Managing a Project When You Don’t have Formal Authority Over Your Team

Dec 1, 2016
7 Min Read
Managing a Project When You Don’t have Formal Authority Over Your Team

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.

Check out our infographic on running effective meetings.

3. If you don’t have formal authority over the people staffed on your projects, be especially thoughtful about how you 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).

Read our post about People Styles at Work to boost your team's productivity.

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?”

For some great tips on managing projects when you're not a professional PM, check out Managing Projects: The Essential Guide for Non-PMs.

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