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How to Lead in the Project Economy

April 13, 2023
Lead Teams
Sean McConnell

Harvard Business Review recently labeled one major trend within the business sector over the last five years as “The Project Economy.” The Project Economy simply refers to the process by which organizations deliver value by bringing ideas to life through assembling teams of skilled individuals. 

This project-driven approach, where work is fluid, dynamic, and goal-oriented, offers a great opportunity for businesses, but how do you leverage this opportunity?  

  1. Collaboration
  2. Encourage Risk-Taking
  3. Reframe Failure
How to Lead in The Project Economy - WinShape Teams Blog - Sean McConnell

1. Collaboration  

First, success in The Project Economy is more likely to occur in companies that encourage collaborative effort. There are three key elements of collaboration that can be drawn out by leaders in The Project Economy.   

  • Leaders empower their teams by ensuring others feel able and comfortable to contribute independently. Give your project teams the freedom to handle difficult situations and make decisions about issues that impact their work. Hold team members accountable for the performance they can control.   
  • Be disciplined about the diversity of thinking in terms of team composition and processes. Assemble teams that are diverse in thinking and perspective. Work to ensure that team members respect each other and that there are no “in-groups” or “out-groups” within the project team. Anticipate and take appropriate action to address team conflict when it occurs.   
  • Adapt your style and process to ensure that every team member has a voice by explicitly including all team members in discussions and asking follow-up questions. Doing so creates a psychologically safe environment where people feel comfortable speaking up. When diverse knowledge areas and skill sets are intentionally placed on a project team, they become greater than the sum of their parts and thus better solve complex problems.  

Predominantly, companies operate in teamed silos, with specialized knowledge working with others within the same specialized field. However, in organizations where cross-functional project teams are formed and a culture of collaboration is fostered by publicly recognizing/rewarding those who participate; you find excellence in problem-solving through great ideas, services, and products.  


2. Encourage Risk-Taking  

While most consider themselves “collaborative,” very few are comfortable being labeled “risk takers.” Taking risks is one of the hardest things to do, but it is one of the most important, because in the Project Economy you must take risks and make mistakes to innovate and grow.   

James Dyson is an inventor who takes huge risks. As an entrepreneur, he developed a product he called the “Ballbarrow” that could revolutionize work in gardens and construction sites. The prototype resembled a wheelbarrow with a large ball instead of a single wheel. It was a great product, but it never made it to market and as a result, Dyson was fired from his own company. But during the creation of the “Ballbarrow,” he noticed that after powder coating the “Ballbarrows,” the company cleaned up the factory with large turbine fans that would pull all paint particles from the air.  

Dyson thought to himself, “Why aren’t domestic vacuum cleaners as good as commercial ones?” and started to investigate. He discovered that home vacuum cleaners depended on bags that would lose suction upon becoming full. So, Dyson set out to create a vacuum cleaner without a bag. It would take seven years of experimenting and over 5,000 prototypes before he landed on a design that worked. This was the first Dyson vacuum cleaner.  

What Dyson did with that product became the core value of his vacuum company. They constantly come up with ideas that they don’t intend to put out in the marketplace but simply push boundaries. They make great products because they refuse to accept the status quo by taking bold risks.   

The quality of the relationship between a project leader and employees fostered by collaboration motivates teams to take risks, not only generating new ideas but also promoting and implementing new ideas. This risk-taking motivation comes when a team perceives its environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Research suggests that psychological safety motivates employees toward creative process engagement to the extent that employees engage in problem identification, information searching, and idea generation.


3. Reframe Failure  

Finally, effective leaders in the Project Economy re-frame “failure.” The best way to overcome the fear of failure is to reframe the narrative from “failure” to “unexpected outcomes.” Unlike failure, unexpected outcomes refine ideas into great solutions. 

Unexpected outcomes highlight specific areas to make ideas better. On the other hand, failures highlight where an idea is lacking. Failure becomes internalized and leads to avoiding risks and experimentation, which are critical in the project economy. Seeking unexpected outcomes, shift the negative narrative of failure to a positive one based on a spirit of improvement rather than judgment. Such was the case with toy company, Spin Master.   

Founded by Ronnen Harary, Spin Master’s first product saw some success, but it was fleeting. Through this product, Harary and Spin Master discovered that children are some of the most unreliable consumers as they love a toy for months and then become ambivalent. Instead of getting discouraged, Harary learned from his unexpected outcomes and spent time researching why certain toys are successful long-term by interviewing experts across various sectors (video and animation, games, apparel, and publishing) and asking questions such as, “What works with kids? Are there universal truths about their likes?” After analyzing the data, he noticed some recurring themes: dinosaurs, space, animals, puppies, trucks, firefighters, police officers, etc.  

Harary went to the drawing board and designed a brand around anthropomorphic emergency rescue puppies. Parents know where this is headed: Paw Patrol. The brand was introduced in 2014 and to date has generated roughly $10 billion in global revenue. It is among the most recognizable multiplatform brands worldwide. Paw Patrol is the result of effective collaboration, taking risks, and reframing failure.  

As a leader in the Project Economy, your #1 job is to build high-functioning teams and create the environment for those teams to thrive.   

Leaders and companies that foster collaboration are the ones that will succeed. It is essential to create an environment where collaboration is valued and celebrated. People should feel comfortable taking risks and be encouraged to pursue ideas with unexpected outcomes.   

How to Lead in The Project Economy - WinShape Teams Blog - Sean McConnell

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