Control or Results? How to Manage the Paradox and Achieve Greater Project Results

control or resultsOne critical choice project managers face is between control and results.  Managers say they want results but actions speak even louder to say they want control.  Do onerous controls inhibit achieving the very results they were intended to produce?  Is control an illusion?   Is it possible for managers to pursue both control and results: up to the point where the two actually conflict?

Managers want control AND results, but therein lays a paradox:  does one need to give up actual or some sense of control to get results?   Possibly even more important is the question:  which value will you emphasize when the two outcomes conflict at the point of paradox?

I’ve come to appreciate the power of observations and the questioning process.  In response to the question: “Do you want control or results?”: most people, of course, answer results.  But through observing what they actually do, it becomes clear that control is paramount.  The question about control or results prompts people to reflect upon their experiences.  The preference is to have both control and results, but that is not always possible.  Who among us has not secretly wished for the power of total control?  However, the quest for control might be inherently flawed since it is not possible to be “in total control.”  Is the search for control unwittingly blocking the attainment of results intended?

Producing unique project results provide the means to achieve business success.  Monitoring and controlling a project are core processes, especially during the execution phase of every project life cycle.  However, when managers do not get desired results, careful observations show that they shift emphasis to increased controls.  This is revealed in tighter metrics, more detailed status reports, and unilateral decision making, to list a few.

At its most basic, the choice on projects is between control and results.  If control is more important, the cost is lesser results.  If results are more important, the cost is giving up some control.  Getting more of one requires sacrificing a portion of the other.  Onerous controls inhibit achieving the very results intended because they demotivate and limit how people approach creative work.  Controls often express that managers do not trust workers, whether this is the intended effect or not.  When trust is not present, extraordinary results are missing as well.

We live in worlds of conflicting values or priorities.  It takes courage to make the tough call.  Resolve conflicting values and hidden dilemmas by engaging in dialogue with key stakeholders. Trust your judgment about what is most important. Take a stand on which value you choose at the point of paradox, that point where it becomes impossible to achieve both values. What is most important:  Hero or planner?  Control or results?  Outputs or outcomes?  You can then pursue both values up to the rare point where the two actually conflict; at that point you need to choose, and make clear to others, what is most important.

My experiences make it clear to me that we need to give up control to get results.  It is at the point of this paradox where it becomes impossible to achieve seemingly contradictory values.  Control, after all, is an illusion.  Nature is firmly rooted in chaos.  We try to convince ourselves, and our bosses, that we project managers are in control of our projects.  We may come close to this illusion, and we usually are far more knowledgeable about the project or program than anyone else.  Try as we may, however, the fact remains that far more forces are at work in our universe than we can ever understand or control.  This does not relieve us of the obligation to achieve results.  What should we do?

Focus on results and constant course corrections to stay on track.  Capture the minimal data required to keep informed.  Seek information that supports action-oriented decision-making.  Just because we can capture every conceivable piece of information does not mean we should, nor can most organizations afford to do so.  It is ill conceived luxuries that support “feeling comfortable” through excessive reports and metrics.  Continuous dialogue with stakeholders and reinforcing intended results helps relieve anxieties.

Change your frame of reference and you have the opportunity to achieve greater results.  Come hear Robert Lauridsen and me address “Control or Results?  How to Manage the Paradox and Achieve Greater Project Results” on Thursday, January 8, 2009, in Sunnyvale, CA, for the IEEE SCV Technical Management Council,

Randy Englund

Englund Project Management Consultancy,


3 thoughts on “Control or Results? How to Manage the Paradox and Achieve Greater Project Results”

  1. User Avatar


    Instead of thinking of control or results as black or white, the goal is to find the balancing act. There are optimum controls that achieve optimum results. However, we often are in situations where controls are minimal or excessive. In that case, results become chaotic or undesirable.

    The awareness I’m trying to address is when controls become overly emphasized. In that case, we lose sight of the value and outcomes we’re trying to produce…often leading to poor results.

    I’m saying we sometimes have to fight back against onerous controls because we are passionately focused on getting results. Most times we can–and need to–have control and results. I’m asking people to think about and be prepared for what happens when the two are in violent conflict.

    The frame of reference Bob Lauridsen and I are presenting in a workshop on February 5, 2009 is to realize we operate in a circle of individual or separateness or in another circle of connectedness. When we expand our behaviors to include both circles–and understand how we can have both control and results–then we are positioned to optimize our interactions and consistently achieve better results.

    See for more information.

    Randy Englund

  2. Interesting post, I see your point but I think of this in a different way. I don’t see results and control as necessarily black-and-white opponents. My guess is that you are using this as a helpful theoretical framework to work with, and it is likely helpful in that way.

    Rather than focusing on competing concepts this way, I like to focus on cost-benefit specifics.

    For example, deciding at what level we should track charges on a given project…taking into consideration all stakeholders, what’s the cost and what is the value-add for a given choice? Cost and value could be time, morale, political, dollars, risk, etc.

    This forces us to look at the nuances of a particular decision. Sometimes, there are systems in place where extra control can deliver value above and beyond the costs. In another company this same decision could go the other way based on organizational maturity.

    Another example is when you have some team members who are very self-sufficient and autonomous, while others may need more help and guidance. I tend to give new people my full trust and lots of freedom by default. I seek more control in those cases where the individual(s) require it to be successful. When I haven’t put those controls in place, good results did not naturally emerge.

    Josh Nankivel

  3. Randy,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. People often increase the number of metrics they follow or the number of status reports they read because it gives them the impression they are controlling what is happening. But just like knowing the temperature doesn’t allow you to change the temperature, forcing people to write daily status reports doesn’t affect the amount of work they do.

    This is interesting to me, next week I’m writing for SVProjectManagement and one of the posts I’ll do will be “Managing for A, hoping for B.” It’s similar to what you’ve mentioned. I’ll probably refer to your post. I wish I could make your presentation on Thursday, unfortunately I’m in LA not Sunnyvale.

    Great post!

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