How Empowered Are Your Project Teams?


Winning product development teams can make decisions and take fast action without losing sight of the outcomes they need to deliver. The level of empowerment within those teams determines their speed to action.  

In my conversations with senior executives and functional managers, the intention is always clear: we want and need highly empowered cross-functional teams to realize innovation agendas. But when asked what the current level of empowerment is within their organization, the answers can differ greatly from function to function. More importantly, executives often rate the level of empowerment far higher than what the project teams themselves describe.

To empower someone means trusting them to make decisions and take action on our behalf. 

How do we make sure that it’s the right action?

#1.  Engage Functional Managers in making a shared game plan for capability building.

Moving from a hierarchical organization to an agile, networked organization, requires rethinking how we view functional capabilities and collaboration. Capabilities are future-oriented and go beyond knowledge, skills, and capacity to perform current work. Capability building is supercharged through sensing mechanisms within each function that anticipate external forces and trends (instead of reacting to them). The sum of those capabilities, deployed in synchrony, is the secret sauce that yields a company its competitive innovation power.

The functions, jointly, hold the key to success. Engage the functional managers, in the “middle” of the organization, in regular sharing of sense-making, capability planning, and learning. By first empowering middle managers as strategic change makers, we move strategy out of the boardroom and allow functional managers to join forces in reimagining both capabilities and culture – including how to best deploy cross-functional high-impact innovation teams.

#2.   Teach and practice delegation.  

At the end of the day, delegation is always personal. For it to work, someone must be willing to part with partial or full authority, and someone else must be both willing and able to take it on. Project teams that are disempowered often have one or more team members who have not been entrusted with the power to decide and act on behalf of their function.  

A functional manager who is struggling with giving their cross-functional project team member more authority, needs to reflect why that is so: did they pick the right person for the job? did they coach and prepare them for success? And finally, once that person is “ready”, did they allow them to do it their way, “letting go” of over-control but still showing active interest and support for the right outcomes. 

Reflecting on our internal motivations and fears is part of good leadership and good delegation. No question, there is risk involved in the delegation. The best way to mitigate that risk is to build the right capabilities (talent development, sensing mechanisms, process guidance, and tools), set clear expectations, and increase authority as we see the results delivered.

Empowerment cannot happen without delegation, which is both a choice and an ongoing process that is mastered with practice. Depending on the complexity and urgency of a given situation, we as leaders may choose to delegate or not. But we must remember that by choosing “not to delegate” we are potentially restricting our own leadership impact and the organization’s ability to advance to the next level. It is for this reason that we must connect levels of delegation, empowerment, and capability, and make it part of our everyday work.

This blog was written by Tarja Huuskonen, CEO here at Action for Results.

Tarja is a visionary leader, speaker, advocate, and strategist who believes in the power of healthy habits and healthy brains as an accelerator for innovation and growth. Her life’s work has been about transforming healthcare by building capabilities and cultures that enable innovation; working with amazing leaders and teams in Life Sciences, hospitals, academia and government, and orchestrated programs and partnerships for growth globally — always focusing on healthcare and patient outcomes.

You can connect with Tarja on Linkedin (Click here to see her profile).

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