Responsibility vs. Authority

At a recent project management workshop, a participant asked was “I have responsibility but not enough authority to do what I need to do as a PM. How do I get things done?”

I can’t remember feeling as if I didn’t have the authority to get things done as a PM. I decided long ago, that if the company felt I needed to manage a project, then–by definition–I had the authority to do what I needed to do. I took the authority. I didn’t ask for it. I realize that doesn’t work for everyone. So here’s my take on responsibility vs. authority.

No manager ever has enough real authority to do what he or she wants to do. There’s always someone with a bigger title. (Even if you’re a CEO, you report to a board.) So even though titular authority is useful, it’s not enough.

If the project is strategically important to the organization, I can act first and ask forgiveness later. You can too. You’ll know if the project is strategically important by how many people ask about the status and what levels of people ask. The more people ask at the higher levels, the more strategic the project is.

If the project is not strategically important, why are you wasting time trying to accomplish it? In reality, if the project is important enough to the organization, you have the authority to do just about anything you need to do. (You need the self esteem to do what you need to do.) But if the project is not important enough to the organization, you can never get enough authority to do what you need to do.

Even if the project is strategically important, you may need to use your influencing skills to get done what you need. I attempt to lay the foundation for influence across the organization before I need it. Then when I need help, I can enroll other people to help me push my agenda forward. I’ve used sales, service, operations, and marketing people to help me move the project forward.

If you’ve been working in the organization for a while, you’ve probably built influence. If you haven’t paid attention to your relationships (aka politics), do so. Politics is not a dirty word. Politics is the way you can accomplish things in organizations, especially if you don’t have the resources to do it all yourself.

I see responsibility vs. authority differently than other people do. I see it more as responsibility to take authority, rather than wait for someone to give me the authority. Let me know what you think.

6 Replies to “Responsibility vs. Authority”

  1. I agree that many young managers do not assume and/or take authority. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But, what about regarding people? I’ve managed many projects where the people “working for me” didn’t really work for me. Luckily, most of the people that have worked for me have been good. However there have been a few that weren’t and when it really came down to it, I was stuck. Talking with the individual didn’t help – they knew I didn’t have any authority. When I approached management about making a change there was always a reason why we had to “make it work”. Making it work resulted in me working long hours to complete the project.

  2. I agree that many young managers do not assume and/or take authority. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But, what about regarding people? I’ve managed many projects where the people “working for me” didn’t really work for me. Luckily, most of the people that have worked for me have been good. However there have been a few that weren’t and when it really came down to it, I was stuck. Talking with the individual didn’t help – they knew I didn’t have any authority. When I approached management about making a change there was always a reason why we had to “make it work”. Making it work resulted in me working long hours to complete the project.

  3. I’d have to say that I’ve always assumed I had to take the authority to move a project forward, and I’ve rarely had the official authority to do so. So like you I’ve done a lot to keep relationships with people open so they can help me move around roadblocks.
    My default is to try to play nice and gently nod the project along, but if someone is just being a big obstacle I go ahead and challenge them directly become a very squeaky wheel. Life is short, I’d rather make an impact now then just sit around collecting a paycheck and moaning about how that’s just the way it is at Company X.

  4. While people (leaders) taking authority may advance a project, it may also be a source for team conflicts, in the case that your move towards authority isn’t respected. Naturally, there will very often be competition and as a consequence you might end up with a team member being frustrated or even refusing to accept your new authority. How do you handle such a conflict?

  5. I fully agree that most of the time you should simply act as if you had the authority, because it’s necessary for you to accomplish your responsibility. However, there is an important exception that I encounter fairly often: when the authority is needed specifically and officially belongs to someone else. If the rules say that the “Project Senior Supplier” has to sign off on any change to delivery dates, then no matter how vital it is to change the delivery date, you can’t do it when your title is “Project Manager”.
    My solution in these cases is to share the responsibility. I will usually try to lay out, often in writing, a proposal for exactly how to solve the problem. (For example, “Requirements have been changed; we’ve negotiated the schedule and everyone agrees a 1 week slip is a minimal but achievable accomodation; I propose we change the delivery date to May 12.”) Then I will send it to the person who has the authority. I’ll try to convince them, but if I have any doubts or am concerned that they’ll be “too busy to get to it”, then I will ALSO transfer some of the responsibility as well. For example, I might add this note: “Since development on the changes is already underway, failing to adjust the date could affect the project risk. Thus, I will add ‘Date adjustment for new requirements’ as an entry on the risks list until the requirements and dates are back in synch with each other. I will list you as the actionable party on that risk.”
    — Michael Chermside

  6. Need a definition of Authority. If your a project lead it is often assumed you make decisions within a framework expected of the company. Most organizations are matrix’s of capability allocated based on some sort of priority. If you can’t establish the priority that eveyone follows you don’t have authority. And, if office politics is the only way you can accomplish the project that chances are it is doomed to fail.

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