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Ramesh Sreedhar: The Authority and Accountability Structure

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Responsibility and Accountability sure sound familiar…. but Authority is a keyword that refuses to get registered with anybody …. Well… not all of them, which delegate their work downstream. This is one of the most important factors that get comfortably forgotten during the saga of Initiation and Planning. All the other “ities” that is heard and discussed is Responsibility, Accountability and flexibility.

I remember reading a line in one my text books sometime during my academic career that said “Authority and Responsibility goes hand in hand”. I can hear some voices that just said “Oh yes… that’s right”. Ironically, the PMs that fret and get frustrated for lack of Authority themselves do not delegate authority appropriately. Yes, Micromanagement and lack of trust is one reason. Delegation of required Authority to shoulder the necessary responsibility is a very important aspect to be considered to build a High Performance Project Team.

And yes, other things that you consistently hear down the hallway are about the 2-Corners out of the 4-Corners of a Project, namely Budget and Time. The other 2-Corners namely the Measurable End Result and Risk is obviously of no interest. But that is a different animal altogether and is out of scope for this article. Sorry for this scope creep.

At the outset, a Project Manager is accountable for

  • Comprehensive Project Management Plan involving

    • Scope

    • Change Control

    • Cost Budgeting

    • Risk Identification and Mitigation

    • Monitor and Control

    • Close

  • Successful delivery of the project

    • Confirms to the Scope… Yes Of course, the scope creeps too.

    • On time that was carved on stone

    • Within the budget also carved on stone

And he/she is also expected to do the following:

  • Team Building and Motivation

    • With not enough authority to Reward and Penalize

    • Of a Team that lacks direction most of the time, if all they are given is a to-do list (refer my earlier article on this).

  • Negotiations that tend to flow one-way usually against the PM. This one is like fighting your enemy that is sitting comfortably on top of a mountain. Conversational skills or the political mileage certainly would help out here.

  • Performance, Progress and Status

    • Depends on the kind of authority the PM manages to secure. See below.

    • Depends on how tall (skillfully) the PM is because the higher the reach in the Organizational Tree Structure, the better.

Ideal Scenario:

  • Cross-Functional Resources report to the PM as in a “Projectized Environment” thereby securing a “Direct Assignment” authority on the entire Project Team.

  • The PM has the performance oriented tangible rewarding and penalizing authority.

  • Having a say in the performance appraisal of a cross-functional resources is an icing on the cake.

  • Access to all the necessary resources as and when needed.

  • Last but not the least the PM has authority to reject a scope creep.

It certainly sounds good. Doesn’t it? Sounds like a movie script with Bruce Willis as the lead. Well, we don’t live in that perfect world. This kind of a comfortable cushion does not exist in any PMs Seat. The reason for this situation is also partly either because of the absence of the Accountability and Authority structure document that clearly draws the line of control or the document that exists is a cut-and-paste from another project. Rarely does the cut-and-paste works in this case, because the Authority structure depends upon the size and nature of the specific project being dealt with. It depends on the Organizational Type and Structure, Contracts, Cross-functional nature, Team size and Budget.

The Authority and Accountability structure document is part of the Project Management Plan. This will be reviewed and accepted “hopefully” by the Sponsor and the Cross-Functional Managers that lend their resources. The PM needs to clearly identify and try to acquire the highest level of authority as possible on each of the resource or a team of resources. It will never be a blanket authority scenario as in a Projectized Environment but will be based on factors like the position held by the resource in the Organizational Hierarchy, Criticality of the resource for the division they work for, Criticality of the work the resource is involved in and PMs strategic hold with the key Stakeholders of the project and the Cross-Functional manager’s willingness to lend what they consider their crème da la crème resource. In all probability, there will be the need for a compromise for a lot of political reasons.

In a Projectized Environment, this does not pose a problem as the PM will be heading a functional division that concerns the project itself. All the resources part of that project will be reporting to the PM directly. There is absolute control over work assignment, reward, penalty and performance appraisals.

The various authority structures in the order of control are:

  • Direct Assignment – “I own this bus and I pay the driver

In this case, the PM has authority over the work-assignment, performance monitoring, appraisal, rewarding and penalizing. This kind of authority works best because the team member will be accountable and responsible for their contribution towards the project end-result. This arrangement gives absolute control for the PM towards the progress and completion of assigned work. The PM will have say in the performance appraisal of the team member thereby be able to send the right message across to the Team.

  • Approved Assignment – “I own this bus and the driver works part-time

In this case, the PM will get commitments on the availability of the cross-functional resources on a daily or weekly basis. It is as good as the resources working part-time on the project. It is only that here the PM will have absolute control over the work assignment and performance monitoring during and for the committed hours. This is another authority level that the PM can be satisfied with since the resource will be accountable for their work on the project. PM’s comments will contribute towards the performance appraisal of the team member.

  • Indirect Assignment – “I own this bus and my colleague pays the driver

In this case, the PM needs to assign work via the cross-functional team member’s boss. There is a need to use an authority link to hold the team member accountable. The risk here is that the cross-functional Team Member will not probably give as much importance to the project as he/she will feel more accountable for their primary job under their boss in their functional area, which is what primarily counts towards their appraisal. This authority level does not give absolute control for the PM on the resources. Issues that arise out of non-performance will need to be reported to the team member’s boss. There is no guarantee that the PM’s comments would contribute to the member’s performance appraisal.

It is better to try and settle for this authority level, in huge complex cross-functional projects, in cases where Direct Assignment is impossible.

  • Assumed Assignment – “I own this bus and my competitor pays the driver

This authority level has been named (by me) so because it is mostly driven by assumptions that the work would at least get done… forget about “On time”.

You might not want to be at any other authority level other than one of the above three as it is equal to having none. In this worst case, the work assignment will be more of a request and make the PM look like a petitioner as there would be no accountability and responsibility whatsoever on the part of the member to work on the assigned achievement. The fate of the project will be in jeopardy. This will lead to a lot of crisis situations that most PMs experience. There will be no way of tracking Project Progress and the poor PM will still be accountable for the Project Deliverable and by now would shy away from a mirror since all they would see is a Goat ready to be sacrificed.

In contractual engagements, it is always good to have an Indirect Assignment Authority that includes Rewarding and Penalizing. The Reward and Penalizing factor can result in getting optimum performance in these engagements. Also that it becomes very difficult and un-manageable when we have to deal with the Direct Assignment authority in contractual engagements due to numerous hierarchical levels that the work assignment can span into.

In a nutshell, PMs that run a project without the appropriate Authority, is like a driver driving a bus with the hands tied together with very feet long rope. The level of authority is directly proportional to the length of the rope that holds the hands together.

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