Project managers are often willing to take on an outsize sense of responsibility. Good project managers praise other team members when things go right, and shoulder the blame when things go wrong. But when things go wrong because of decisions made by someone higher up the chain, that willingness diminishes quickly and project managers can become discouraged and inefficient. Therefore project managers find themselves in a difficult situation when they have all the responsibility of delivering the project, yet little-to-no real authority over the factors that can impact that project.
I have had this experience more than once in my career. I have managed large projects over prolonged periods of time, each with numerous team members, and dealing with highly complex subject matter. And I have always reported to a director who had the power to clear the way and empower me to move things forward That same director could also derail any progress with choices over which I had zero control. In one of those instances I was consulting to the U.S. Army, which means there were various levels of bureaucracy and egos capable of intervening and wreaking all manner of havoc without me being able to do a single thing about it.
Fortunately I found a few tricks that help me expand my influence and leadership in subtle ways. I utilized them repeatedly and the net effect was at least an appearance of authority, or at least increase others’ awareness to check in with me before making decisions that would otherwise negatively impact my project. Crafting a sense of increased authority for the sake of better project management is more art than science. Not all of my methods worked perfectly, but here are three of them that worked well for me over time:
Meeting Agendas: Truthfully, everyone should have an agenda for a meeting. But in some cases meetings are routine and handled more loosely. An unstructured meeting is always open to being hijacked, and this is especially true if it includes a senior level member with agenda items of their own. To minimize the impact of these agenda items, either on my meeting or my project, I always prepared an agenda to help create a bit of structure, and to give me something to refer back to when the meeting was about to go off track. I have had a few instances of a senior director hijacking a meeting to talk about a new idea for our project. The resulting discussion and desire to pursue the idea resulted in scope creep and a scramble to adjust resources and schedules to accommodate it. Sometimes you can’t do anything about that and you just have to go with it. But an agenda - particularly one connected to the tasks, goals, and objectives on which you are focused– can provide an off-ramp back to your intended discussion. It can help create a sense that you are setting the pace, that this is your project, and you have some say in whether or not things will be adjusted. Then you can use the time you bought to fend off the potential intrusion!
Team Member Status Reports: I created a template for team members to complete at the beginning of each week. They listed last week’s accomplishments, the new week’s tasks and to-dos, and the resources they needed from me to help them. I also asked them to keep a copy at their desk. When a senior-level team member asked them to take on something new, they could use the report as a way to direct that senior person to me and discuss how their request would impact our project. It does not mean I always fended off the decisions and interruptions. Far from it. But the exercise expanded their awareness of their intrusions, and over time they began checking with me before exercising their authority in ways that co-opted resources I needed to stay on track.
Share Information: One of the most important jobs are project manager has is communicating project performance regarding time, budget, stakeholders, etc. When it became clear a senior-level member of my organization was making decisions that negatively impacted my project in terms of time and resources, I began creating and sharing data related to my project. I even circulated it at levels above my senior director. The data showed our progress but also brought attention to the impact of the choices of those who had more formal authority than I did. I often shared the reports under the guise of “these are some of the reporting tools I use that others can use too,” but it quickly increased the awareness of organizational leadership. When my senior directors shared with their supervisors the choices they were about to make, those supervisors reminded them to check in with me regarding the impact those choices might have on my ongoing projects. In essence, I fostered a sense of authority without having really been given it by raising awareness at multiple levels above me.
These are just three mechanisms I used and none of them is guaranteed to squash the impact of someone with more authority than you. However, in my experience they helped create a sense of authority that did not formally exist in my job description. That and they are just good project management practices in general. But if you find yourself in a situation where you are responsible for a project without the formal authority to keep disruptive forces at bay, these should help buffet you and your team from forces beyond your control and increase in others a sense of your leadership.