Who Has the Authority?

Everyone asked Marjorie how many books to order for the school book sale. She gave them the go ahead to order 500. Janet, the head of the PTA and project leader, was a bit taken aback, explaining that the PTA's budget would never afford them more than 250 books. The problem was that everyone involved was under the mistaken assumption that Marjorie had the authority to okay the number of books to be purchased. She didn't.

It is very important that everyone involved in a project understands who has authority to make decisions and who doesn't. It's also important that those with authority document their decisions for discussion and future reference. People who are put in positions of authority need to know how far that authority extends. Being the person in charge of ordering the books does not automatically mean you have the authority to order the computer software as well.

Set the Parameters

Carefully clarify each person's authority — both for the individual and the group. For example, you may allow your brother to order all the wood for the tool shed you're about to build, but only up to $400. Any spending beyond that, he'll need to discuss with you. If everyone knows who has authority from the start, then people will know whom to turn to when they need something done — they will also know who is making (or approving) decisions that are not within their responsibilities. If everyone knows (or can find out) the parameters, there are fewer opportunities for misinterpreted authority.

Sometimes there are layers of authority. For example, only two people in an association may be authorized to sign checks, the president and the treasurer. However, they may not be the people to authorize the purchase of a new basketball hoop. The sports coordinator may need to give the okay and then talk to the treasurer for funding. Everyone needs to know the chain of command in an organization, group, or company so that they go to the right person to get approval for their needs.

Delegate Responsibly

As project manager, you need to know when to delegate authority. You delegate authority to relieve yourself of some of the workload and responsibilities. However, you only want to delegate responsibilities and authority to people who won't abuse it, who are responsible and can handle the decision-making process, and who have a clear idea of where the project is going and how to get there.

A checks-and-balances system will often let you know how well people in a position of authority are doing. You might distribute a random, anonymous questionnaire to team members asking them to assess how working with various people has been: good, fair, or poor. If someone in a position of authority is receiving a number of complaints, then you need to address the issues with this person. Likewise, if someone in authority is receiving great praise, you need to compliment him or her.

Let the person in any leadership or authority position know that he or she may be monitored. Sales representatives working on phone sales calls often inform you that the conversation may be taped for review purposes. This ensures that even though they have been given a position of authority to make sales, they cannot abuse that position by offering you something beyond that which they are selling, making a subsequent deal, or abusing their position in any other manner.

Anyone who is in a position of authority must maintain that authority only for the good of the project and not for personal gain. Potential abuse of authority and power calls for parameters to be put in place for everyone in authority roles. Set up those parameters and let your team know that abuse of power will result in some manner of “big trouble.”

Keep in mind that as project leader, although you can delegate authority, you are still responsible for the work getting done and for the people to whom you have given authority. This means you may have to intercede or get involved in some manner to make sure something gets done. While you don't want to embarrass anyone, there may be situations in which you have to overrule someone else's decisions. Explain why, and that it is not personal, but a matter of doing what is best for the project.

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