’s leadership, their colleagues, and co-workers are here to support them. But by no means a filter through which they are required to squeeze their work.

Fight the Man!

Do you like being told what to do? Does anyone really?



If you’re dictating your team’s work schedule, outlining specifically what needs to be done every hour of ever day, even if you do it quite pleasantly with a smile, you’re still being a taskmaster, a sometimes unwelcome authority figure.



How could this top-down approach lead to the best possible solution? How does it benefit the team, the organization, even the project? And why has this become so commonly used in the creative and technology industry?

As a discipline, project management isn’t about establishing and maintaining control. It isn’t about a single individual making the decisions about what needs to be done, giving detailed instructions, and standing over someone else’s shoulder to make sure that they get on with the work. And it certainly isn't about the individual guiding the project.



A good project working environment is about establishing and maintaining solid internal and external communication channels. It’s about creating a supportive, trusting, and protective environment where true collaborative work can be nurtured, grown, and spread.



It’s about providing the project team with enough information to make decisions without stepping on their creative toes. It's about protecting their time, keeping them out of unhelpful status meetings, off endless conference calls, and focused on being as productive as possible. It's about getting out of their way so that they can do their work.



Setting the Mindset


In a number of my past work environments, I've seen (and even participated) in too rigid of an approach. Far too many project managers spinning plates, jumping from one emergency to another, putting out fires all day long. Being so reactionary, making decisions outside of and for the benefit of the team isn’t productive, it doesn't create the best possible product, and it is way too stressful for all those involved.



If you spend far too many of your days fighting fires, it’s time for a change on the team level.



Try shifting your focus to keeping the team communicating internally and externally, helping every team member understand the goals of the project, and the needs of the target audience. In doing so, operational responsibilities are distributed to the team, they are more engaged and everyone’s stress levels go down.



Of course mistakes will be made. Most projects will hit bumps in the road that will require persistence, dedication, and a little luck to see them through to successful completion. Everyone who has been doing this long enough anticipates and accepts this. If there is an mutual understanding, if there is a level of commitment and accountability to teammates, to clients or project sponsors, and to the organization as a whole, eveyone benefits.



I've found that control is the enemy of flexibility. Decentralizing project management means opening up, releasing the reins, sharing more operational details, and educating the team on what could happen and how best to react. This approach empowers every member of the team to act in your organization’s best interest.

Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. A change like this doesn’t happen overnight.

Have a little faith — trust them to get the work done.



Give it a Whirl

wall lift

How do you create more independent and autonomous project teams?

One small step at a time.

  • Start simply with a commitment to a more open approach, one where tasks aren’t dictated and project-level conversations don’t happen in silos.
  • Foster an environment that promotes those around you and opens their eyes to the bigger picture on both the project and organization levels... and trust will be built.
  • Stop dictating tasks for the next week or two! Gather with the team in a collaborative working session. Together, outline a comprehensive list of activities that need to be be completed over the next month.
  • In that session, encourage the discussion of these commitments and the airing of any concerns or past challenges.
  • Encourage the team to ask questions, helping to adjust everyone's mindset from the standard “What do I have to do?” street-level view.
  • Give the team the opportunity to ask “why is this important? And what happens further down the line?” as if they were on the rooftop with a pair of binoculars, surveying the battlefield with you.
  • With this expanded view, the team should be empowered to self-select their tasks, set appropriate schedules and formulate action-oriented questions for the project sponsors.
  • Begin the process of getting out of the way by helping them communicate those questions directly to the project sponsors.


Remember, it's about good communication, listening, and making sure everyone has the same expectations. It is about knowing when it's appropriate to help, and when to contribute an idea that will benefit the team.

You and your team should be focused on serving the project, accountable to one another and the project sponsor. The team should not be shielded from organization-level decisions.

If the team is informed and engaged in every step of the process, how could they not be the best possible version of themselves, producing the best possible results?

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