Project Practitioners > Managing a Project when you have a lack of authority

Managing a Project when you have a lack of authority

By Margaret de Haan

As a Project Manager, the expectation is that we will be experts at managing the three components of the triad – Time, Scope and Cost.  However, how do you do that if you don’t have the authority?  When I was a Consultant, I had come across many instances where my authority to manage a Project was either non-existent, or the authority I had was undermined by a Company owner, or a Senior Manager that didn’t share the “greater vision”.  Through this experience I have learned what not to do (play the politics), and what works, in essence you have to repackage the message and Sell!

I am someone who believes that people come to work ever day looking for successes for personal validation, recognition for those successes, and to have an opportunity to make a difference.  Although everyone’s “drivers” are different, once you know what they are, you are armed with amazing power!  Finding out what buttons to push with each player will give you the information that you need to be able to develop individual strategy towards “packaging” the results and message of your Project in a way that “sells” that individual in seeing it your way.  Although this sounds obvious and simple, in most cases I have found it to be the hardest part of the job.

Step one is getting to know the players well enough to identify what these buttons are.  Go to lunch, buy them a coffee and take some time to get to know them a bit better.  I have found that most people are less likely to push back on someone they like, and that they feel wants to help them to succeed.  Ask them about their position, what they feel are the obstacles to achieving great results and get personal!  My motto for this introductory “get to know you better” meeting is to try to not talk unless I’m either sharing something about myself to help them share more about themselves, or asking a question.  Truth exists in that people like to talk about themselves, and proving yourself as a good listener will endear you more than talking.  Step one should be conducted not just with any of your opposition, but with all of the pertinent players in the Project, and do this early, before these individuals have made up their minds that you’re the enemy.  As soon as you have completed this discovery process, take the time to write down what you’ve learned – this information always comes in handy later.

Step two is to take all of the data that you’ve collected and complete the analysis.  Whose goals are in direct conflict with each other?  How can the deliverables from your Project make their lives easier and get them closer to success?  What is the best way to package and deliver the message, in a large group or on a one-on-one?  Once these questions are answered through analysis of the data that you have collected, you will be able to put together an action plan as to how to alter the attitudes in your favor.  Having people embrace your ideas because of their ability to see value in them is always better than having to force an issue and end up making an adversary that may try to derail you at a later time.

Step three of this process is maintenance and realization of the message.  Now that you have sold everyone on why they want to be on board with the Project and have the supporters in motion the process doesn’t end there.  Keeping tabs on everyone and confirming your message by showing them the results that you sold them on is key to an ongoing supportive relationship.  At this point you need to “put your money where your mouth is” and assist in making the features and benefits that you introduced a reality by removing as many obstacles as possible, emphasizing the results as they are realized and sharing those successes company-wide.  At the conclusion of this stage you should have gained credibility internally, which will go a long way towards making Project successes easier when these players are involved.

I have experience watching many Project Managers try to make the Project a dictatorship, and I can’t say that I have ever seen it work well.  I don’t think that Project Managers can afford to be “yes men” as it sets the Project up for certain failure, but there are advantages to a soft sell approach, and laying the groundwork to make positive long term relationships within the company will always serve you better than trying to play politics.  Let’s face it, one shift in the administration can kill your Project, and possibly put you out of a job.

Related Links
Record the names and concerns of your stakeholders and project influencers in this template, along with how you plan to communicate with them (and how often). Get everyone on the same page by planning using business milestones—something everyone can get behind. Make it easier to make your case with this guideline.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Good Advise. That's how I get success.

I agree that knowing what makes the stakeholders tick and selling works better than a dictatorship - especially since project managers seldom have ultimate authority much less have most people reporting to them.

However, sometimes when two stakeholders are at odds (100% opposite), the only thing I have seen work is to clearly and unemotionally state the problem to the sponsor (or ultimate authority). An example might be: "I've discovered that function A requires that we complete the schedule by the national sales meeting (Q1), while function B says that there is no time to introduce the product to the sales force until Q2. I need your help to resolve this issue."

Then I often find that the sponsor calls the two groups at odds with each other and helps negotiate the solution. The PM seldom has the direct authority to resolve issues like this.

The hard thing is to be unemotional about it. As a consultant it is easier in a way, because you can merely say "here's a new thing that came up and it's not in my scope to resolve it. However it is critical to your success to resolve it." Inside a company it is often more difficult to call foul.

This is an interesting post, Margaret—thanks. Your topic really resonated with me because my team does Scrum and this issue of management versus authority is at the heart of much of Scrum’s success. The role in Scrum that sounds closest to what you’re describing is the ScrumMaster, who acts as a liaison between the development team and the Product Owner (project manager). The ScrumMaster is responsible for helping the team meet its sprint goals, but has no real authority to manage them. Thus he or she must use the tactics you describe—building trust, removing impediments—to lead the team to voluntarily pursue success. It’s a delicate balance, of course, but it appears that a shared commitment to organizational goals is the best leadership.

Thanks for the info - I'm obviously going to do my homework on Scrum - it sounds like a great fit for many of the challenges that I have been facing.

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