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How Can I Have Responsibility Without Authority?

~ By Mark Reed

A team of people working together in a computer lab

By far, the question I am most often asked during "Project Management…by the Numbers" has always been, "How can I get my project team to actually accomplish their tasks on time, if even at all?"

After a short discussion, the question translates to, "I don't have the authority to delegate, but I am responsible for their work, both the quality and the timeliness."

Most of the time our project team is assigned to us from top management without a say in the matter. These groups of senior managers who are responsible for the division of work within their departments identify personnel for your project based on functional skills and availability.

On paper, the staff planning looks great to them and you are then assigned the project and the team. Unfortunately, more often than not, the best laid plans by the managers who assign our teams head due south (fast!) as reality evolves.

  • Priorities change and people miss work (for a variety of reasons)
  • Resources are reassigned
  • The team member's day job becomes more important
  • …etc., etc., etc.

The way project teams are assigned to us is a fact of project management life that we must accept, but must we accept the actual team members provided.

Yes we do, certainly on the get-go, but as we gain experience with the person and have some lessons learned from previous projects, we will have facts to negotiate with our project customer regarding time cost and objectives.

Who the team members actually are, their competence, availability and even desire to participate must be evaluated by you the project manager, as you will be held responsible and accountable for all the work.

You see, delegation only works if you have something to take away for disobedience; in other words, the ability to dismiss the team member or affect their monetary remuneration, and non-dedicated project managers do not have that authority. So what do you do?

  1. First and foremost, you must spend time with the team member. Not on email, but in person or at least on the telephone. By doing this simple work you will begin building a personal relationship. Your goal is to allow the team member to make the decision to do and take responsibility for their tasks.
  2. You should actively ask for and listen to the team member's feedback on their assigned tasks. Honestly, if they say they do not have time to accomplish the task, they won't, no matter how hard you try to ignore it.
  3. Make the team member feel they are a part of the project and project team. Follow-through and make sure the project's objectives are clear to the team member as well as the objectives to their tasks.
  4. Keep the team member informed of the effect that their task has to the project. If the task is on the critical path, then the non-completion of that task will affect other team members and tasks.

Nevertheless, probably the most important step in the project management process is not to agree to the time, cost and objectives until you have buy-in from your project team that the work is accomplishable within the TCO constraints given to you.

If you accept the responsibility and accountability of delivering the project without evaluating, consulting and building the relationships with your team members, your chance of success is minute.

If you gain buy-in and agreement from each team member (and listen to them as their situations change), you are building the foundation of any good team, trust and dedication.

In turn, the only authority you will need is the fact that the person is completing the task for the sake of the relationship you have built with them, one-on-one, and that makes for one great project manager.


Project management expert and Executive Consultant, Mark Reed, has brought his unique "Project Management…by the Numbers" to companies in 45 countries. Mark Reed's "…by the Numbers" programme is a fast-pasted, value-rich seminar that has satisfied customers worldwide. For a free newsletter with project management tips or more information, visit by the Numbers, email mark.reed@bythenumbers.com or contact their headquarters on 206-251-9910.


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