Project Management: Responsibility without Authority

Owais Mughal

As a Project Manager, sometimes it can be very frustrating to realize that you are ultimately responsible for the project schedule and but have no authority on people who are working on the project. I’ve seen Project managers complaining that they are ‘responsible for everything but have no authority.’ The way out of this thinking is to realize that as a Project Manager, you are not seeking obedience or brute compliance from your project team but what you are looking for is motivation, engagement and commitment. People have written books on this topic and many universities across the World offer expensive courses to teach you how to manage without authority. I’ve learnt it by experience and following are my 5-point list of how one can successfully manage people without authority.

1. Build relationships One of the ways this could be achieved is by building ‘relationships‘ with members of the team. This allows you to learn what motivates a particular team member and then keep that member challenged and motivated. It does not help if a team member knows a project manager only by name or only as a person who only asks for deliverables and deadlines. Building relationships is even more important for remotely located teams. It is very common today to have project teams spread across several countries, time zones and cultures. In such cases it becomes even more important for a Project Manager to build relationship with the diverse group of team members and get their cooperation. From my own experience it also helps if a remotely located PM travels to home offices of team members atleast few times a year and have face to face interactions with team members.

2. Seek Common goals Another way is to come up with a common list of goals and interests between yourself and the team members. My experience tells me that most of the members (I want to say almost all) of the project teams want to succeed in their professional lives. They won’t bum out just because they want free lunch but it happens many times that your project does not motivates team members or their efforts are in a different direction of achieving personal goals. Therefore it helps to individually meet team members and agree on the broader few goals e.g. doing an honest day’s work, sense of achievement etc and then motivate the members to achieve their goals – and thereby help achieve your own and business’ goals by delivering the project on-time, on-budget and without using authority.

3. Prioritizing projects for team members Many a times team members want to work on your project but they are unable to do so because of their work load from other projects is very high or that they are simultaneously working on more than one projects. In such cases it can work wonders to make your team members’ case with their bosses and get their projects and work prioritized. This priority should be based on business reasons and not selfishly based on your project needs. Sometimes you’ll get your project prioritized and some times not but what you’ll definitely achieve will be the long term good will of your team members. Even if not immediately but in future the same team members will deliver on your projects and you will have better cooperation from them because of the trust you would’ve developed by keeping business and theirs interest prime. Now be careful that what does not work for sure is if you try to get a ‘forced’ priority of your project from a team member or his boss. Team members will work on your project but it will be like somebody is forcing them to do so without their heart and passion in it.

4. Never eat your lunch alone You may have heard this famous line before. It is very relevant in the field of project management. Going out with a team member for casual lunch can break down barriers, improve communication and build relationships. This happens because people are usually more relaxed and open for discussion when they go out for a casual lunch as compared to (say) in a high-pressure-deadline-driven office environment.

5. Recognize team members’ contribution It is always a good practice and pays huge dividends to recognize individual and team contribution. You can imagine it can be very demoralizing if a person works on a project for a year or two and doesn’t get recognized for the effort that has been put into. Worse of it can be if recognition is given higher up without recognizing the effort of those team members who work the nuts and bolts of the project. Note my underscored word ‘without.’ It is perfectly ok to recognize a project success at higher levels as long as those who made it possible at lower levels are also acknowledged. More Reading A good article I saw online on the topic is from Harvard Business Review titled ‘Exerting influence without authority.’ see here.

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