Project Manager Authority—Look Under NON-Fiction

by Carl Pritchard, Pritchard Management Associates

"I have all this responsibility and no authority. Management never tells me which projects are most important. I don't know which templates I should use."

"You think that's bad, I don't even get templates."

These are among the common concerns raised by project managers. I know. I hear them all the time in my classes. Students consistently express these concerns about their roles in the project process and their inability to drive change or improvement because their managers and organizations don't grant them the authority to do so. I would suggest that project managers who have no authority often have that limitation because they impose it upon themselves. We have myriad opportunities to seize authority, but, unfortunately, we don't take hold of them. Instead we relegate the process to others, waiting for management, the PMO or some other authority to take the reins and tell us to move forward with a vision or an approach.

If we can find the mettle to actually take advantage of those elements of authority that matter, we can make phenomenal inroads. Our accomplishments know few bounds.

First, FORGET Formal Authority
This is perhaps the toughest aspect of authority to release. Formal authority is such a lovely thing. It is authority granted by the organization. It is authority to control and dictate. It is the ability to hire and fire. It is weak. That's right, it's weak. Those who deploy formal authority well are those who understand that it's not the formal authority that gets them where they want to go. Formal authority is a nice support structure, but it's not the be-all and end-all.

Very recently, a student complained to me about a manager who was busy micro-managing her and her personnel. She said that this individual was directive, was moving people up and down in pay grade, and was seen as a petty despot; so much so, in fact, that the student is planning on quitting the organization. She's not alone—she says several of her peers are also ready to walk. Why? Because someone with formal authority is exercising it without considering the other types of authority that can render formal authority effective. Without the other types of authority, any formal authority over the long term is moot.

With that argument in hand, I would suggest that the most effective types of authority for the project manager are technical, reward and charismatic. And since we don't get much opportunity to reward our personnel, we're down to the technical and the charismatic.

Winning Hearts-One Geek at a Time
Technical authority does not rely on the project manager being the smartest person in the room. It does, however, hinge on him or her knowing the smartest person in the room. Technical authority means that we SEIZE power by virtue of acknowledging where it rests and what renders it valuable. Things like project plans, the WBS, the network schedules can all grant us measures of technical authority if we understand their use and put them to work to our advantage. If the customer throws out an unachievable date and we accept it, we are not leading. If the customer throws out an unacceptable date and we can present intelligent alternatives, we take on the mantle of authority.

It takes homework to be an authority. It takes no small measure of clairvoyance. We need to be able to predict what others around us are going to do, and how and when they're going to react. If we can leverage that insight, we gain leadership opportunities.

That would be fine, but I can't even get management to tell me which projects are the real priorities!

Who sets priorities in an organization? In most, they're ad hoc. No one sets them formally. They're set by some hidden, arcane set of rules that no one understands. In teaching students to manage multiple projects, I've worked through personal project portfolio models a dozen times. And I ensure that these students know that if no one else is giving them priorities, they need to. And they need to be able to defend why their priorities are their priorities. If project managers can provide a logical, considered set of rationale as to why they're doing what they're doing, it all becomes a lot more acceptable.

The other aspect of this is that it can also serve as leadership for the organization as a whole. If the organization has never looked at portfolio models, you have the opportunity to create the pioneering set!

How's your charisma? Really? Mine, too! I don't feel charismatic, and most of the project managers I meet would not jump into a line if it was marked "High Charisma." We think charismatic and we think of JFK. We think charismatic and we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. We don't think about ourselves, or the project manager down the hall. But charisma is not sheer force of will. Some elements can be learned, and some are best practices in project management.

Charisma is borne out of others' desire to follow us. People want to follow when you're heading in a direction they want to go. And that means we need to understand where, how and why our team members want to go in a particular direction. If we have that insight, we have the ability to be seen as empathetic, supportive and of like mind. And that is awfully appealing.

How do we get there? This is the hard part. We need to listen. We need to let them share their goals, visions and insights. We need to cede the reins for a little while—long enough to ensure that we know what matters to them and where they'd like to ultimately go. In your next meeting, try something different. Try to document each time someone expresses a want or need. You'll find out a lot are shared. 24 hours (or a little more) later, express their need in a slightly reformatted way, but ensure that they understand that you understand that it's a need. You'll find these folks are more open and that they look at you in a different light. You're sharing and understanding information in a way that they haven't seen before. And because you're on the same page, they're more willing to listen to the other insights (and direction) you may have to offer.

Formulaic Leadership?
Hardly. It's not a matter that everyone can lead well. These are simple approaches that can facilitate everyone leading a little better, though, and it's far from dark or Machiavellian. It's an opportunity to share insights, thoughts and approaches more effectively. It's an opportunity to get others to perceive your direction as valuable and well-considered. Rather than waiting to be told we can lead, it's true leadership. It's leading by example and by understanding, and by a clear, asserted willingness to actually lead.

Copyright ©2005, Carl Pritchard. Published on ProjectConnections by permission of the author.

Carl Pritchard is the Principal of Pritchard Management Associates. He is a Project Management Professional® as certified by the Project Management Institute, and a member of the board of directors of ProjectConnections.com. He is the author of The Project Communications Toolkit (Artech House, 2004). His newest book, Risk Management: Concepts & Guidance, 3rd Edition will be released in the fall. He lectures, presents and entertains in the field of project management. His personal website is www.carlpritchard.com (where the "Posts" page includes past student efforts on multi-project portfolio models). His e-mail is carl@carlpritchard.com.

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