TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

I think I’m encountering the classic case of having responsibility for the success of a project without most of the authority I need to make things happen. My company calls me a project manager, but I don’t seem to have the ability to get anything done on my own. It seems like every time I need something, I must either talk to my manager or the client sponsor.

Am I just kidding myself? Am I really just the leader of a project team and not really a formal project manager? If I am a project manager, how do I get the proper authority I need to make decisions?

To start with, there’s not a clear-cut, agreed-upon definition for a project manager. In some organizations, Project Manager is a formal title. In other companies, someone with a title like Systems Analyst or Senior Developer may take on the role of project manager. Usually, companies use “project manager” as a role if they don’t have full-time project management positions. In many organizations, you might be a project manager for a while and then be assigned as a project team member, and maybe take on another project manager position after that.

The responsibilities are the same…
Whether you’re officially called Project Manager or are simply filling that role, you have a basic set of job responsibilities in regard to the project. I break the duties into two major areas:

  • Process responsibilities: These tasks include defining and planning the project and then managing risk, issues, scope, communication, and so on.
  • People responsibilities: In addition to process skills, a project manager must have good people management abilities. These skills include providing effective leadership, motivating, communicating effectively, listening, and providing performance feedback. (Notice that the basic people management skills don’t include hiring and firing people.)

…but the authority level varies
The PMI Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) identifies five types of project management authority. At one end is a person who manages projects part-time but has very little authority other than to coordinate the project team workload and notify others when there is a potential problem. At the other end is a project manager with total authority over the project and the people. Between these extremes are other types of project managers who have various levels of authority to get things done.

With that said, I’d like to address your specific concerns about your level of authority. First of all, there is nothing wrong with calling yourself a project manager, even if your level of authority is low. (Of course, if you called yourself a project coordinator or team leader, there would be nothing wrong with that either.) What’s more important is that you recognize the level of authority you have and determine how best to manage the project to a successful conclusion.

Let’s take an example of scope management. All project managers should recognize when scope changes occur and be able to document the benefit of the change and the impact to the project. If you’re a project manager with less authority, you might need to take all scope change requests to the sponsor for resolution. If you have more authority, you might be able to approve a scope change yourself as long as the impact is below a certain threshold. In both scenarios, the project manager manages the scope change request. The difference is how much authority you have to make final decisions yourself.

This holds true with communication, risk management, quality management, and so on. You should first understand the level of authority you have and then determine the project management procedures that are necessary to get things done. You might be surprised how few project managers have everything within their control. Instead, in many situations, you need to see your functional manager, your client sponsor, or a steering committee to get final decisions made.

I suspect you’ll find that the more experience you have and the more successful you are, the more authority you will be given. Unless your managers are control nuts, they typically would rather delegate much of the routine project management authority anyway. They just need to have a degree of confidence that if they take on a less active role, you’ll be able to step up and fill a project management role with more decision-making authority.

Most project managers have limits on their ability to act independently. Even within one company, you’ll usually find some project managers with more authority than others. You need to understand your situation and then determine the proper project management procedures within those limitations.

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.