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The Project Manager

“Project authority ….. You’ve got it only if you think you’ve got it.”

The conflict between responsibility and authority poses an inherent dilemma for the project manager. How can a project manager be responsible for the outcome of the project if he/she has no authority over resources and decisions in the organization? After all, there are very few people who report directly to the project manager. This is common occurrence with a matrix organization. To complicate matters further, none of the other players have a direct reporting relationship.

“They’ve given us all the responsibility for the project, but minimal authority over what we need for the project ….. Responsibility without associated authority!” is the common lament of project managers. Well, folks, I have news for you! You will never have the authority you wish you had, but you will always have the full responsibility for the project. In fact, the reason you have been asked to be the project manager is usually because of your skills and ability to manage this dilemma.

The perceived lack of authority seems like a valid argument to begin with. But let’s look deeper into reality. How often do you see a project where you have authority over all the factors associated with the project? Consider a simple example of remodeling your kitchen or renovating the basement.

You decide upon a budget, draw up a plan, select the cupboards, order the material, hire a contractor and sign the contract. Guess what happens next? The delivery of cupboards is delayed, you knock down the drywall and find a gaping hole, and you have to do electrical work that you didn’t expect. The project will now take three months instead of the one month that you had planned, you are living out of a make-shift kitchen in the basement, and everyone including the spouse and the kids are talking about this “project from hell”. You never know what’s behind the walls until you knock them down; and such is the case with projects!

The Project Manager’s Dilemma

Come to think of it, you have little direct authority over the things that are beyond your control. And that’s not just limited to kitchen renovations. It applies to every single project from launching a space rocket, marketing a new product, implementing a computer technology or rolling out a new service for your customers. The scale and complexities of the projects may differ, but the fact is that you have little authority over a vast range of activities that are essential to the success of your project.

In light of these circumstances, what should a project manager do? The first step is to recognize and acknowledge this reality in the world of project management. You will never have the authority you need or deserve, but you will always be accountable and responsible for the project. As a project manager, you are expected to work under these constraints, deal with issues and circumstances that are outside your control, and succeed. Who said project management was easy?

Project management is the art and science of getting work done with the active cooperation of everyone you need to make your project a success. Knowing the art and science well, and practicing it diligently will make you an outstanding project manager. As a project manager, you have all the authority you need, to do the right thing for the project and your client. The project manager’s authority is implicit, it goes with the job, and it is expected that you exercise it to get the job done. A big part of this is managing customer expectations.

How do you get the work done?

When I was a novice project manager, I often wished that I could carry a baseball bat to the office, swing it and let people know about its existence just in case they didn’t deliver on their commitments. Or, perhaps, settle such issues with a one-on-one confrontation in the parking lot. However, this is not the ideal way to gain people’s commitments or to drive projects.

The only thing you have at your disposal is the ability to effectively communicate with everyone including your clients, stakeholders, team members, executives, engineers, and sub-contractors. Communication involves knowing when and how to use the different tools for communication including written, verbal and presentation skills.

In fact, the trick to getting work done is to know first and foremost how to excel in communication skills. Outstanding project managers spend 70%-80% of their project time and effort on activities that are generally related to communication. They serve as nerve centres for projects by keeping communication channels open for collecting, analyzing, processing and disseminating needed information and decisions. They know how to delegate and provide the discipline, environment and motivation so that the work assigned to others is completed as expected.

Projects also involve implementing a change somewhere in the organization. Every time a change is introduced, it is bound to affect people, processes and associated technologies in the environment. The change may be as simple as introducing a new form or as complex as merging two companies and changing the culture of the organization. The fact is that human beings resist the very idea of change, regardless of its nature and impact. As such, the project manager is responsible for identifying, explaining and selling “the change” successfully so that it is embraced enthusiastically by those affected by it.

The Language of Project Management

Effective communication requires using the right language, and terminology that is clearly and easily understood by your team. That includes the language of project management, the language of your business or organization, and the language of the science, discipline or technology related to the project. Figure 2 above illustrates the changing role of the project manager and expectations arising from the new role.

An engineer who is focused only on technology, to the exclusion of business perspective and project management, will not be able to do a good job as a project manager. A business or functional manager with no understanding of technology and project management discipline will not shine as a project manager. A project manager, with no understanding of business strategies, their alignment with the project, and high level solutions or technologies will certainly drive the project into a rat hole.

The professional project manager “walks the talk” of project management principles, “knows the talk” of systems and technologies associated with the project, and “understands the talk” of business and users who will be impacted by the project.


Project management is about accepting responsibility and exercising authority to get the project done. The role of the project manager transcends the traditional distinctions regarding job levels, seniority and organizational hierarchy. It is a leadership role that expects the project manager to acquire, direct and motivate the organizational resources to cooperate and perform in the context of the project.

In this respect, the project manager has various roles as an implementer, facilitator, negotiator and a change agent. The fundamental set of skills to accomplish this is through communication, which is the ability to effectively exercise the necessary skills and drive the project towards its intended outcome. A summary of learning lessons to avoid the proverbial rat hole and catch the pot of gold follows:

Avoid the Rat Hole – Warning Signs

  1. The project manager has no understanding of the business
  2. The project manager lacks “people management” and “relationship building” skills
  3. The project manager thinks that he/she has no authority for the project, or does not know how to delegate work assignments
  4. There is a perception that the project manager is not “in charge” of the project
  5. The project manager role is confused with job levels and organizational hierarchy

Catch the “Pot of Gold” – Best Practices

  1. Recognize that you have 100% responsibility and minimal authority
  2. Exercise the implicit authority to do the right thing for the project
  3. Consult and communicate with all interested parties, and get formal approvals as required
  4. Understand and speak the languages of business, technology and project management
  5. Develop the recommended skills and competencies for project management

The foregoing article is based on an excerpt from “Rainbows & Ratholes: Best Practices for Managing Successful Projects by Dhanu Kothari

Dhanu Kothari is President of D2i Consulting. a firm specializing in Project Management consulting, delivery and training. He holds a B.Sc. in Mech. Eng., and a Post-Graduate in Production Eng. from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Dhanu is a past President of the Project Management Institute (PMI), Southern Ontario. His second book titled, “From Ratholes to Rainbows: Managing Project Recovery” was published recently. Dhanu can be reached at [email protected]


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