September 5, 2008 — Vol. 1, Issue 8
Message from the Academy Director
Project Management and Soft Power
What does a theory about international relations have to do with project leadership? More than meets the eye.
We traditionally associate project management with responsibility for the cost, schedule, and technical performance of a project. Depending on the size of the team, the project manager may work closely with every team member, or the project may involve so many people that direct contact is virtually impossible. In either case, one challenge remains the same: the project manager has to engage team members to drive toward a shared goal of project success.
The tools for engaging the team — for leading, motivating, and (inevitably) correcting course — can be sorted into one of two categories. The first category is clear: authority stemming from the chain of command. As any experienced project team member knows, the use of authority is a blunt instrument. It is sometimes necessary, but it can have serious consequences for morale. The second category, which usually proves more effective in a project setting, is the one that good project managers use all day: they attract team members to adopt the project's success as their own responsibility.
Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard University, described something very similar in his theory of power relations between nations. He said that power is the ability to get others to do what you want them to do. That, of course, is a key part of project management. Nye then distinguished between two kinds of power. Hard power, he said, is coercive — thou shalt do what I say — or it relies on transactional incentives that buy loyalty. This is the power that stems from authority. Nye added to that his own definition of soft power: the ability to get others to want what you want without the use of coercion or bribes. Another term he used as a synonym was attractive power.
Soft power is the primary tool of project managers, just as it is the primary tool of elected leaders in any democratic society. Without the buy-in of team members, a project will fail, regardless of the authority that the project manager possesses on paper. This becomes even more relevant when dealing with partners such as other space agencies, private industry suppliers, and academic institutions. In many cases, a project manager's actual authority over outside organizations is very limited; in these instances, soft power is the coin of the realm.
Read more about Joseph Nye's theory of soft power in The Powers to Lead.