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How do you manage projects without direct authority?

Roy Simmons, Managing Member, Simmons Management Services LLC
Roy Simmons, Managing Member, Simmons Management Services LLC

The fundamental difference between managing people and managing projects is the presence or absence of direct authority over those executing the project. I have, on very rare occasions, seen situations where a project manager (PM) has a small contribution to project team members’ annual reviews, but, for the most part, a PM’s only source of direct authority comes by inference through the authority of the project sponsor. Managing without direct authority is an important skill of a PM.

There are myriad books and extensive primary research on leadership without authority. Having been a PM for twenty years in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, I’ll share some principles that I’ve successfully applied for driving project execution without direct authority.

Perceived Value

The project management approach is all about applying discipline to project execution. The teams must see value in the application of discipline. Helping teams understand that value is important to project success. For example, there is value in developing project plans that are in control and provide predictability for senior management in knowing what has to be done and when for the project team.

Setting Expectations

A similarity between people management and project management is the setting of expectations. In personnel management, the approach should be to set expectations and provide enough support for success. In project management, one of the places that expectations are set is in the development of a project plan by the team. Expectations should be reasonably set, rewarded when met, and corrected when they are not. From the outset, a team should know what to expect from you and you from them.

Accountability

Accountability is the logical progression to meeting (and exceeding) expectations. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s important for a PM to admit to shortcomings and share ways to avoid them in the future. You can’t hold others accountable if you don’t hold yourself accountable. The PM should not be the only one enforcing accountability. Team members should also be holding each other accountable.

Be a Source of Help

A PM gains credibility when seen as a source of help in finding solutions for barriers to execution. There have been many times where I have stepped up to cover the responsibilities of overextended team members to keep to the project schedule. It’s also important to have a strong grasp of how the project puzzle pieces fit together so you know whether certain delays are inconsequential or devastating. It also helps in knowing how to recover your schedule when they occur.

Trust

Team Members must know that they can share bad news and expect to get support instead of criticism. The team members must also trust that they will be rewarded appropriately for meeting the project goals.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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