Friday, 6 May 2011

Responsibility in projects - what it's all about

A project manager is the person that has the responsibility to complete the defined project within the time, budget and resources allocated. Sounds straightforward doesn't it? But we know differently. Andy says the best project manager he ever worked with used to say he was the man who had to say 'no' in the morning when the creative boss came in with new ideas. Many projects (not that one) are poorly defined or even undefined which makes the job well nigh impossible. Often the project manager has to do lots of ground work to contain the area of responsibility by defining the boundaries. We all know about project 'creep' if the boundaries aren't established, and 'creep' spells the downfall of the project – be warned.

How about the people who cause the 'creep'? How do we control them? Can we? It is people who change the boundaries that cause project creep so once the project has been defined it is the people who need to be managed. Not easy. Jamie Flinchbaugh, in his blog 30th April 2011, 10 Management Traps - and How to Avoid Them, puts it nicely when he says, “It is as important to design people out of the process as designing people in to the process.” That's experience talking.

People push boundaries. They will be vocal especially if they are managers in their own right. But expertise in fields often drives people to think they have the right to push the boundaries too. And we know that the mix of expertise in digital projects is greater than many other forms of project. It is this mix of other managers used to having their way, and experts, who believe their greater knowledge in one area gives them the right to be heard and influence the outcome of the project, that contribute to the difficulties of digital project management.

The right to be heard is essential for all. The right to influence the outcome of the project lies in fewer hands - those with the authority to negotiate changes to the project boundaries with the consequences on the time, budget and resources. This is where using a RACI chart in your project can really help. Remember RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. It's a chart that maps the amount of influence any person involved in the project has and determines who you need to listen to and act on the instructions. If you need a refresher on the RACI chart process, look back through our blog and/or see: The Project Notebook 22nd May 2009, Expectations, RACI and Raci-VS.

There may well be very vocal people who don't have the necessary authority to command the influence they want. They may use sheer force of personality - a common approach. But you can have a measure of control if you show that it isn't you they need to influence but X, Y and Z people in their organization who have the authority to make changes to the project and accept the resulting impact on time, cost and quality. This can throw the responsibility back to others and away from you unless the pressure is coming from your own organization! Then the same applies but you will need to handle it and possibly decide whether you take up the baton and ask for changes yourself based on the input. However, this will keep the communication flowing better around and through the people in the project while giving you some protection.

Some project managers have found the definition of Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed confusing. Alternatives have been used instead and may suit you better. Define your own if from your experience the traditional RACI indicators have not worked for you. The principle is good – which people have the power and authority to make changes – usually the sign-off people you've identified as part of the defining process, and which people should be kept informed for different purposes. Some examples of alternative definitions can be seen at the Wikipedia entry.

It's a difficult part of project management but one that can work for you particularly if you have had difficulties with people butting in where they shouldn't. You are not alone in that, we can assure you.