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Are You a Project Manager, Really?

Last month's column offered a new definition of project management. Once again, readers took the time to share their feedback--some on the site, and some directly to me. Overwhelmingly the response was positive and supportive, but there were also a number of correspondents who didn't entirely agree with the proposed definition--and some that didn't agree at all.

What was interesting about the disagreement was its singularity of focus. The definition of project management that I offered was:

"The exercise of responsibility and decision-making about a project, the authority to execute within the boundaries of the project, and the accountability to deliver the results of a project in the context of agreed-upon customer expectations, commitments and constraints."

The criticism received was not an objection to the project manager being uniquely accountable for the results of a project. In fact, most people seemed to clearly accept the fact that senior management would hold one person accountable for the project and one person alone--the project manager. What people didn't agree with was the idea of the project manager having the authority and responsibility to make decisions about the project.

Generally, this disagreement fell into one of two camps:

- The project manager cannot have authority and responsibility for the project, because the results of the project are dependent upon the work and contribution of the project team.

- The project manager does not have authority and responsibility for the project, because that is the purview of the project sponsor of the project.

My challenge to both of these assertions is very simple: Why would a project manager be comfortable accepting sole accountability for the results of the project (including, as one writer stated, the fact that failure to deliver the results of the project would result in '"consequences") if they do not have the authority necessary to ensure that they can deliver the results?

In point of fact, the definition sought to specifically steer between the responsibilities of the team (responsible for the product of the project) and the sponsor (responsible for the mandate of the project) to define what is uniquely the project manager's domain.

This does not imply that to exercise authority and carry the responsibility for the project means a project manager must adopt a stereotypical approach of command-and-control--this confuses style with delivering on the role. It simply reflects that to accept consequences of outcomes (accountability) we must have the means to influence those outcomes (authority and responsibility).

For me, the most significant reason why many of us struggle with the definition as I have proposed it is that it contradicts what many of us have accepted for so long. Most people who play a project management role today acknowledge and accept accountability for producing or failing to realize the results of the project, but have resigned themselves to the fact that they do not truly have the authority and responsibility necessary to deliver the outcomes. As a result, we work hard to influence as best we can the team and the sponsor, hoping our efforts will at least shape and guide the project toward an end result that bears a passing resemblance to what was wanted in the first place.

This brings us to the query of the title of this column: "Are you a project manager, really?" This is a frightening question for some, because we might not like the answer. Better that we ask it anyway, rather than continuing to accept only half of the role. For the last project you managed, ask yourself the following questions: If the project were to fail, who would be blamed? If a problem was encountered that threatened your ability to deliver the project, who made the call on how to resolve it? If a choice needed to be made about different possible methods of producing a deliverable that was already in scope, who gave the final "okay"? If a budgeting decision needed to be made, but it didn't exceed the overall approved budget, who signed off on it? If the answer to the first question was "you" but the answer to the other questions was "someone else," then are you really managing the project?

Take note that none of the questions excluded the possibility of collaboration, consultation or consensus. All implied, however, that someone at the end of the day had to agree with the decision before it was accepted.

This doesn't imply command-and-control, it is simply a reality of life. The project team cannot make a collaborative decision to go in a direction that will take the project out of its boundaries. Consensus is not an excuse for taking a project over budget. Strategy choices need to be evaluated in the context of the overall goal. While broad input is both necessary and appropriate, in the final analysis, someone needs to accept the recommendation.

If the person making these decisions isn't you, it's probably the individual on the org chart that has the label of "project sponsor," which means you are accepting someone else making calls that will ultimately rest on your shoulders if the project fails.

This is what I am talking about when I say the project manager needs the authority and responsibility to execute within the boundaries of the project. If we don't, then we are not in control of our destiny. This doesn't mean we're letting the fox loose in the henhouse, or that the project manager is now the ultimate owner of the project. It means that within the agreement established with the project sponsor as to what the project will produce and why (generally the project charter), the project manager has the mandate of the organization to deliver on those results, the accountability for failure to deliver on those results and the authority and responsibility of the organization to deliver them. Anything less, and we are setting ourselves up for failure.

 


Mark E. Mullaly, PMP

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