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Project Management Techniques for Leading the Next Generation of Innovation

Business Administration

A primary goal of traditional project management is the prevention of failure. As such, the process often is rigid and predictable, as explained by Jenna Pucket in the blog Technology Advice. While comforting for business, predictability is the enemy of innovation.  Projects lacking innovation keep companies in the middle of the pack rather than in market leadership positions.

Project managers can rightly be called project leaders. They are responsible for promoting efficiency and innovation in project teams, not just simply tracking timelines and critical paths. Some of the most innovative and technologically-advanced products of our day—from the Apple II to Instagram—was lead by project managers with the leadership to harness the hard work and talents of dedicated teams.

Professionals wanting to lead projects that deliver truly innovative products must first determine which project management technique and leadership style best fits their skills and personality. More importantly, they must apply a project management approach that ensures team members can contribute their best of talents and abilities in a concerted effort that exceeds expectations.

The management and leadership techniques described in this guide represent a range of possible approaches for converting great ideas into successful products that set new standards.

What Are the Types of Management Styles?

A standard project management model breaks a project into five phases that correspond to specific knowledge areas, as CIO’s Moira Alexander explains:

  • Initiating phase: develop the project charter and identify stakeholders.
  • Planning phase: create a plan that outlines the project scope, time, costs, quality measures, people/roles, communication, risk assessment, procurement, and stakeholder expectations.
  • Execution phase: focus on integration, quality assessment, meeting the needs of team members, and communicating with suppliers and stakeholders.
  • Monitoring phase: emphasize change management, scope validation, cost control, quality measures, procurement, and communication among team members and stakeholders.
  • Closing phase: confirm all project phases are complete and procurement activities are finalized.

Of the eight project management skills identified by CIO as being in the highest demand by businesses, those in the shortest supply are technical knowledge, leadership, and strategic business thinking. Technical skills are typically based on processes, making them relatively easy to learn. However, companies are struggling to find project managers with leadership abilities and a firm understanding of an organization’s strategic goals.

Different management approaches and leadership styles are effective in specific business situations. The key to managing projects that succeed beyond expectations is ensuring a good fit with the project manager’s leadership style, the project goals, the needs of team members and stakeholders, and the company’s long-range strategic plans.

Marketing services firm HubSpot describes eight types of management:

  • Visionary: managers communicate a “purpose and direction” that employees buy into and strive to make real.
  • Democratic: managers lead by consensus and give team members a voice in the decisions that affect the project.
  • Transformational: managers emphasize the benefits of “change and growth” to encourage innovation and challenge team members to exceed their expectations.
  • Coaching: managers focus on team members’ long-term professional goals and rely primarily on their teaching skills.
  • Autocratic: managers utilize a traditional, top-down hierarchy of management; decisions are made without collaborating with team members who are expected to follow orders or face the consequences.
  • Servant: managers give top priority to the people on the project team rather than to achieving the goals of the project: they focus on keeping interpersonal relationships positive and are less concerned with achieving peak performance and encouraging innovation.
  • Laissez-faire: managers expect team members to perform at the required level without needing any motivation and with minimum oversight; most decision-making authority is held by individual team members.
  • Transactional: managers motivate team members by offering them incentives and rewards, which psychological research determines is effective in short term periods.

Any of these management styles may serve as the most effective approach in specific circumstances. For example, autocratic management is the best choice for responding to emergencies. Likewise, laissez-faire management is associated with many large, expensive projects, such as dam construction and aerospace projects. In these situations, the timely completion of project tasks requires that engineering teams and other area experts work independently.

Agile project management is a project management technique conducive to supporting a company’s strategic goal to create more innovative products. Agile software development was born out of the software industry’s need to more rapidly deliver new versions of the software. The technique emphasizes continuous development and continuous integration (CD/CI). The traditional waterfall approach in which tasks are passed sequentially between team members is replaced by a virtual circle. This cycle has all parts of the development process—design, test, deploy, maintain, and update—operating simultaneously and in constant coordination with all other processes.

These “agile” concepts are applied to improve various types of project management. The Association for Project Management defines agile project management as “an iterative and incremental approach to delivering requirements throughout the project life cycle.” The most important characteristics of agile project management are trust, flexibility, empowerment, and collaboration:

  • Collaboration replaces the negotiation that is characteristic of interactions when using the waterfall approach.
  • The emphasis is on individuals and interactions rather than on processes and tools.
  • Team members respond to change rather than follow a structured plan.
  • Prototyping actual product iterations replace comprehensive documentation.

The following sections describe in greater detail the benefits of specific types of management styles for encouraging innovation in projects.

Authoritative Management

The benefits of authoritative management, which is also called autocratic or authoritarian management, demonstrate its preference in military and emergency situations. With authoritative management, decisions are made quickly.  A clear chain of command and oversight exists, with all team members understanding expectations and consequences of failure.

Among the situations in which authoritative management is effective:

  • Small groups that lack a leader to make simple decisions, such as setting deadlines and scheduling meetings.
  • Stressful situations that require an emergency response and team members to focus exclusively on their specific duties.
  • Manufacturing operations and construction projects where safety and quality are of utmost importance and it is vital to adhere to a strict schedule

On the other hand, the negative side of authoritative management is the prototypical image of a demanding boss who lays down the law and expects obedience without question. The health site Verywell Mind defines the authoritative management style as one person making all decisions with little or no input from coworkers. Authoritative project management can negatively impact team members by providing no opportunity to provide input, which lowers morale and fails to capitalize on the ideas and creativity offered by team members.

When using the authoritative management style, it’s important to consider team ideas, ensure they understand the rules and verify that they have the tools and resources to fulfill duties. It also is important to enforce the rules consistently and acknowledge the accomplishments of team members rather than just mistakes.

Transactional Management

Supervision, organization, and group performance are the cornerstones of this management style, which also is known as managerial leadership. Verywell Mind explains that transactional management, first described in the 1980s, is based on the use of rewards and punishments to motivate workers. The methodology is predicated on the assumption that team members respond best when clearly understanding the chain of command and obeying the instructions of the group’s leader.

Defining characteristics of transactional management include:

  • Close monitoring of subordinates to ensure expectations are met.
  • Maintaining the status quo rather than introduce disruptive ideas.
  • Frequent communication with team members about leader expectations and meeting required standards.

Transactional management is one of the most popular management styles because team members and leaders can easily understand it. This leadership approach is used by sports teams in which participants must conform to the rules and expectations in exchange for predetermined rewards and punishments. This management style is similar to authoritative management in its effectiveness in emergencies, which require fast action and quick decisions.

In particular, large organizations benefit from transactional management because it emphasizes structure and completing work quickly, notes the business software vendor Status.net. Among the benefits of the transactional leadership style are lower training costs, higher worker productivity, and a clearly defined organizational structure. To succeed, transactional managers must integrate short-term and long-term goals, recognize employee contributions other than those related to job performance, encourage leadership development among team members, and address small problems as they arise to prevent them from becoming large problems.

Democratic Management

The defining characteristics of democratic management are openness and collegiality. This management style is most commonly utilized in workgroups  operating in “dynamic and rapidly changing environments,” according to the Leadership Toolbox. As project team members are encouraged to freely share ideas, democratic leaders encourage discussions and contributions among participants that contribute to decision-making. Democratic managers synthesize the group’s input and communicate the final decision to unite the group behind the plan.

Environments in which democratic management is most effective include advertising and other areas that emphasize creativity, consulting services that require deep dives to solve complex problems and educational settings where educators spur creative approaches to problem-solving in their students. To be effective in promoting innovation, democratic leaders must:

  • Ensure that all team members feel comfortable communicating their thoughts and ideas openly without fear of criticism or recrimination.
  • Focus discussions on topics that contribute to finding solutions to problems associated with the project.
  • Work through the group’s proposals, commit to a specific course of action and follow- through on the decision with conviction.

The Houston Chronicle recommends four ways that managers who adopt a democratic leadership style can improve the effectiveness of teams and team members:

  • Communicate with all team members promptly about all aspects of the project that affect their work
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual team members and the team as a whole.  Work within the hierarchy of the group to confirm that tasks are completed on time.
  • Set clear deadlines for team members to submit ideas and proposals relating to pending decisions.  Abide by deadlines for responding to team members’ input.
  • Clarify via a handbook the types of unilateral and joint decisions.

Project management vendor WorkZone highlights the benefits of the democratic management style that include improving employee morale, encouraging innovative approaches to problem-solving, and giving employees more confidence to take on new responsibilities. This management style also fosters a spirit of cooperation and recognizes the value of group brainstorming to generate new and useful ideas.

One of the greatest detriments of democratic management is the amount of time to make decisions in such collaborative settings. It also risks employees becoming resentful or unappreciated if their ideas aren’t afforded appropriate consideration. Democratic leaders must avoid favoritism some team members by emphasizing the value of the ideas the group generates and sharing credit among all project participants.

Transformational Management

Visionaries in business are admired for their ability to transform companies, markets, and even cultures. Among the most lauded business visionaries are Apple founder Steve Jobs, publishing and entertainment magnate Oprah Winfrey, and the inventor of the job title “Imagineer,” Walt Disney.

The transformational management style, known as visionary management, is noted for its ability to spark organizational change and strategic innovation.

As the Harvard Business Review explains, transformational leaders go beyond simply setting a strategic goal; they provide a narrative that communicates why the strategy is important and inspires team members to commit to achieving the goal. Management consultant Daniel Goleman explains that successful, transformational leaders must demonstrate their expertise, clearly communicate the importance of the goal, and ensure their message resonates personally with each team member.

Inspiring people requires empathy, according to Goleman, and understanding that it takes time to learn what truly motivates individuals. Transformational managers must focus on the positive aspects of the change without ignoring the challenges of achieving the team’s goals. They also must ensure that all team members possess the skills and materials required to fulfill their responsibilities.

Research by the Harvard Business Review reports that a lack of middle management buy-in is a primary reason why the transformational leadership style sometimes fails to achieve its goals. A survey of managers at two European firms implementing fundamental strategic realignments indicates the importance of middle managers and line workers buying into the leaders’ strategic vision. When top managers keep middle managers aligned with their long-term vision and strategic goals, the teams are more likely to collaborate to achieve those goals. However, when middle managers do not share the vision of top management, their teams are more likely to be out of step with the organization’s long-term strategy.

To avoid misalignment of middle managers with an organization’s strategic goals, industry researchers recommend that transformational leaders focus on communicating their goals to middle managers before implementing any strategy. Once sharing the vision and committed to it, middle managers are prepared to lead and inspire their teams to reach those goals.

Servant Leadership

How can a servant be a leader or a leader be a servant?  This contradiction in terms is the concept of servant leadership where leaders are motivated by a strong desire to serve the interests of the team, the organization, or the community.

Servant leadership was first described by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay published in 1970 titled, “The Servant as Leader.” It begins with the desire to serve, followed by the “conscious choice ... to aspire to lead.” This concept is opposed to a “leader-first” mentality driven by a desire for power and the acquisition of material goods.

From a project management perspective, servant leadership characteristics include the following, as presented by Cheryl Williamson on Forbes:

  • Lead by example—Show commitment to service through your actions and encourage team members to join you in activities that serve others with no personal gain.
  • Let them know you care—Leaders demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and commitment to supporting team members.
  • Invest in your team—Leaders spending time with the team; engage in activities that bring the team closer to its goals and help team members advance in their careers.
  • Serve unconditionally—Leaders show enthusiasm on completing tasks considered by other managers beneath their pay grade. By participating in the project’s grunt work, leaders communicate that they are truly motivated by the desire to serve rather than by prestige or personal gain

While servant leadership offers many benefits for leading a project team, it isn’t always the most effective approach, explains Status.net. For example, responsibilities widely shared among team members make it difficult to reach a consensus and decisions on time. This proves troublesome in situations that require quick responses to changing situations. In addition, adopting a servant-leadership approach represents a big change to the usual corporate culture and has long implementation timelines. Providing a high level of support to team members can add to the time and costs required to complete a project.

Match Project Goals and Personnel to the Optimal Management Style

No single management style or project management template best serve the diverse needs of various team efforts. Project leaders must identify the leadership style that ideally matches their skills, knowledge, and personality. After that, they must reconcile and adapt that style with the requirements of the project and the strengths and abilities of team members.

Providing the necessary insight and practical skills to successfully lead different types of projects is a primary goal of Norwich University’s online Master of Business Administration degree program. Project management is one of the eight concentrations offered by the program, which is accredited by the Project Management Institute Global Accreditation Center for Project Management Education Programs (GAC). Along with teaching project management techniques, tools and principles, the concentration classes cover leadership, communication and teams, and strategic project management.

As organizations become more interconnected and business processes more integrated, leadership and strategic planning are increasingly important to the success of projects. The most successful projects are those led beyond expectations and promote innovation and creativity that enable companies to differentiate their brand products from among the competition.


Recommended Reading

A Look into the Future of Project Management
Why Get an MBA? A Look at Career Competitive Advantages and Benefits
Changing Business Skills for the Future of Finance

The Most Innovative Project Management Strategies, Technology Advice
What is a Project Manager? The Lead Role for Project Success, CIO
8 Project Management Skills in High Demand, CIO
4 Management Styles to Strive For, And 4 to Avoid, HubSpot
What is Agile Project Management, Association for Project Management
Autocratic Leadership: Key Characteristics, Strengths, and Weaknesses of Autocratic Leadership, Verywell Mind
What Is Transactional Leadership? (Pros, Cons, How-to’s), Status.net
Leadership Styles: Democratic Leadership Style, Leadership Toolbox
Three Things to Improve My Democratic Leadership Style, Houston Chronicle
The Top 7 Management Styles: Which Ones are Most Effective?, WorkZone
Why Visionary Leadership Fails, Harvard Business Review
Visionary Leadership Style, Secret To Their Success
What is Servant Leadership, Center for Servant Leadership
Servant Leadership: How to Put Your People Before Yourself, Forbes
What Is Servant Leadership? 5 Must-Have Principles, Status.net
Master of Business Administration, Norwich University

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