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Winning without Authority


This completes ideas posted Nov. 24, 2010 at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com


              The top false truth among project managers is usually masked by a convenient companion – the top false assumption.

               The result is a sad reality: The vast majority of project managers operate without the authority they need to competently run good projects producing quality results on time and on budget.

              The false truth: I don’t have the authority to do this job.

              The false assumption: Nothing can be done about it.

              The sad reality: more often than not, ineffectiveness is self-inflicted.

              Actually, the false truth is actually true, in a superficial self-fulfilling way. Many – perhaps most – project managers don’t expect people to accept their directives. Neither the project manager nor the team member really anticipate compliance. The situation just isn’t set up for it.

              Additionally, the project managers often have opponents among people who DO have authority. The bosses of the loaned project team members have been known to direct their people to observe homegrown priorities ahead of those emanating from that project over there.

              That also can be true with nonhuman resources. The project typically owns nothing. Everything it needs must be transferred from dedicated resources within the conventional silos of the organization. The responsible people in those functional units have absolutely no reason, on the face of it, to diminish their assets in favor of somebody else’s one-time initiative. Why should they? They’re evaluated as managers on their results within their functions.


              So, what do you do about all this, project manager?

              For one thing, dismiss false assumptions. There is plenty you can do to meet your challenges in securing authority in managing projects. Don’t kid yourself. You don’t have any authority at the start. How much of it do you need? Where is it? Who has it? How are you going to convince them to give it to you? And how will they make sure everybody knows they’ve delegated it to you?

              This is far more important to your success than how the functional and technical elements of the project are organized and executed. You should never allow yourself to be distracted by the busyness of the immediate moment from the essential importance of the project infrastructure.

             Yes, make sure the day-to-day management is done. But your real responsibility is to keep the project moving inevitably toward the guiding star. That bright point resides in the continuing intent you fully share with those who own the organization and the process.

              Who is going to tell those reluctant functional managers that their own job performance evaluations will now include assessments of how vigorously they have unselfishly contributed to this project of yours? The one your bosses have established as an organizational imperative?

              Another thing, project manager: Never, ever accept as truth anything of any importance that you haven’t personally and thoroughly explored. Your truths are your own carefully derived truths, and you always are tough in testing your assumptions. In this unstable environment, you yourself are the only bedrock authority you accept.

              Take this business of how much authority you have. Andy Crowe’s marvelous study, “Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know that Everyone Else Does Not,” has a distinct answer to this.

              Andy’s organization did broad and deep studies of 860 seasoned project managers. They found that 18 of the 860 were clearly superior in a few areas of skills/practice. Among them was the issue of authority.

              The Alphas, men and women in a variety of fields, all acted confidently, on the assumption that they had all the authority they needed. They didn’t wait around for reassurance. They told the interviewers that they just acted as if they could do what they needed to do. Their superiors and colleagues agreed with them. Sure, they had the authority.

              My personal conclusion is that this not some bossy, grabby sort of behavior. These are people who just confidently and decisively do what they need to do, and act as if they expect their co-workers to do the same. The essence of leadership, in action.


              An important element at this juncture is the diplomatic function of the project manager. You need to directly engage the top authorities in search of the power you need to get people to respond to you. If you can’t think of persuasive reason for the top authorities to give you that power, you don’t qualify as a competent project manager.

              It’s your job. You need to make it clear to those who own authority just what it will take for their intent to be achieved. If this is what you (boss) want, this is what it will take to get it. I am your agent. Announce to the people in our world how they must respond to my initiatives, because those come with your executive approval.

              The project manager workstyle it takes to do this doesn’t just materialize when one is appointed to lead a project. I believe this kind of project manager understands exactly what it takes to do the job. That knowledge starts with preparation, in both substance and approach.

              Confidence arises from competence. Competence results from doing your homework. Homework means research, consultation, analysis and careful building of relationships. You make sure the people at the crucial decision points are totally with you, in knowledge, understanding and intent.

              Bluntly, this business of obtaining a clear delegation of authority is a sales effort. And, as every good salesperson knows, you get the sale when you ASK for the sale.  You don’t sit and hope. You quality the prospect, document the benefits, present the case and make the ask. No ambiguity. Project manager to executive: Don’t indicate a favorable attitude – present me as the project manager. Flat out.

              Then you, as project manager, proceed to recruit, organize and guide the people and the process. If you don’t get to pick the people, you work hard with what you’ve got, and you make sure your management takes responsibility for what they gave you.You make sure they know what they must do if they want their results.

              You don’t allow yourself to wonder about any matter that you should have fully in your grasp. Your job is far more one of understanding than it is one of action. By the time you act, you already must know the what and the why and the how of what is to be done.

              In short, your authority is that of expertise, not of designation. You’re the project manager because you are unquestionably managing the project. Authority is most thoroughly present when it never has to be mentioned.

              Everybody knows you have the authority because you act that way. 

              You make your own truth.

              Now THAT’S authority.


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