… and nothing is going to happen

Today, I had an interesting discussion about empowerment, especially in a weak matrix organization. Eventually, the discussion reminded me of the Obituary of Richard Neustadt, the adviser to several presidents ($) of the USA, in The Economist (November 2003). The central part is (quoted from memory):

“He’ll sit here,” he [Truman] said [about Eisenhower], drumming his fingers on the desk, “and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that! – and nothing is going to happen! – it won’t be a bit like in the army!”

Well… if this is the amount of empowerment the most powerful man on this planet can command – how could I as a project manager as a project manager ask for more?

I think that project management is a lot about convincing and only a little about “empowerment”, and this means that there are three potential problems:

  1. First, it so happens every once in a while that somebody confuses “empowerment” with “veto right”. Such cases are particularly frequent among so-called internal governance bodies. Yes, this is empowerment in a sense… but it’s “wrong-way-round”. Real empowerment is the power to make things happen, not the power to stop.
  2. Second, the power to influence or convince actually means that the project manager can build a “bridge” between the project member’s personal goals and the project goals. Clear, aligned, specific goals within the company are a fairly obvious prerequisite to make that work.
  3. Third (or actually “2b”), incompatibilities of interests between different organizations that contribute to a project obviously break the “empowerment” of the project manager.

So what?

Upon closer inspection, the so-called line managers are often not more empowered: They can’t fire (at least not in Germany), and at least now in the financial crisis, they may have only very little financial freedom like over salaries etc. Don’t tell anybody, though 🙂

Eventually, what it all boils down to is, provocatively exaggerated:

There  is no empowerment!

There is dis-empowerment.
There is an illusion of empowerment, and a good project manager knows how to sustain that.


“Thinking Product”

The other day, a friend gave his parting presentation titled “Thinking Product!”. One really nice metaphor he used was: Making standard software is, in many ways, like making cognac:

  • First, we try to bring the essence of market demand into the product, along the entire value chain – very much like good cognac brings the essence of the grapes through the distillery.
  • It’s the essence of the market (not just the wishes of one individual customer) that we are trying to realize – very much like no cognac fan is looking for the taste of a grape – that can be achieved by eating the grapes individually (or making custom development, respectively)
  • Eventually, when the time comes, cognac is sold by emotion, not because the company has the best chemical processing equipment. In the same way, we shouldn’t sell the how the software was made but the benefit it brings.

One may like brandy or not, but I do like this example.


Distributed Teams

Today, two blog posts collided with each other in my head:

Under the heading “Collaborating Across Boundaries“, Tessa Lau is contemplating which tools the computing community could offer to alleviate the challenges associated with distributed projects: It’s becoming harder and harder to cooperate – in my experience largely (though not exclusively) within the same company – with team members because people are chosen by expertise, never mind where they live.

On the same day, the social network XING reflects on this year’s nobel prize for economics: “XING und der Nobelpreis” (German :-/) explains that Oliver Williamson received the nobel prize this year for his work on transaction cost theory, the fact that the cost of conducting a transaction is one of the factors causing corporations to exist. I understood it like: Companies exist among others because they save transaction cost as compared to a same-sized community of freelancers. In a company, one doesn’t have to worry much about customers or suppliers, they are just there. As one might expect, there is a nice article at Wikipedia.

Social networks nowadays have a similar role for freelancers: They reduce transaction costs for individuals. That’s the link between XING and this year’s nobel prize.

Combining the two: geographic distribution imposes transaction costs that hit large cooperations about as much as individuals, but corporations are more rigid: while an individual could choose the second-best but geographically close specialist, a company has a certain department, say, in China. And if we are honest to ourselves: almost all of us are second best most of the time – is it really worth the effort? So, for knowledge workers: is geographic distribution a factor creating large companies, or is it rather inhibiting large companies?

Could this be the dawn of a new age of small, regionally oriented IT companies?