Managing Projects with Limited Authority

by Lana Boiko, PMP

Perhaps the most common environment a typical project manager works in is a matrix organization.  Given this circumstance, a lot of project managers not only have no formal authority when it comes to our clients, but also have limited formal authority within our own company. Often the most successful project managers are the ones who develop a methodology and leadership style that allows them to effectively overcome formal authority limitations.

Typical concerns that arise from limited authority situations are: lack of decision-making power, less responsiveness from within the project team and weaker negotiation positions for potential scope and schedule change requirements, to name a few.

So, is managing without authority an art, a science or a technique?  The good news is that there are effective ways to overcome the situation with all of the above, and you can tailor your approach based on your personal management style and preferences. Of course, the process will require significant effort, continuous fine tuning and a good amount of patience and flexibility.

Established Project Processes
The first and most widely accepted way to control the project is through the project process.  The key feature of this approach is that processes provide the necessary structure for your project delivery. Controlling through the process is more likely to be effective in teams where the processes have been established for some time and have been used repeatedly and consistently through multiple projects.  In other words, when your team members understand exactly what to do and how to do it and have been through the process multiple times, your project runs a lot smoother and situations where a strong formal authority is required are few and far apart.

Another nice thing about controlling through the process is that the project manager’s authority is implicit as that of a person responsible for managing the process.  Clear project documentation will have a significant positive effect if controlling a project through process is your primary management mechanism.

Varying Processes
What if you work in an environment where projects vary significantly, driven by major differences in scope, stakeholders’ priorities and project team structures? If you are a consultant, this situation is probably what you live in. Here, controlling through the process is probably not as effective. If the processes have been developed before you joined the project, you have to learn and adopt them. If those processes are not in place yet, developing and establishing them will take some time.

Controlling your project though metrics may become a good addition to your tool kit.  It is generally accepted wisdom that you get what you measure. Carefully study objectives of a project and stakeholders’ expectations and priorities.  Most people cannot allocate appropriate focus to more than three to four measurable parameters on any particular project.  Pick three or four metrics to monitor that would have the biggest impact on the success of a project and on stakeholder’s satisfaction. Measure, review, document diligently, and publish the results in a way that is visible to the team and is easily accessible.

Leveraging Your Personal Style and Competence
The more experienced project and program managers may also rely on developing and then leveraging their personal leadership style. They sometimes control their projects through influence.  The key to using this approach effectively is competence.  Competence does not necessarily mean knowing more than our team or client. How many times have we all felt that the specialists on the team know more than we do? It is not that they know more, they just know different things.

For a project manager, competence is about being able to successfully and effectively deliver on agreed upon objectives while maintaining a positive attitude within the project team. If you are able to demonstrate competence consistently, you will be on your way to developing a reputation of a great project manager and earning the trust of stakeholders and team members.  If people trust you, they are rather likely to imply you have an informal authority, which is perhaps more powerful than any formal kind.

Every project manager finds a unique way to be successful, whether through different combinations of the above mentioned approaches or by developing their own secret sauce. It is fairly certain that at some point in our careers we find ourselves wishing we had more authority to be able to resolve some situations. So please, do share your experiences with your colleagues. Maybe our gathered experiences and lessons learned will help us collectively better manage with limited authority to deliver project success.

Let’s start here. What successful ways have you discovered to manage with little authority?