29 October 2018 | 9:00
Jiwat Ram

From ‘Control’ to ‘Engage’: Is ‘Engaged Control’ a better solution?

Over the last five decades, project management (PM) has grown to become a formidable knowledge-intensive profession. PM processes, methods, tools, and techniques, mainly designed to achieve efficiency and effectiveness of project-based work, have been documented to enable better use and re-use. However, as organizations are moving towards a business model where human resources are considered a mission-critical business asset; it is resulting in a corresponding shift of PM focus from being merely an iron triangle of scope, time and cost to include human elements such as stakeholders and their engagement as well.

Despite all these changes, control has historically remained the mantra of success for project-based work. In a world where behaviours, needs and technologies are evolving fast, compounded by fewer restrictions on access to information and lessening of hierarchical management styles, it raises the question why PM is still so much about Control?

So, is it possible to replace the word ‘Control’ with the word ‘Engage’ for project-based process management? The answer may not be so straight forward. But to build an initial dialogue around this idea we present below an argument that looks into whether engaged control might be a better solution for PM based work.

Let’s start with the basics. The Oxford dictionary provides multiple definitions for the term control such as “the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events.” Similarly, the term engage has been defined in multiple ways such as “establish a meaningful contact or connection with” or “involve someone in.”

Looking carefully at these definitions, one can see the key differences and building blocks that make up both the terms. Simply put, control is about influencing or directing, and engage is about making meaningful connection and involving. Control is about hard governance and engage is about soft governance. If the influencing part of control is done in a way that is participatory and non-obligatory; then influencing part of control can perhaps be construed as an engagement, hence we can get a hybrid concept “engaged control” or “soft control.”

Apparently, there is no definition available for the term engaged control, so we adopt and refine an existing definition of soft control to explain engaged control as “a mechanism of exercising purposive influence towards a predetermined goal through a range of interactions and involvements” (Lahey, 2013).

Having laid the foundation of the term engaged control, let’s look at its feasibility by answering few questions:

Is engaged control achievable?

From experience, engaged control seems to be justified through better results. This is because by exercising engaged control, there will be greater likelihood that people will buy the control. People will be much more inclined to accept the control because their hearts and minds will be ready to accept it.

Engaged control relies on arousing an intrinsic acceptance built on self-motivation and values. When people are engaged with interactions and are involved, they build an intrinsic association and positive value judgement for their involvement in the process. Hence, engaged control serves as a coupling device between the person or entity who is controlling and person(s) being controlled.

In a project management context, engaged control makes more sense as the person exercising control – such as a project manager – is in an adhoc arrangement for the duration of the project. The authority of project management is often limited to the project context and time period. People working on the project may well be powerful enough (e.g. because of their expertise, knowledge, skills and experience; position within the organization they come from, networks and professional reputation) not to be overawed by the control exercised by the project manager.

In such a scenario, exercising engaged control is likely to help a project manager get a better purchase of control from the staff that s/he is delegated to apply control on.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the engaged control?

  1. Strengths (based on expected value):
  2. Focused on human psychology of winning hearts and minds.
  3. Facilitates natural acceptance of control rather than acceptance out of fear of consequences.
  4. Buy-in of control based on interactions and involvement which is empowering.
  5. Engaged control does not mean no control. Hence, quality is not compromised, and risk is not increased.
  6. Facilitates development of an environment of contributions, creativity and problem solving.
  7. Develops self-leadership attitudes among people being controlled.
  1. Weaknesses:
  2. No formally existing knowledge on the subject, and lack of any validated best practices.
  3. If not exercised properly could be seen as a weakness by some, possibly morphing into an uncontrolled situation.
  4. Not being able to identify motivational triggers could make it difficult to exercise engaged control.
  5. The person exercising control may not be willing to exercise engaged control out of lack of motivation or skills or both.
  6. The person exercising control may consider that using engaged control impinges upon his or her authority to exercise control, hence may not be willing to use it.

What we need to implement engaged control?

  1. Organizational champion

Critical to the implementation of engaged control is having an organizational champion—someone who can build the initial momentum to get top management buy-in and continue pursuing it till full-scale implementation is achieved. A person with vision and self-leadership skills will be needed in an organizational champion to take the idea forward.

  1. Engaged leadership driving the doctrine of change

As is often said, ’employees mirror what top management does.’ So having an engaged leadership that is willing to drive the change will help in quicker buy-in from middle managers and operational staff to accept the change.

  1. Education and awareness

Acceptance of this concept will require concerted efforts on raising awareness of the benefits of exercising engaged control. Education can be done through bespoke training programs.

  1. Human resource or personal management department buy-in

Since the concept falls under the direct jurisdiction of human resources management or personal department, any organization wanting to implement engaged control will need full support from HR for developing policies, procedures, guideline mechanisms to implement it.

  1. Allocation of funds and training resources

The old adage ‘money makes the mare go’ is well and truly applicable here. Fund would need to be allocated to deal with the necessities of implementation including design, development and deployment of training programs.

  1. Rewards and encouragement protocols

Following the TQM practices of having built-in reward mechanisms is critical to the success of engaged control drive. Using the TQM philosophy of identifying and rewarding the contributors, and of establishing the reward process by considering ways, places and time of rewards/recognitions, is expected to help in smooth implementation.

How to implement engaged control?
Taking a PDCA (plan, do, check, act) approach will provide a useful road-map to implement the concept.

Plan: At the plan stage, decide objectives and goals, areas of strengths and weakness if implementation is to go ahead, identify available and needed resources, get top management sign-off, identify initial team and executive oversight, develop implementation life cycle.

Do: Implement the plan through awareness building, trainings, process improvements, human resources guidelines, and rewards/recognition conferment.

Check: Compare plan versus achieved objectives to understand progress, sticky issues, seek feedback and inputs, and identify areas of improvements.

Act: Re-evaluate objectives, evaluate plans, re-evaluate level of commitment and support, plug gaps and reduce variations between plan vs actual, and start the cycle of improvements.

Concluding thoughts:
The dynamics of changing business and human management needs is resulting in a growing focus on human capital development that could contribute positively towards the growth of an organization.

The onslaught of social media and internet-based technologies is changing behaviors. Exercising traditional styles of controls may not work in the long run. Hence, on a continuum of Control to Engage, organizations may find that developing an environment of engaged control as presented above is a more realistic solution. It must be noted that the concept and the steps discussed above are based on preliminary ideas, and more needs to be done to refine the concept and its implementation.

References:

Lahey, M. (2013). Soft control: Television’s relationship to digital micromedia (Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University).

Authored by:

Professor Jiwat Ram

Acknowledgement: 

Special thanks to post-write-up contributions by Roger Tagg.

© 2018 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.

Written by
Jiwat Ram

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

He has a growing portfolio of work on issues related to artificial intelligence, machine learning and large language models (LLMs). His work has been published in top scientific journals.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the contemporary issues confronting project management and business management in various industry based outlets.

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