Project Management

Balance accountability with authority through effective communication

In some organizations, the project manager has both the responsibility and the authority to solve problems as they arise. But in most cases, he or she must work without the benefit of having the final say. Learn how to deal with this tricky situation.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Lori called and asked if I had time to visit with her during lunch. A lunch request usually means that the project manager has some frustration to talk through, and this was no exception. Lori is responsible for a human resources project to allow employees to update their personal information over the Web.

“This company is so frustrating,” Lori said. “They talk about how the project manager is responsible for the success of the project. They want us to be accountable, but they don’t want to give us the authority we need to be successful.”

“Really,” I said in between bites of my salad. “What are you having trouble with?”

“To start with, I have a team of people that works for me, yet they don’t report to me,” Lori answered. “I give them work assignments and deadline dates, but they don’t hit them, and I’m not sure what I can do about it. I have a team member that needs a new desktop machine, but it has taken me three weeks to get all the signatures I need for approval. I send out requests for our customers to review important business requirements documents, and they don’t do it. I could go on and on.”

“Well, I can certainly see how those things could become problems,” I noted. “You are new to Blue Sky Manufacturing, but you managed projects before for your previous company. Didn’t you have the same problems there?”

At this point, Lori was making mashed potatoes out of her French fries. “In my last company, if you were the project manager, you had responsibility for the people on your team and for the overall project budget. If you had problems, you usually had the authority to resolve them.”

I pushed aside my salad, since I knew I would be more involved in the discussion from here on. “For very large projects, our project managers have that same level of authority and more. However, for the medium and small projects, you will always find that you are in a power-sharing mode. To be successful, you need to be more skilled at working within our matrix organization.”

Mentor advice
Lori came from a project-based organization, where the project managers were usually responsible for the people and the budget. She now needs to adjust to working within the more ambiguous environment of matrix management.

She must determine the staffing needs of the project and work with the functional managers to make sure that the resources she requires are available when needed. She must also define and execute project management processes that focus on the sponsor making many of the decisions regarding budgets and funding. Finally, she must learn how to get things done within the policies and standards of our company, including simple things like how to order new workstations when needed.

None of these process changes are bad or wrong—they are just different than what she is used to. Lori has all the basic skills needed to manage projects successfully at Blue Sky Manufacturing, but she needs to improve her collaborative skills and her communication skills so that she can work with others when needed to get things done that are outside of her control.

Most project managers often find themselves in a similar situation: You are asked and expected to be responsible for the overall success of the project, but you rarely have total authority over all the project resources. The team members may report functionally to another manager. You are expected to manage within a budget, with only limited authority to make monetary decisions. You also have to execute within organizational policies and to standards over which you have little control.

On the surface, this all sounds bleak. And yet, it is an environment in which thousands of projects are successfully completed all the time.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

A matter of style
Have you had to change your approach to project management to suit a new company? How have project styles varied from your last job to your current one? Send us an e-mail or start a discussion.


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