Empowering your project portfolio: What is empowerment?

by Jan Schiller
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When you are empowered, you understand the importance of asking questions to reveal the information needed to ensure the success of your project portfolio, and leaders understand the importance of sharing all the information that project portfolio managers and their teams need to succeed. There are no templates for empowering; rather, you already have all the tools, techniques, and templates you need. It is all about how you apply those tools, and how your leadership receives and perceives that application.

Empowerment: What it is.

It is important that everyone involved with your project portfolio has the same understanding of what “empowerment” means because it is such a critical element of an organization’s culture. Also, culture, along with agility, data, and talent, are the key strengths an organization needs to digitally transform. What does empowerment mean to you? How can you tell if you are empowered?

A quick review of the various definitions of empowerment reveals nearly all definitions contain the word “authority” or “power”:

  • “The giving or delegation of power or authority” (Dictionary.com).
  • “Authority or power given to someone to do something. The process of becoming stronger and more confident” (OxfordDictionaries.com).
  • “The granting of the power, right, or authority to perform various acts or duties” (Merriam-Webster.com).
  • “The management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take the initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve services and performance. Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, and holding them responsible and accountable for the outcomes of their actions will contribute to their competence and satisfaction” (BusinessDictionary.com).

Do you have the necessary authority in your project portfolio management role? Consider your job description, as well as your location in the organization chart relative to your project portfolio sponsors, project team, and your manager. If your project team reports to you, and you have a peer relationship to your project sponsor, and you are funding your project portfolio, you probably have the authority and power aligned with the accountability and responsibility of your role.

If you do not have that alignment, welcome to the club. You operate from a position of influence. Influence is the skill required to affect someone or something without power. Influence requires status, contacts, a solid network, charisma, and budget in order to achieve the same result as someone with power and authority. Working from a place of influence is harder than working from a position of authority.

Remember the difference between “accountability” and “responsibility.” Responsibility is the only one that can be delegated.

Empowerment: What it is not.

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How can you tell if you are empowered? You might not be empowered if:

  • “Empower your team” shows up as a task. Based on the definitions above, empowerment is a process, a practice, a concept.
  • Managers are doing the work instead of guiding and helping teams. Resist the temptation to do it yourself, even when it feels like the work would be of better quality or completed more quickly.
  • Leaders are stepping in to do something when things are not going as planned. Remember how you learned and gained the experience you have. Allow others to gain experience by doing so too.
  • Managers overrule a decision they have given to someone else to make. Nothing kills empowerment faster than asking for a decision when you have no intention of acting on the decision that is shared.
  • Teams are doing whatever they want. As project portfolio managers, we are leading a team and influencing stakeholders to achieve a strategy that is desired by the organization.
  • You have implored and encouraged your team to take more initiative or show more motivation, then asked them to check in with you.
  • Governance entities require your team to submit a long-form to obtain the resources you need and must wait for approval.
  • Someone is focusing on policing your team’s processes instead of supporting your team.

Empowerment is a strategy. What is your organization’s empowerment strategy? Who is managing the project portfolio that delivers that strategy?


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