How to Manage a Project Where Roles Aren’t Clear

May 5, 2015
6 Min Read

When you’re managing a project that involves multiple people, part of your success will depend on whether you assign clear roles to each person involved.

Ever managed or worked on a project where it wasn’t clear who should be playing what role, some pieces of the work didn’t get done, and the project languished because no one was explicitly charged with driving the project onward? (If you’ve ever been involved with any project with multiple people, the answer is probably yes.)

One absolute fundamental to successfully managing projects is to set up clear roles from the start, so that everyone involved knows who is responsible for what.

It’s particularly helpful if your project team has a shared vocabulary to talk about the roles people will play.

There are different models you can use to do this, but one good one is the “MOCHA” model from The Management Center (so named, they say, because if you do this right your job will become easier and you can sit in a café drinking mochas all day):


Manager: Manager assigns responsibility and holds owner accountable. Makes suggestions, asks hard questions, reviews progress, serves as a resource, and intervenes if things are off-track.

Owner: Owner has overall responsibility for the success or failure of the project. Ensures that all the work gets done (directly or via helpers) and that others are involved appropriately.  (Note: there should only be one owner!)

Consulted: Consulted should be asked for input and/or needs to be brought in.

Helper: Helpers(s) are available to help do part of the work.

Approver: Approver signs off on decisions before they’re final. May be the Owner or Manager, although might be others in the organization (for example, in high-profile projects, your VP or CEO).

Note that in this model, O is the most important role, because that gives you a clear owner who is responsible for the success or failure of the project. And since the owner has final responsibility for the success of the project, it’s crucial that you only have one owner. (Otherwise you’ll find that the overall responsibility gets diffused and people get unclear about their roles again.)

Also note that the manager and owner of a project should be two different people, since the manager’s role is to ask hard questions and hold the owner accountable.

So for example, let’s say that you’re in charge of overseeing a proposal process. You’d be the “O” (owner) and in charge of making the work happen. Your own manager might be the “M” (manager) because she’s managing your work on the project. Other team leaders should be consulted (“C”), and your writer, editor, and research assistant are the “H’s” (helpers). Your manager and the VP of Sales might be the “A’s” because they’ll approve the final proposal.

Manager Owner Consulted Helper(s) Approver
Jane Marco All relevant team leaders: Dave, Maria, Jen Sarah (writing), Paul (editing), Ana (research) Jane (first), Kate (final)

Using a shared vocabulary like this makes it easier to assign responsibilities, because everyone is clear on what roles they and others are playing. Once everyone on your team is using the same vocabulary to talk about roles, you can say things like, “Could you own getting all the content for this together?” or “While Jane is the A and will make the final decision, I’d love your input on this and would like to use you as a C.”

Try this model the next time you’re managing a project where multiple people are involved and see how it goes!

Seen a project collapse because there were no clear roles assigned? Share your stories in the comments…

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