how to push a project forward when you don’t have any authority

You’re charged with getting a project completed that’s going to rely on people who you don’t have real authority over – and who of course have their own priorities and deadlines to contend with. Here’s how to get what you need to keep your project on track when you don’t have the authority to say “I must have this from you by Friday.”

Invest in developing relationships. Developing good working relationships with colleagues when you’re not asking for anything will usually help you get when you need when you areasking for something. People’s whose working style is very task-oriented (as opposed to relationship-oriented) often feel frustrated by this reality, wondering why their coworkers shouldn’t be expected to do their jobs regardless of relationships. But the reality is that “doing their jobs” isn’t always black and white; there can be a lot of grey that goes into how someone prioritizes your request, whether they’re willing to go above and beyond to expedite something for you, and generally how eager they are to help when they also have plenty of other competing priorities. For most jobs, relationships matter, and they’re worth investing in. That also includes…

Be thoughtful about how people like to be treated. If you honor your colleagues’ contributions to your projects, share how their support helped you meet your goals, and are a good partner to them yourself when they need your assistance, you’re much more likely to cultivate their good will and have them interested in helping you out.

Always, always explain the context for what you’re asking. People are often much more inclined to be helpful if they understand what’s behind your request. If you simply say, “I need copies of all your Jones files by Friday,” a busy coworker may not prioritize your request or may even bristle. But if you say, “We need to provide copies of the Jones files to the auditor by Friday or we risk failing the audit,” your coworker is much more likely to get you what you need, and at the pace you need it by.

Make it easy for the other person to help. When you’re asking someone for help, the easier you make it on them, the more likely you are to get what you need by when you need it. So, for instance, if you’re an email person but you know your coworker prefers talking in person, cast aside your own preferences and go talk with her in person for the duration of your project. Or if you need information from someone, provide a template with the fields you need so they just need to fill it in. Whatever you can do to make it easier on them will up your chances of getting it more quickly.

Check in regularly. When you don’t have formal authority, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that work someone agreed to take on is progressing according to plan – they agreed, after all! But precisely because you don’t have formal authority, your work might be the first thing they push aside when more pressing priorities come up. That means that it’s crucial to find ways to check in as the work is moving forward, so that you can spot slowdowns or adjust your plan if needed. Don’t be annoying about this, of course – but it’s reasonable to touch base both formally and informally over the course of a project, rather than just waiting for the end and hoping everything got done.

Be willing to “borrow authority” if you need to. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to invoke your boss or the COO, but if you’re not getting what you need and you’ve been empowered to ensure it happens, you may at some point need to say, “Jane asked me to ensure we had this piece of the work from your team by Tuesday.”

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber Rose*

    I’ve resorted to bribes. I need to get our sales guys and my boss to sit in one place, listen to a boring lecture and complete some paperwork in order to keep our safety rating. I’ve been trying for three weeks. At this point I’m baiting the damn meeting room with donuts and coffee. Maybe ice cream. Then i’ll ninja lock the door … well, maybe not that. ;)

  2. TCO*

    Often times my higher-ups are the bottleneck. In addition to Alison’s great advice, I’ve found two things to be helpful:
    1) Share your timeline. My bosses really want things to get done on time, so it helps them to hear when and why I need their contributions. If I can, I share it in advance so they know when I’ll need their involvement and can try to block out time for that.
    2) Ask them how and when they want reminders. Some of my bosses have told me that I can and should bug them when I’m waiting on them. They’re not intentionally ignoring me, but they’re busy and some things are bound to get overlooked. Do they want an e-mail a week after your initial request? Do they want you to pop in their office if you haven’t heard from them in two days?

  3. Jennifer*

    I have a similar issue, except it boils down to “how can I get my coworkers to actually proofread ANYTHING?” My boss knows there’s a problem, but I fear the only thing that would solve it would be to have the boss literally stand over their shoulders all the time staring at them, because nothing else has worked. (Except for getting me to do all of the proofreading, of course, that’s the only thing that gets it done.) I cannot personally be the constant nag, plus I can’t afford to have them not like me because I’m nagging.

    1. Artemesia*

      People are notoriously bad at proofing their own work. If the job requires a lot of written product might it be possible to have people paired up and responsible for proofing and signing off on each other’s work? If the work has to come in with a proofing signature it might change things up enough to at least not have it all fall just on you.

      1. Jennifer*

        We do have that when paperwork is involved. Unfortunately, where we can’t do this is working through an electronic queue we have. About 80% of the work is automated and the rest is proofing where the automation doesn’t work, and they are just mindlessly hitting the button and processing it out without checking. And then I deal with the complaints when people find out they didn’t put the right thing down.

        1. Pipette*

          Is there any way to implement a proofing stage where you see the text in context (screenshots of webpages, PDFs of brochures etc) and do a proofreading in that format? It’s called an LSO (linguistic sign-off) or “display check” in the localization industry. It lets you spot issues that were not obvious out of context, and when you see text presented in a different format it’s almost like reading it with fresh eyes.

    2. Wanna-Alp*

      Once I worked in a department where one of the admins had produced profile information for all the senior people in the department, which was to be published, and they needed to get all the senior people to check their profile. The email was sent out to the whole dept that asked them to check, and also pointed out that somewhere inside one of the profiles was a sentence like “This person deserves a bottle of wine.” and inside two of the profiles were sentences like “This person is [insert negative description here]” They were told that whoever found the wine sentence would get the wine, and whoever didn’t find the negative sentences would have those sentences left in.

      Not being a senior person, I didn’t get to hear what the follow-up was, but it did create a lot of water-cooler talk and amusement and drew attention to what needed to be done!

      1. Wanna-Alp*

        Forgot to add – my suggestion for getting people to proof-read would be to put something there that is definitely there for them to find (or at least definitely has a chance of being there), and that they are motivated to find. Could be amusing/rewarding/unpleasant, depends on your work environment as to what would work.

        As it is, it is too tempting for them to not check, because in theory you’ve done a perfect job of the text, and thus the text looks like it is fine at a glance, so they approve it. But of course proof-reading requires not making the assumption that it’s fine, and a willingness to look at all the details. So you would have to explicitly shatter their assumption that it’s all fine, and give them that motivation to go find the detail that isn’t fine.

        1. Jennifer*

          Yeah, there’s no motivation whatsoever for them to actually be scrupulous about checking, unfortunately.

  4. Cath in Canada*

    The context thing is so important – it makes a huge difference in how people respond.

    I recently started a column in our monthly internal newsletter called “Why do I have to…” that explains the context and rationale for the various forms and processes that my department asks people to use. We’re hoping that understanding why we need this information, and what we do with it, will increase buy-in and reduce the amount of time we spend chasing people to fill in their travel pre-authorisation and other forms properly!

    1. Tennessee*

      this is a GREAT idea and I’m totally stealing it. We have an unbelievable number of forms, many that are probably not needed. This could either get people to fill them out, or get rid of the obsolete forms when someone actually has to explain the need!

  5. Artemesia*

    I think the key first point cannot be stressed enough. People get things done for people they like or respect and so cultivating strong personal relationship, especially ones that mean you provide needed support for colleagues, is central to making this work.

  6. bad at online naming*

    I am on both ends of this frequently, and it is utterly bizarre how some people manage to do the opposite of every one of these things.

  7. Zatchmort*

    #3 is a good point. I can’t find a scientific source for it right now, but I’ve heard that people are much more likely to let you cut in front of them at the copier if you “explain” that it’s because you “need to make some copies.” Obviously that’s what everyone is there for, but people like hearing a reason.

    On a more serious note, I was surprised at one thing you didn’t mention: be realistic about whether your project is actually a priority. If it is, there should be some public acknowledgement of that across workgroups. If not, you may need to accept that you’re not at the top of the list, unless your project sponsor is willing to help you negotiate.

    1. Lindrine*

      Yes we started a process where we rank projects and determine if they are actually business critical to the department as a whole. Those get first priority. The trick is to not get EVERYTHING marked business critical.

    2. Artemesia*

      I am actually quite surprised by this example. If someone behind me in the queue said they ‘needed to make some copies’ I’d do the most polite possible equivalent of laughing in their face. I have worked around people like that who think their work is more important than everyone else’s. Now someone who says ‘I need to make copes of this agenda for the meeting that is about to start.’ — well of course. And if I had a giant run and someone needed a couple of copies — well of course.

  8. Regina*

    The importance of #1 has been highlighted by a colleague of mine who is BRILLIANT at this. I have shied away from making a concerted effort in this area, because it always felt manipulative to me. I tend to develop these relationships much more slowly so it feels more organic. But she has done it with such speed and efficiency, that I’m beginning to re-think my slow-burn. What is the point of making it a slow-burn, like I do with non-work relationships? By taking all this time, I’m just making my work life now potentially less effective, because I’m not cultivating these relationships in a strategic way. She has been able to get SO much stuff done, and she has made a name for herself in just a matter of months. If people don’t love her, they respect her, and it’s frequently both.

    Now, she’s very gregarious, fun, and nice, so people gravitate to her anyway. But she’s good with every type of personality. This type of thing is much harder for me; I can only build relationships with people who don’t intimidate me and aren’t the office meanies. I’m also a major introvert, and prefer to keep my head down and do my thing, but that generally only takes you so far.

    I need to start doing this more, but feel that since I’ve been here so long, it’s clearly a naked attempt at currying favor (i.e. why didn’t I start sooner?). But that’s just me being silly, right?

    1. A Definite Beta Guy*

      But that’s just me being silly, right?

      Walk up to someone, kiss up, and then ask them to review a report for you? You’ll get push-back. Other person thinks “wow, so she’s only nice to me when she wants me to do something. Screw her.”
      But just dropping by on a Monday just to chat about the weekend? Different story. Sure, Regina, stop on by, let’s talk about…uhh…Game of Thrones? Your garden? Whatever suits your fancy. And one day, you’ll have a report to finish, and I’ll be fine helping you out.

      I’m an introvert and descended from generations of Polish and German accountants. So…I really don’t chit-chatting with people. Until I realize, wait, that’s what I was actually hired for, they just forgot to put it in my job description.

    2. _ism_*

      I did it myself kind of accidentally. I didn’t think about these things when I first befriended Purchasing Lady and Payroll Guy, they just happened to be chatty folks who welcomed a break from their computers to chat up the manager’s new assistant. Now I’m glad I did, and they probably feel reciprocal about currying favor with my boss.

  9. Monodon monoceros*

    These are all good tips. My job is almost entirely nagging people to do stuff. They are required to do all of the things I ask, but I am the one bugging them to actually do it. Whenever I can, I use some form of “I need a decision by X date. If I do not hear back from you by then I will assume you accept this report as written/agree with my plan.” This works when I’m asking them to approve a report, a decision, or some course of action, but of course doesn’t apply when you are asking them to produce something. But it has saved me a lot of time waiting around for people to respond with a “yay” or “nay.”

  10. BeenThere*

    I was terrible at #1 for years and I’m probably still a little akward at times.

    In my first professional job, paid internship at big global well paying company, I was rated low on networking at my first performance review. I was told directly that I needed to network more by my manager/mentor and that it was importat. At the time I still thought everyone who did that was phony and that it was manipulative behaviour. Later I took a Myer-Briggs and found out I fit into the INTP box. My entire life made more sense, so I finally got over myself, my dislike of small talk, and consiously made an effort to do it every day. It’s not only helped me with work (always get top ratings) but’s it’s helped me meet different friends that I would have dismissed due to their perceived phony-ness.

  11. StatingtheObvious*

    A project charter is designed for exactly this sort of situation. If upper management is new to projects, introducing them to project charters will make your job much easier.

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