Stay in Your Lane

There are Boundaries Project Managers Should Never Cross


By Derrick A. Richardson, PMP



As a project manager, it's tempting to want to solve every problem in front of you. But that's not realistic—and often detrimental in an environment where roles are clearly defined. Overstepping job responsibilities can erode the effectiveness of the team and damage the sponsor organization. In general, there are three responsibilities project managers should leave to others:


Giving in to the impulse to provide technical expertise opens the door to overextending and even abusing the project manager, and sets a dangerous precedent. The ability to orchestrate the team's efforts, see the bigger picture and keep the project on track can become compromised if the project manager's bandwidth is redirected to provide technical contributions. Crossing this line can also alienate the team's technical experts and quickly tarnish the credibility and reputation of the project manager.

I was once asked to use project management techniques to accelerate the development of a novel product designed with an exotic material. As an experienced mechanical engineer, I quickly realized the root causes behind the poorly functioning early-stage prototypes. While I was tempted to roll up my sleeves and reengineer the product, that would have meant second-guessing project team members and creating confusion about our roles and responsibilities. Instead, I shared my observations with the project sponsor and worked with the team to identify and document the risks along with plans to manage them. I asked the team probing questions and facilitated discussions focused on developing alternative designs.


Organizations that are poorly managed or lack clear and aligned strategies sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that project management can magically compensate for these problems. But a project manager who attempts to unilaterally set organizational strategy only encourages and amplifies the problems caused by lack of strategic direction.

Sometimes allowing a project to falter or fail from lack of strategy is a way to apply constructive pressure to decision makers by shining a light on these deficiencies. This should not be conflated with poor project management but recognized as holding the sponsoring organization accountable.

One project I managed struggled when it became clear that an expanded scope, taking the organization in a new strategic direction, would be necessary for the project to succeed. However, management would neither commit to the new scope nor make a clear decision to cancel the project. Team members became impatient and wanted to move the project forward with an assumption about the overarching strategy. Knowing that assuming a strategic direction on our own would not have helped the organization, I instead guided the team to analyze and present project-level scenarios based on varying strategic choices, along with a recommended approach. My responsibility was to identify gaps in project strategy, define the impact of those gaps and suggest solutions. This is distinctly different than actually setting the higher-level strategy to inform project scope.


Project managers in matrix organizations are typically responsible for delivery of the project without formal authority over the team members supplied by functional managers. That can create a sticky situation for the project manager when a team member's deficient skills or poor motivation hinders progress.

When I encounter problematic team members, I first talk with them to understand their perspective, then surface the root causes for underperformance and identify solutions. If the problems persist, I initiate a discussion with the person's manager—after letting the team member know I am going to do so.

It's important to limit communication of performance issues to observed behaviors and specific impact to the project. Giving additional feedback when asked by their manager is fine. However, removing or replacing a project resource is the responsibility of a functional manager. Giving that manager advice about their employee's suitability for their functional role or general fit with the company is off-limits territory for project managers.

For certain, there are limited situations when project managers need to be a player-coach. Smaller organizations, outfits struggling with functional clarity and groups experimenting with project management all might need a project manager who straddles roles to drive results. But this is the exception to the rule. High-performing project managers understand the value of being able to identify and understand problems beyond the scope of the project but also understand the limits of their influence. PM

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img Derrick A. Richardson, PMP, is the CEO of Richardson Consulting LLC in Union City, California, USA.



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