How to Push a Project Forward When You Don’t Have Formal Authority

Sisyphus metaphor man rolling huge rock ball up hill

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 are asking 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.”

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  • klesuo

    Great post! I am now in a role where I facilitate teams to accomplish goals. I help them meet targets but I am not their supervisor and the goals are not their mission related tasks so this article is spot on for me. The tips I most need to incorporate into my style is giving context, observing how others prefer to work, and checking in.