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Authority and Responsibility, How They’re Related and How They Affect Project Management

Veteran project managers know that they accept responsibility for the project when they accept the role of project manager. They also know that the lack of authority can seriously impede their ability to deliver the goals and objectives set for the project. Responsibility is directly proportional to consequences. Responsibility for project results doesn’t mean that they get placed on the bench until the next project if the one they’re leading fails, it has a monetary consequence. They will suffer with the project through elimination or reduction of bonus, a re-assignment to a less responsible role (with an attendant reduction in salary), or dismissal in the case of consultants. The connection between responsibility and consequences is entrenched in business. Larger more costly projects will tend to engage more senior project managers and the consequence of failure will be proportional. The connection between project results and consequences will also be heightened.

What is lacking in my experience (20 plus years as a programme and project manager) is a correspondence between authority and responsibility. Project managers can do much of the project planning without having access to authority. Project managers will need some help from subject matter experts for some of the planning work, even if it’s just to validate effort or cost estimates. Larger, more complex projects tend to have more need of subject matter experts to the point that some of the work is planned by these experts. The authority needed to acquire and manage the resources needed for this work will usually come with the territory. It’s when the project reaches the build or implementation phase that the project manager needs authority. They can plan the work, organize the work, and monitor performance but without authority they have a very limited ability to ensure the work is done on time and with the necessary quality.

The largest, most costly, most complex projects are led by project managers who hold senior positions in their organizations and bring that level of authority to their projects. The Manhattan project, which delivered the Atomic bomb during World War II, is a good example of this type electronic document management system of project and project manager. Leslie Groves, who managed the project, was a 3 star (lieutenant) General. The vast majority of projects which don’t fall into the Manhattan project category in terms of size are where the connection between authority and responsibility falls apart.

Most projects nowadays are executed in a “matrix” environment where the organization uses project managers to run projects and functional managers to manage people. The matrix environment is a good fit for most organizations because they have a mix of operational and project work. The problem with the matrix environment is that seldom do they come with a blueprint for the division of authority between the functional and project manager which means that the project manager has none of the authority and the functional manager has it all from the resource’s perspective. Organizations with more mature matrix environments may have taken some steps to resolve the issues that this division causes, but rarely do the definitions of the 2 roles include a precise description of authority. This is probably also due to the fact that the HR group plays a big role in defining authority through their policies and they tend to be behind the curve in accommodating their policies to the management of projects.

Problems start with the acquisition of the project team. Project managers are prone to the same greed and the rest of the human race and would like to have a free reign to acquire the best resources the organization has to offer. Functional managers, on the other hand, have their operational responsibilities to consider. They will be compensated for the resources they relinquish to the project but aren’t usually incented to make sure their best and brightest are made available to the project manager. That’s because their performance is measured based on the success of their operational responsibilities. If they make their best resources available to the project, they may fail to deliver on their operational goals and objectives and that may have a negative impact on their compensation. The best approach I’ve seen to balancing operational and project needs is to have functional managers whose sole responsibility is the “care and feeding” of resources. Since they don’t have any other operational responsibilities, they are free to assess the competing needs of projects and operations and make assignment decisions based on their perception of what’s best for the organization.

Problems encountered with team acquisition will propagate throughout the rest of the project. Presuming effort and duration estimates were based on some level of performance that is greater than some of the acquired team are capable of meeting, project performance will suffer. Pointing out to the project sponsor that performance issues are being caused by under-performing team members may or may not bring relief. The sponsor is likely to view your complaint with scepticism if you didn’t raise the issue before. An inability to perform the work is not the only cause of poor performance. By far the most common cause of inadequate performance is the bleeding of resource time from the project by operational demands. The demands may be quite legitimate and the operational work demanded of the resource may be the best possible use of that resource for the good of the organization. That doesn’t help the project manager when he or she has to explain poor project performance to the stakeholders. This situation is bad enough when the project manager is given notice of the demand but is much worse when they learn of the change after the fact. The level of authority the project manager has been given, or at least the functional manager’s perception of that authority, will often determine whether they find out about the operational work before or after the fact.

The other side of the resources coin is the recognition and rewards that are used to build team morale. A lack of authority in this area usually has to do with the project manager’s ability to spend money to give awards or purchase any other kind of team building activity. Recognition and rewards are usually governed by HR policy which is the reason the project manager is not given authority to bestow these on deserving team members. The lack of any kind of budget to buy awards is the other reason.

Lastly, the project manager may be called upon to deal with team members whose head just isn’t in the game. They have the ability, experience, and training to perform the work at the level of competency envisioned in the project plans but don’t. There may be a variety of reasons for this but they usually stem from the resource’s commitment to the project, or lack thereof. Let’s look at the example of a process improvement project to illustrate what I mean. The benefit of the process improvement is the elimination of effort which will translate into job loss (at least in that department). Some of the team members who work on this project may be the ones whose jobs will be eliminated; after all they’re the subject matter experts in the old process. Is it reasonable to expect these folks to show enthusiasm for the project? Of course not. Unless the project manager can show these team members how the project will benefit them, or at least not harm them they’re going to be less than committed to the objectives of the project.