Project Practitioners > Stop worrying about "responsibility with no authority" - what's your influence factor as a project manager?

Stop worrying about "responsibility with no authority" - what's your influence factor as a project manager?

By Cinda Voegtli

I personally don't buy that there is a big issue with managing projects with responsibility but no authority - at least the kind of authority that comes from having people directly report to you as a "line manager." (If I have already gotten your back up with this statement, I do hope you'll keep reading, then go comment below - I think this is a very important topic for us all to explore!)  I have managed on both sides and can unequivocally state that having "direct report authority" over someone does not automatically mean they do what you want!  Whatever kinds of managers we are, influence skills MATTER.  I personally find the art of genuine well-meaning influence on projects to be effective, fun, and liberating.   And if I find myself neglecting my "influence currency,"  I know that I will surely pay at some point. 

I don't believe I'm the only one who thinks developing influence is the place we should all be concentrating.  I recently heard several Directors and VPs in product development organizations independently flag this area as THE one that project managers, even some senior ones, need to focus on more. 

The rest of this article provides thoughts on what forms of project manager influence matter to a frankly stupendous degree, examples of having influence up, down, and all around on our projects, and tips for how to look for and fix any "influence shortfalls".... all to make this "responsibility without authority" setup a lot easier to work with!   (The related links section after the blog points to additional content that goes deeper into particular aspects of having influence up, down, and all around on our projects.)

OK - more on what I mean by all this.  First, definition from the dictionary:

Influence:  The capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.

I like this definition because it brings out that influence is not just some kind of "direct sales" activity, when we directly request and justify the need for certain actions from team members or other managers or executives. Yes, what we ask for in different situations and how we do so can result in influence, or a lack thereof, but it is not the only way in which we influence.

So what IS the point of all this, what are we trying to accomplish by having influence with various team members and executives?  It's all about the success of the project in the end.  In the executive panel discussion I mentioned above, the panelists were asked what management skills they felt were most important to the overall success of their project teams.  They honed in on the critical role of the project manager - and specifically the driving need for the PM to truly "have a seat at the table." As opposed to, being in the room as a scribe and waiting to be told what to write down; as opposed to   being seen as apart from "the real work" and therefore not part of the real action. Pretty hard to have influence on team-mates if you're not even seen as being in the game!  

Their point was that a PM in the latter role was missing huge opportunities to influence the project positively, because the real goal is to impact the direction of the team as a whole, influencing and guiding critical project actions and decisions.  One exec described the most powerful project manager influence in terms of being able to listen, synthesize, and "see" what's really going on, then speak up to lead and influence the team do something about it.   

Which led them to voice some critical requirements for a project manager being able to do this.  Key points they made:

  • The PMs must know the systems and the business well enough to understand how the pieces of a project fit together.  Their influence comes from what they can "see".  They don't absolutely have to be a technical person themselves, but it's highly desirable because it helps them listen deeply and see gaps and issues.  Non-technical PMs absolutely must understand the business, and the role the various systems play in the business, to be able to do the right listening, synthesizing, and seeing, and then guiding and influencing the team's actions. 
  • The best project managers have a full seat at the table not only with their team members, but also with executives and other functional managers.  They get this seat at the table because of what they can see, and what they do about what they see.  They can "smell it when things aren't quite right, when status is bogus, when something isn't adding up, when something has been missed."  They uncover real issues, see implications across the project, bring them to the table, and help drive action and resolution.  They are contributing "meat" to the project.  They have a seat at the table because they are not doing "content free" project management.  (A term a friend of mine uses for project managers who see their role as just asking for task status and issuing reports.)  These project managers are listened to and valued because of the meaty role they play. 
  • These influential project managers are not timid.  They understand the role they are to play, the value they have to offer, and they claim their seat at the table by "just doing it."  The executives actually voiced frustration that more PMs don't get this.  As you can imagine, executives have gotten where they are by determining what needs to get done, taking action, making things happen, stepping up to lead a charge.  They wonder why PMs don't do that more often.  They expressed this as a big development need for project managers to pay attention to and for they as executives to figure out how to achieve  -  how to get to the consistent level of business-context-rich "stepping up" and initiative-taking they want from all their PMs.

It is also important to talk about influencing various individuals - who DO we need to influence to play our roles to the fullest and how can project managers have the right kind of influence with them?   A few thoughts:

  • We need to have influence with team members, including those who don't necessarily value project managers:   We need to be able to get their time, understand where they are on the project so we can understand whether the project is in good shape or in trouble, know what they need so we can remove obstacles.  That's hard to do if they don't want to talk to us, share info, make time for us or our meetings.  How do we get it?  A long-time colleague, who most definitely shuns manager contact whenever he can, told me about a program manager who had turned the tide on his attitude towards us all. After years and years of dealing with status collectors who would simply email him asking when he'd be done, what's going on with x, y, z because I have to make a management presentation, a new PM came on the scene.  And came to the developer's office.  And through a series of interactions, got the permanent ear and time and ongoing "project intelligence" from my friend.  That PM got all those things in perpetuity because he came bearing gifts, not begging for status details. He came to listen, find out how he could help, determine which executive group he needed to go run interference with, get the real skinny on what was going on, and go course-correct some things for the good of this overworked and under-appreciated team member.  In turn this PM became known to executives and other functional managers as the one who really knew what was going on the technical side of the house, one to be listened to when he said "here is what we need to do."  He earned tons of project influence via his relationship with this critical technical team member  

A side note on this re: authority.  If the program manager had had the authority to command that developer to give him status, just how far do you think that would have gotten him, really? Without influence, he might not even trust the status he got, and certainly wouldn't expect that developer to be happy about having to deal with him, and wouldn't expect to get ANY inside skinny on what's REALLY going on...

  • We need to have influence with cross-functional managers:  We may have their people on our team, but we need influence with their functional managers.  Those managers determine what resources we have available; they participate in critical solution decisions; they need to be just as committed to our milestones as the team members.  How do we get influence with them?  We listen (to what they're concerned about), understand (all their work on the project), synthesize (how it integrates with other work - the really key integration points), and take action (to make sure the integration points happen, disconnects are uncovered early, those functional groups get what they need on time from other groups...)   And in return, we get influence with them. 

I was very fortunate to learn this lesson fairly in the PM part of my career.  I was the engineering project manager in an organization that appointed a project manager in each function, and an overall release manager in the Product Management organization.  The "functional project managers" participated in a Release Team for all the major product releases during the year.  We worked together to coordinate work strongly across the functional groups, then each coordinated the planning and stayed on top of the work in our respective functional areas.  That setup gave me a great education on the work and issues within each function, and great collaborative experience working directly with managers in different functions.  We headed off many problems at the pass by working together this way, I had functional colleagues who listened to me, and I found it to be a great source of FUN as well. 

From this same experience, by the way, I got a great insight on other functions' attitudes toward project managers.  A marketing Director from this same organization once said to me, "Why do so many project managers think they're "at the top" in an organization and try to boss us all around on the projects?  We think you guys are just another seat at the table for getting all this done. An important seat at the table, but not the head in the way some PMs seem to think they are.  We have to all work together to get these big releases done!"

One last story in this area:  One organization I went to work for had issues with certain functional components running late and messing up the project, particularly regulatory approvals.  As the newbie on the scene, I asked the Director of Regulatory for a meeting to ask a few questions, so I could understand what I should be building into the schedule for all the touch points between groups.  Boy, did I get an earful, and an education!  What I learned is that the Regulatory group was totally frustrated with Engineering because "the way it's done, the way our process reads, they don't have to talk to us until they've got early units and we can go do the lab tests.  And guess what, sometimes we find issues, things that won't pass the tests.  I've made a little headway getting to look at prototypes, which is at least a little better, but that's still too late.  We've got other creative ways we could find issues way earlier and stop these delays. But they think they don't have time and that it's just normal to find stuff at the lab."  He went on to educate me as to all the things they could do with early exposure of paper designs, even rough, to their good contacts at the regulatory agencies, and ways to get cheap lab time early with prototypes, and more.   But he had not felt like he could get a full audience with the team to get this stuff into place.  They were always too busy to make the time to add these steps in, or they didn't get the value, or maybe this Director didn't really see how state all this to get action.  But I got what I needed to go influence the schedules, and the Engineering group, to get earlier checkpoints into place. Just by asking for an audience, listening and understanding the issues and the value, and then doing something about it.   I never had trouble getting a meeting with this Director when I needed it, I became known as "the person who takes the time to understand what we need from Engineering", and I got cooperation when I needed something from his group.

  • We need to have influence with executives:  We clearly need their support - for getting resources, making decisions, resolving conflicts and issues, setting achievable goals, defining the right projects for the business... They don't see everything we have to deal with as PMs each day nor should they be expected to.  But we need them to take time for us, listen to us, and respect what we're saying enough to take action for us.   How do we get all that with execs?  One key is what those panelists relayed above.  They respect us, and by extension let us influence them and the organization, when they see us stepping up and playing the value-added business-and-results-focused role.   As I noted about this influence subject overall, the whole point of influencing is to make things happen for the good of the project and the business goals we're trying to meet.  So we understand the business goals, understand how the pieces of the project fit together to achieve that, and take action to make sure the project is reaching those goals.

My best story about this personally is when I had to basically get permission to recover a project that was seriously in trouble, a hard feat because 1) most of the organization didn't realize it was in trouble yet and 2) the executive in charge did not understand project management as a strong and critical role and really didn't feel like talking to me. In his eyes, stuff was getting done, we've got someone watching over it, what's the big deal?   I had to, on my own time and with only a little grudging permission and some air cover from a director who DID see the trouble, just go talk to some folks and ferret out what was really going on (in a helpful way, not a "I'm gonna report on you" way. And of course, when something's really in trouble, the desire to have someone, anyone, take the pain away can trump the fear of exposing the true lateness.)  A self-appointed little tiger team of us ended up putting together a summary of where things were, risks to upcoming VERY important demos, risks with an outsource development partner and what it could do to this visible project.... AND what we thought needed to be done to get things back on track.  It was short and sweet but deep and insightful - and scared the bee-jeepers out of the VP -  but then calmed him down by virtue of the solid plan of attack.  Voila' - in two hours with him we had a new plan, his blessing, and a profound new understanding and respect for the project manager role.  I am not making this up...  Just one example of how focusing on business results in a way the execs can relate to can make a huge difference in the influence we have.

As you may have gathered by now :-),  I truly believe in the power of influence to trump authority - which leads to why I said early on that I find all of this truly liberating. I have been in that PM-as-scribe role early in my career, and I hated almost every minute of it. Once I started to understand what this role could be, I started to see how I could use my abilities and really add value.  I like people. I like puzzles. I like to solve problems.  I like to make order out of chaos.  I like to make things happen. (I don't just like all that, I love it.)  And guess what -  that's what's really needed and wanted in the end.  

(Unfortunately,  I don't think all executives and organizations get this about what project management CAN be.  I think that PMs in some organizations struggle with this, because their executives' idea of project management IS just taking actions and collecting status.  I think new PMs may start out with the wrong ideas about all this too, if their early education is about process steps and tools much more than the meaty synthesis, leadership, and influence aspects of the role.)

As for me, once I just started doing what I truly love, as my version of being a PM, I started getting my seat at the table.  People started coming to me, wanting me to help them.  They came to my meetings! They listened when I had an opinion. They made time when I needed to talk to them. They appreciated it when I made tradeoff tables and brought rambling discussions to a focus and took the lead to help a tough decision get made.  By just doing it, I actually got more permission to keep doing it. They let me influence them in a sense, because they saw the value I was adding.  So yes, when I got to this point of my PM path, I felt truly liberated because it wasn't about rules and tools and scribing... it was about getting it done together, and my role was absolutely important.

I'll finish up with quick thoughts on how to think about and raise broaden your current level and scope of influence.  It really boils down to these key areas:

  • Do you understand what you need to about the business and whatever system or other components go into your projects, to have the ability to deeply listen, synthesize, and "see" what is going on and what needs to change on your projects?   If not, how can you educate yourself to get there?
  • Do you have the communication skills and confidence to speak up when you DO "see," and need to influence, lead, drive the team or specific individuals to take action?  If not, what's in the way?  If it's knowing how to speak up effectively, think about how to frame what you see in business impact terms, and practice succinctly making impact and recommendation statements to an executive.  If you're concerned that you have not been given permission to weigh in on what you see, do it anyway - claim your seat at the table!   If there are truly major cultural issues or personal impediments to doing that, find someone influential to talk to, express what you see and how you want to contribute, get some coaching and even air cover... and then "just do it."
  • Do you have real relationships with key cross-functional people, or are you one of those people they just know as "he who sends status requests via email"? Make the time and effort to go truly understand the work and concerns of the various functions, in a personal way. Ask questions that show you're trying to stick up for them, make their project pieces go more smoothly, champion their issues with other groups. Form the kind of genuine relationships that mean they'll take your call, attend your meeting, answer your questions, and even look out for you as well.

In conclusion, I will boldly state that I think we can all have this kind of influence in our organizations, on our projects  -  and I do think this influence goes a long way toward making that "authority" thing a moot point.

I hope you will weigh in with what you think below, what you've seen work, or where you disagree with me!  Or feel free to post questions you have about getting to this level of influence in your organization, or email me directly at  It CAN be hard if you're in a place that is not truly giving PMs a seat at the table right now.  But it CAN be done.  I believe we can all have great influence by finding ways to make our unique contributions whatever our environment, and my experience says it's worth the effort to find those ways!

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

Nice article. I can quite agree with the author and had a similar experience myself.

As a PM I see myself as a facilitator, someone that helps others to do their job.

People like this and if they see the real value you bring for them they respect you more and are willing to go the extra mile for you.

Superb article. Well written, concise and spot on. I could not agree with you more!I have practiced these principles every day in my nine year career at a highly technical company. As a result, I have risen through the ranks from Technical Project Manager to Systems Engineer. I now command a seat at most tables. In fact a senior executive recently said "It seems that each time something really meaningful needs to get done in IT you are at the helm."
Nicely done Cindi!

Very useful article. Will circulate this article amongst my PM community


Mukesh Rao

Great article and very well written. I agree completely with the concepts described above and work with several PM's who will find this useful. I especially appreciate the tips on how to broaden your scope. Even those PM's who already have 'a seat at the table' can learn from these concepts.

Great article. Right-on. Unfortunately the PMs at my company just act as scribes - they are essentially useless and and complete waste of resources. I personally think that the PM should be almost (not to take anything away from the originator or business associates that requested the activity) the champion of the project from beginning to end.

Great article! You nailed it. I am in 100% agreement. It is easy to get a PMP, learning how to lead is very different. This is a skill set that most Project Managers do not have. Project Managers are Managers and therefore must have the ability to lead, but very few PMs truly understand this.

Very nice article here. How I wish PM role will really be given a high importance in the company I worked at. Unfortunately, PMs here work as project coordinator/facilitator. Much as I wanted to enforce real PM ways, my management does not give us such authority. But yeah, influence is what it takes.
Keep writing such nice articles!

Completely Disagree.

Authority must be had in order to be allowed to make decisive judgements, buy in for the role that the PM takes, freedom to do what the PM sees as the best way to get the job done, reward when the job goes right, review when bad learn to do it better, at least it is all decisions by the person closest to the project. This article needs to look further.

I could not disagree more. I'm in a situation as a military whistle blower precisely because my position was deliberately designed like this and since then I realized I am little more than the designated scapegoat for leadership when something serious goes wrong and people are hurt. I bare sole responsibility for a high visibility program but have no authority, am outranked on all sides, have been subject to intimidation and undue influence, and I have gradually discovered a long history of federal law violations and long term misuses of taxpayer funds. I found myself with no other choice but to go to federal authorities and elected officials to ensure whistle blower protection. It is precisely because of this I have come to distrust everyone in the chain of command and many others along with me are about to take their grievances to the media. If you find yourself in a job with primary responsibility but no real designated authority, immediately start looking for the legal authority (hopefully there is one) for what you're doing and question yourself as to why your superiors would set your position up this way. It's likely because of hidden legal liabilities and/or potential misuses of funds, and leadership and management simply need to ensure they have an unsuspecting subordinate as a scapegoat to blame so they can abscond from responsibility in an investigation. No, unfortunately I am not making this up.

Wow, Clayton, on your situation, and thank you for posting. You've raised an important angle to consider re: legal responsibility implications in some situations.

To your point about essentially "if you have no authority, ask why your superiors set it up this way, what are they trying to hide/ put off on you as a scapegoat..." - matrix'd project management structures are common in industry, and corporate protections set such that an individual PM would not be held liable. But again you raise a very interesting point for us to each consider.

In my post I wanted to make the point that using influence skills in our PM jobs is important and required - it is simply part of working with people to get things done. Still believe that - but totally see the lack-of-authority issue in your situation. I'm glad to have this angle added to the discussion.

Hi Cinda,
Great article; really resonated with me. I think I recognize some of the culprits in your examples :) When I was parachuted into troubled projects as a crisis project manager, I was typically faced with an abused, overworked team of very talented people who immediately started to size me up: who is this guy, and is he going to be part of the problem (Jeez. another scribe) or part of the solution (wow, he solved THAT problem)? So in those first few critical days, I would look for ways to solve an immediate problem for the team. It usually involved defining and hitting a near-term milestone, or abolishing a useless twice-daily status report that everyone had to do, or asking an invasive, meddling (panicked) C-level manager to leave us alone for a week or two while we re-railed the project, starting tracking to our schedule, and relieved both his anxieties and his high-pressure micro-management. As your article implies, a great way to quickly gain influence with smart, talented people is to solve a problem or remove an impediment that is holding them back or making their lives miserable. Give your team the taste of some successes and some trust from management and you will gain influence with them.

The author assumes that the organization using project management for most of the work being done. This is simply not the cast in most work in most companies. The company I work for has people tasked with major project and then their plates get filled with small requests daily that add up to a full day. Often those are other people that want little things. As a result the company like is priority of work, but the reality is not that at all.

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