how to manage a project when you don’t have formal authority

In some ways, project management can be harder than people management, because when you don’t have formal authority over the people tasked to your project, you have to find other ways of getting things done and keeping people accountable.

So how do you manage a project successfully when you can’t fall back on “because I said so?” (Of course, generally people managers shouldn’t fall back on “because I said so” either; getting buy-in is smart even when you don’t technically need to. But not having formal authority means that you can’t rely in the same way on people just doing what you ask of them.)

Here are five keys to managing a project effectively when you don’t have formal authority over the people working on it.

1. Define clear roles early on. If people aren’t clear on exactly what role you expect each person to play in the project, you risk things languishing for lack of a clear owner to drive each element forward. But if you’re deliberate and explicit about setting up clear roles from the outset, your team should be clear on who is responsible for doing what and by when. In addition to assigning roles that describe who will be responsible for doing chunks of work, make sure that you’re also explicit about who needs to provide input or sign off on things before they’re final.

2. People will hate your meetings if you’re not really careful about how you run them and when you call them. If you don’t use people’s time in meetings well, they’re likely either to stop showing up or to stop paying attention while they’re there. That means that you shouldn’t call meetings just for your own benefit, like going around the room to hear status updates from each person when you could instead do that one-on-one. Call meetings only when you truly need to assemble the whole group to talk things through and make decisions. And when you do call a meeting, show that you respect people’s time by having an agenda, being clear about what outcomes you’re aiming for, and starting and finishing on time.

3. If you don’t have formal authority over the people staffed on your projects, be especially thoughtful about how ask for what you need from them. Explaining the “why” behind work you’re delegating is always important, but it’s especially important when you don’t have formal authority. People are likely to be more receptive to your requests if you provide context, explain why it’s important, and check to make sure they have the time and ability to do what you’re asking. For example, if you’re asking someone to bump up a deadline and get you something faster than originally planned, you might say something like this: “I know we’d set January 3 as the deadline for this, but I just learned that Karen is going to be out the last two weeks of December – which means that in order to get her sign-off, we’d need her to look at it no later than the 15th. Could you look at your calendar and see if you could bump this up earlier on your side so we can make that happen?” That’s a lot more likely to get a positive response than, “Sorry, the deadline changed and now I need this two weeks earlier.”

4. Know people’s working styles. Some people on your team will expertly manage their own deliverables and give you complete peace of mind that they’re doing what they committed to. Other people might be prone to missing a deadline if you don’t check in with them along the way to make sure that things are on track. It’s key to know the work styles of the people on your team so that you can adjust your own approach (and so that you don’t annoy your highly reliable people with too-frequent check-ins or inadvertently neglect people who need more contact).

5. Think about what could go wrong. When you’re in the middle of a project, the last thing you want to imagine is it crashing and burning, but you’ll significantly increase your chances of success if you think through all the things that could go wrong so that you can put measures in place now to guard against them. For example, you might ask yourself or your team, “If it’s a month after our due date and the project flopped, what will we look back on and say we should have done differently? And what can we do now to adjust our plan to address that?”

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous Poster*

    This is very timely for me since I’ve been taking on more and more of this in my role. Thanks!

  2. I'm Okay, It's Okay, Everything's fine.*

    Also timely for me, 4 months into my first role as a Project Analyst! And I’m certain I landed this job thank in part to the advice of Alison… and have become (and continue to be) a better employee after pouring through the archives.

  3. ArtK*

    I think you left one important thing out: Make sure that the people who *do* have authority over the others have your back. Start with whoever owns the project you’re managing — if they can’t/won’t support you, then run away. I’ve worked on too many projects where project management was seen as a roadblock or just someone to issue reports and track things. If they don’t value an active project manager role, you’re going to be very unhappy.

    Project management is more than the technical stuff of GANTT and PERT and all of that. There’s a huge social aspect to it.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      You aren’t always given the option to decline, unless you are willing to look for another job. Especially in the environments where the person with the authority won’t back you.

      1. ArtK*

        True, but in that kind of situation it’s worthwhile considering whether this particular company is a good fit. I know that being put in untenable situations is high on my “time to polish the resume” list. If a company can’t provide the resources and support to do my job, I don’t see any kind of future there.

  4. Tequila Mockingbird*

    This is timely for me…. except I’m in the opposite situation. I have someone on my team who is trying to assert managerial authority when she is not our designated team lead… and it is really pissing people off. (She is caustic, barks orders, sends rude emails, contradicts established protocol, etc.) Our real team lead is absent a lot and when he is here, he’s very passive. Our higher-ups are aware of this problem and don’t seem to care, as long as our team’s output remains consistent.

    I could use advice for when someone is trying to manage a project without formal authority, and they really shouldn’t be. :)

  5. Beautiful Loser*

    I find this is where my soft skills really come into play as my project success depends on several resouces that I do not directly supervise. I run several projects concurrently with some overlapping and some different resources for each one.

    Alison is also spot regarding meetings and knowing the workstyles of your resources. I try to keep my meetings to 20-30 minutes tops. For weekly checkins with the client, I will let the resources know ahead of time who needs to attend and who can skip so they don’t need to sit on a call that is irrelevant to their piece.

    Respecting workstyles of your resources is extremely important, some benefit with a weekly touch base on progress and others prefer to be left alone and will let you know when the work is done. Once you build a good rapport with your project team, your life as a PM is way easier.

  6. Sym*

    I need a bullet point on what to do if the client is constantly changing their mind. I can move deadlines up to account for any changes, but until the teapot has left the building, the client can change their mind at any point. I can have their “final” approval on a teapot and then 10 minutes before it’s supposed to be on a truck they’ll say, “Oh, but change this one thing first.”

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      You have to be honest about how the change will delay the deadline and the costs. Don’t just bend over backwards to accommodate them. “We can make this change you requested, but it’s going to take X man hours, so the project will be delayed by 2 weeks, and the costs will rise by 5%” Or if it’s about to be on the truck, tell them it’s too late in the process to make those changes.

      If contracts aren’t written in a way to allow that, they need to be, assuming you have control over that.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yep — and let them know how it works at the very outset of the project too. (“We set deadlines based on X. If we make changes after deadlines past, Y is the result. We can do that, of course, but I want to make sure you know what the trade-offs are.”)

        1. Sym*

          The problem is that I’ve inherited a situation where these changes are just made because we’ve had the client for 15 years and we’ve always done it this way. Additionally, I don’t have the authority to decide to change how we’ve done things.

          1. AdAgencyChick*

            Who owns the client relationship? I’m guessing that’s not you and there’s an account executive at some high level who does. If you don’t have that person’s support, you the PM are certainly not going to make a client who has behaved in a certain way for 15 years with no repercussions, change their behavior.

            You can try to get that person on your side — especially if there’s a business case to be made for that (“the agency ate $200,000 in hours for this client last year because of last-minute changes that they wouldn’t pay for because they weren’t in the estimate”).

            If that person is not willing to raise the issue with the client, and you don’t have the authority to say “Client, if you want X, then [increased cost/delayed delivery/the already-done order has to be thrown out/all of the above] is the consequence,” then I think the best thing you can do for yourself (besides trying to work for another client, either at your current employer or somewhere else), is to reinforce the finality of deadlines earlier in the process, and *often*. Like, every time you have a status update with the client. “Okay, so Fergus’s approval is due this week. That puts us on track for our final drop-dead date of December 15.” Or “I’m concerned that if X isn’t done by Thursday, and Y has to be finalized on Friday, that we’re going to miss the boat.”

            It’s not going to stop a determined client from making changes at the last second, but it might help them be more aware of their actions and mayyyyybe do a little better?

    2. Cambridge Comma*

      Can you speed up the process of the teapot leaving the building? My teapot manuals go on the printer’s FTP server the second they are approved, and then, oh dear, it’s too late to make any changes.

      1. Sym*

        No, because it’s not an actual physical product, so changes can be made right up until it is unleashed on the world. The client knows when it will be released, so they know they technically can make changes until the last second. They just don’t realize that a.) each of us works on more than one client so we have other work to do and b.) every time we make a change, we have to go through multiple rounds of internal review which eats up time.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          “They just don’t realize that a.) each of us works on more than one client so we have other work to do and b.) every time we make a change, we have to go through multiple rounds of internal review which eats up time.”

          Story of my life. Sympathies.

      2. the gold digger*

        Sort of related. A college friend is the head chemist at a startup company. One of the investors wanted to know if they could make their product with less of Chemical X, one of the ingredients and apparently very expensive, per unit of product. My friend laughed and said if he could figure it out, they would see him in Stockholm next year.

        (Which is why basic science should be a required course for everyone.)

  7. NW Mossy*

    Along with being clear about roles, it’s also essential to be clear about deadlines and what the objectives are for each meeting and project stage. I recently had to request that a person be removed from the project team on an initiative of mine because he was the sole person with access to IT’s requirements and deadlines to be able to get developer time but consistently failed to communicate those to the team until it was too late. The final straw was a conversation that went like this:

    Mossy: I need you to be more proactive about telling me and the project team about IT’s deadlines. When you say we need to do something, you need to tell us when it has to be finished.
    Fergus: Ok, sure. […] Oh, and we need to do X for the project.
    Mossy: [pause] Aaaaand when is that due, Fergus?
    Fergus, showing no sign that he has forgotten feedback given to him less than 2 minutes previously: Uh, November.
    Mossy: November 1st or November 30th? It makes a difference.
    Fergus: Mid-November, I think.
    Mossy: Are you sure?
    Fergus: Yes.

    Later that day:

    Fergus: So, I talked to Lucinda and Wakeen and they said it needs to be done by next Friday. Sorry!

    Today I bumped into Fergus in the elevator and he’s asking about how the project is going. I told him it would be rolling out soon and he’s all “Oh, great! So glad that it’s moving forward!” It took every ounce of restraint I have to not respond “Yes, no thanks to you!”

  8. AnotherAlison*

    This is definitely a challenge I live. Compounding the issue is not having schedule control. The particular type of projects I lead tend to have evolving scopes, simply due to the nature of the project. Good luck trying to get a guy who lead the technical piece of something in April back in November to refresh it with the client’s new changes. He has moved on to new projects.

  9. azvlr*

    I need approvals from people senior to me and I need them by a certain date. I use indirect language when I make the request:
    In my email heading I say “Action Required” (just because I can’t require them to do it, doesn’t mean it’s not part of their job requirements.)
    In the body of my email I include phrasing similar to: “Based on the project timeline, the agreed turn-around time for your review and approval is 5 business days. Please respond by end of business on DAY, MM/DD/YY. Please use the language, “I approve” in your reply.

    I add additional context and the wording is slightly different/specific to my company, but phrasing my requests this way has been pretty solid for me.

    1. I'm Okay, It's Okay, Everything's fine.*

      This is great… I’m going to use this as inspiration to create templates for my approvals!

      1. azvlr*

        Yes, exactly. I use the same basic format for each request. That way it sounds like the request is coming from the proverbial “They”.
        I still need to customize for each request, but the whole thing goes much smoother with the standardized language.
        Also, this approach eliminates me having to go up my chain, over and back down theirs.

    2. Gaara*

      Depending on the approval, I can sometimes get away with saying something like: “I will do XYZ unless you tell me not to by Date/Time.” Basically, I’m going to assume you approve unless you say otherwise.

      1. azvlr*

        I have used that approach before as well, although in my current situation, I have to get a formal sign off on the product from them. It did feel weird at first telling someone higher than me what to do.

        1. PM Dude*

          One thing to keep in mind and this usually needs to be approached at the beginning of the project is the org structure of the project, that usually has the PM quite high at the top, usually only below sponsor or steering committee.
          What this means is that even if the company org chart they are higher rank, as far as the project goes they answer to you and you can require then to do things they agreed to be responsible for. Make sure the sponsor or steering committee have you back on it tough.
          That does not mean you get to railroad every senior person to you, still need to use diplomacy, but you should have a bigger stick to wield if needed.

  10. Murphy*

    This is my life. I constantly need things from people (professors) and I have no authority over them whatsoever. So if 5 people say they’ll do something for me, and when the deadline has come and past with only 3 people doing it, I am SOL. I am clear with expectations, I send reminders, I do my best to make it as simple for them as possible and not only do people often not meet deadlines, they don’t let me know that they won’t meet deadlines, don’t apologize when asked about it, or sometimes don’t even respond.

    Recently 18 people needed to do something (that people in this position do twice a year, so they expected it) and the day after the deadline, only 10 people had done it.

    1. Witty Nickname*

      When you know this is a consistent issue, you can adjust the deadlines you communicate to them to accommodate it. If you need all of the info back by x, then you tell them you need it back by x-5 days. That gives you time to chase down anyone who hasn’t responded without missing your deadline.

      1. Murphy*

        I definitely do this as much as I’m able to, but I’m not always in charge of deadlines. (Either a superior or, more often, an outside agency.)

    2. Kate*

      As someone on the other side of this (asst professor), this was a huge adjustment for me when I moved to academia – I was used to meeting deadlines and having others around me meet them. But the truth is there are not enough hours in the week for what we are asked to do, at least at my institution (I’m in a soft money research institution). So things get unfortunately prioritized…I do try to let people know if something is going to be late as that is common courtesy, and I have a great program coordinator who tries to make sure things don’t fall through, but occasionally I just blank on a task, especially if it’s not in a high priority category or if I’m travelling/swamped. It sucks, and I am constantly trying new task management systems.

  11. TP*

    What about when the issue is quality of the work? I have a couple of people who help out on projects I manage and I find that I only get two rounds of “real effort.” What often happens is I’ll send suggestions and edits, they make them, but if I have more edits, eyes start rolling and I start getting the “feel free to do it yourself” pushback because to them it’s already good enough as is. I don’t oversee these people so I don’t know how far I can push it, but good enough is not good enough for me. It may be a difference in style, age, and attitude, who knows, but it’s very frustrating nonetheless!

    1. DoDah*

      So I live this. My boss is constantly putting us in rev-cycle black holes. We’ll do 13 revisions on 300 words and the edits, feedback, notes, etc. all contradict itself. Trust me when I say “good enough for him–is not good.”

      My department just had a meeting on how to better “manage” him.

      1. TP*

        I agree there comes a point when too many revisions are unnecessary. But for example, someone created a landing page on the website and used a completely random picture that had nothing to do with the content so I asked the person to change it. The answer I got was “feel free to switch it out, I don’t have any better ideas.” In another instance I asked the same request of a different person and she gave me hardship about how difficult images are hard to find so I went ahead and took care of it myself (which took all of five minutes, btw).

  12. an anon is an anon*

    I wish one of the Senior PMs on my team would heed all of this, especially #4. We have a team lead, but this Sr. PM is gunning for a management position and likes to mentor all PMs even though none of us want it. He’s also the type who doesn’t want to let go of the projects he assigns so instead of doing his job in assigning a project he does half of my work before he gives it to me (including writing emails to other people and telling me to send them instead of letting me write my own emails). It’s maddening, but even worse is #4 because my Team Lead has told all the Sr PMs that I’m one of a few PMs who don’t need handholding or micro-managing and to let me do my thing, but this Sr PM likes to look over my shoulder for everything because he apparently doesn’t trust anyone to do projects correctly but himself. Also he likes to refer to me as “my PM” and act like he’s in charge of my development when my Team Lead is (and maybe it’s a small thing, but being called “My PM” makes me really uncomfortable).

    It’s to the point where I don’t even want to work on his projects because it just puts me in a foul mood. Team Lead knows the problem and addresses it with Sr PM who is good about it for a month and then reverts to his old ways. It’s miserable and makes me dread going to work.

  13. SL #2*

    I have no real substantive comment to make here, only that the stock photo in the article is incredible and I can’t believe that exists.

  14. LSP*

    My title is Project Manager, and one of my project leads is always saying she wants to get out of the day-to-day management of our project. The problem is, she has real trouble letting me run meetings, assign tasks, etc. This has been an issue for over a year. Because she’s my manager, I felt awkward pushing her out of the way for the room to lead, and she just wasn’t giving me the space to do so. We finally had a really good talk about it during my annual review, and I think (hope) that we are finally getting to a point where she will give me the room to lead.

  15. Mike C.*

    Man, I have to say I’m really not really digging the People Styles link for item four. I don’t understand why someone who is a data oriented person cannot be expressive or overly emotional – I’m certainly the type who will gobble up tons and tons of data and then have no problem drawing a conclusion and using that to advocate or drive further action.

    In my mind the two go hand in hand. Data analysis alone is like doing math problems or etudes – it’s just practice. Action/responsiveness alone is just shooting from the hip. Am I taking these definitions too literally? They feel like stereotypes more than anything else.

      1. Mike C.*

        Oh, thanks for that clarification. I figured that since they were inline that they were ones you had added to reinforce your point but they didn’t do a very good job of it. I did find the rest of it useful though. :)

  16. New to Miltown*

    This is good timing! I get direction from my boss, but have a hard time pushing any plan because I’m not part of certain depts or teams.

  17. Dolorous Bread*

    This is perfect for me. I essentially project manage a team that has the same project every month. They get deadlines a year in advance. There are meetings across all departments about deliverables at all stages. This is their job, they know the deal (magazine publishing, FWIW).

    And yet, every month is like a surprise. Closes are late almost all the time because they put things off to the last minute, or it bumps around in editing for too long, or people are out of the office, etc. Every month you’d think they’d never done this before, but it’s literally their entire job. I’m not their direct manager, I just manage this part of the machine. Deadlines are ALWAYS blown. It seems like there’s no way for me to fix this beyond nagging them, because they do know their jobs.
    I frame everything as checking in, did you get the info you needed for X, is Y on track to go to Z today, what time can A get to B, is anything holding you up with C, can we find a workaround, etc. If I don’t get dodgy responses like “i’m working on it”, I’m given a time frame that just gets blown to pieces anyway, and any sense of urgency doesn’t sit in until it’s the last minute. Then they complain that they have to stay late when it’s crunch time. I feel like I have children and don’t know what else I can do, they’re all adults.

  18. RD*

    Great timing. I have a project due next week. My team rarely has projects at all. Our performance goals are all really individual. Because of we aren’t producing a physical product, the goals and tasks aren’t well defined. We are to evaluate our teapot making process, identify the problems, come up with solutions and present them to management. There is no actual team lead or project owner, so one one has really set out specific tasks and I’m concerned we will hit our deadline without a finished product, and only a bunch of ideas that have been bounced around.

    The last team project still isn’t complete. We’ve missed multiple deadlines because everyone else has put it on the back burner and I simply can’t do it all by myself. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Some of those deadlines were missed because no one really understood how big the project was until we were already in it, but this recent deadline (yesterday) could have been hit if even one other teammate had pulled their own weight. So frustrating.

  19. JessaB*

    I loathe with a hot passion the idea that it’s okay to make someone a lead and give them no real authority. It’s a recipe for disaster and it stinks. I really wish businesses would quit doing that.

  20. Susan*

    I’m not a project manager usually, but last month I was essentially made into one on a big project because someone else was midhandling it and they were like “well so and so has some bandwidth to manage this.” It was exactly like this — I didn’t have the authority over the people I needed to be getting work from. Even worse, I couldn’t tell if the original person who was handling the project told these people he was expecting work from them, and now I was getting pushed to push them for deadlines I don’t think they even knew about. I nearly quit over it, because I’m an introvert, and I’m not saying introverts can’t be leaders, but this isn’t the job I signed up for at all. I’ve read a bit since then about project management and realize I didn’t do a lot wrong; I just took over a mismanaged ship. I also talked to my boss about it and he intervened saying I couldn’t do it all by myself, and after that things went much more smoothly. But I really appreciate articles like this because when you aren’t able to make things happen it’s hard to know when it’s your fault and when it’s the situation’s fault.

  21. Former Computer Professional*

    When my now-former boss (“Frank”) was looking for ways to get rid of me, he put me on a project with someone (“Amy”) from another group. Unfortunately, Frank and Amy’s boss (“George”), who were at the same level, hated each other.

    The project was already underway and was owned by George’s department, who already had the designs mapped out. George welcomed me and saw my role as determining usability, and suggesting changes when and where possible.

    At least twice a week, Frank was in my office telling me that I had to go to Amy and demand certain major changes, some of which would undo weeks (or more) of Amy’s work, and many of which even I recognized as not necessary. Each time I’d have to go to her (with nausea) and ask for these changes, and each time get told “No.” These change requests would filter up to George, who would be livid.

    Eventually there was a meeting between the four of us. Frank kept saying, “FCP needs to be in charge of telling Amy how [X] is made” and George kept replying, “I am Amy’s boss. Not you. Not FCP. This is our project.”

    When review time came around, my review said I was incapable of managing others and projects and “didn’t work well with others” [among other similar crap], despite my (pre-disability) success at leading other projects and teams.

    Managing people without formal authority is bad enough. Managing people when everyone isn’t on the same page is completely impossible.

Comments are closed.