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It’s election day in the US, as I write this blog. And when it posts, we may or may not know who the next President will be. Democracy, for all its warts, is on display here, and around the globe. I’m reminded of the preamble to the US Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

We are reminded every few years that the quest to “form a more perfect union” is not complete. Justice for all is an elusive dream and domestic tranquility is often missing for some of our residents. That said, democracy – or the process of citizens voting for leaders – is a value on which America was founded. Fair elections are a cornerstone of our country, and threatening that cornerstone riles citizens.

How do votes and the election process relate to project management? Does allowing the people in your organization to vote on projects make sense? What factors do you need to consider if you decide to try this? Click To Tweet

What does this have to do with project management?

In recent decades, some businesses have moved to a flatter organizational structure. In flatter organizations, the employees have a larger say in the running of the business. And as I’ve written about, these organizations typically use self-managed teams to run their work efforts. In some, they have processes for voting on what projects should be tackled.

Much has been written about this trend, with W.L. Gore, the Newark, Del., maker of Gore-Tex, being one of the leaders. Some argue that people prefer working in flatter organizations, while others argue that the startup or transition process can be inefficient. HBR published an article in 2016 that explored the hype behind holacracy.

At the business level, if we move towards a system of allowing employees to vote on projects, will this improve performance? What are the advantages and disadvantages? To a large extent it depends on how you go about the process. I’ll discuss a couple of thoughts in this blog.

Any system that allows employees to vote on projects will force leaders to come up with compelling ‘why?’ statements.

If you open up your project selection decisions to the larger base of employees, you will likely find that more people will vote for highly compelling projects. It’s human nature. And they will likely perform at a higher level for projects that they find compelling. It’s pretty simple.

You can realize the benefits of the higher performance by spending more time to create a compelling why.

To build a new system, you need to choose between team voting, individual voting, or a blend of both.

In organizations that re-use project teams, you may want to choose a system that allows a balance between team voting and individual voting. And you likely need to think about what you are trying to accomplish. Will this system be about choosing projects or staffing projects, or both?

Keep in mind that when individuals are voting on projects, they are, by nature, focused on their own career growth or enjoyment factor. People who are extremely driven to achieve are going to select more ambitious or high-profile projects. People who are more interested in having some fun might choose projects that allow them to work with the people they like the most.

Regulated businesses will need to figure out how to factor projects required by regulators into the process.

While it seems that there are often folks who are drawn to regulatory work, the projects that often evolve from audits are not always explained in a highly compelling way. And this may be an area where you want the expertise of people who understand the regulatory environment.

It may always be an area where you bring in independent contractors to work on those projects. Or, you may have a group of individuals in your organization who prefer to float around on different kinds of projects, rather than staying with one team.

How will leaders resolve the trade-off between exploratory projects and sustaining projects?

Projects are typically undertaken to make change. It may be incremental changes that are designed to sustain the operations of the business. Or it may be more radical change that is needed in order to explore or introduce new competitive offerings or organizational structures.

Typically, leaders in an organization set strategic direction. Do you want a system that threatens to change the strategy of the organization without intending to do so? Or are you comfortable that the employees of your organization may lead you into a different strategy?

A final word

One question is whether employees make better decisions when they have some ownership of the process. In the previously mentioned HBR post, the authors expressed the opinion that some “elements of self-organization will become valuable tools for companies of all kinds.” And I’m convinced that the job of leaders is stay on the eternal quest to form a “more perfect” organization.

If you decide you want to move in the direction of having people vote on projects, you will need to think hard about what kind of system you want. I’d suggest you start by defining the problem you are trying to solve. Perhaps some new project voting system makes the most sense. On the other hand, there may be a better way to solve the problem. Or you may decide that you are on a silly quest to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Regardless of what you decide, it is clear to me that you are better off if you do three things:

  1. Take the time to really get to know the people in your organization and what motivates them.
  2. Create compelling why statements for all of your projects.
  3. Encourage your teams to self-manage.

You don’t need to change your organizational structure to make those changes.

If you have an idea that you want to discuss, feel free to schedule a call.  And sign up for my newsletter for more tips.