The Responsible Authority Gorilla

The project meeting was moving forward very well. We were tracking on everything and it looked like we’d actually have the release out on time, and with everything we wanted in it. We had just gotten to the issues with the flux capacitor redesign work and I asked Paul, the engineer, when he would be able to give an updated report on completion.
Paul shifted in his seat, stealing a glance at Jake but said nothing. Jake, the development manager,  leaned forward and spoke, “I’m taking Paul off this project, I need him to rebuild the prototype simulator. It’s running 10% slow and I don’t like that.”
I did my best to keep my mouth from gaping open. Without the flux capacitor redesigns, this maintenance release would be all but pointless. Nodding my head I said, “all right, then let’s look at the next item on the agenda‚Ķ”
After the meeting I slipped back to my cube, looking forward to ensconcing myself behind the safety of my monitor. The fury black form reclined on my desk told me I wasn’t going to get that opportunity.
“May as well cancel that maintenance release, huh?” Hogarth said, casually peeling a banana.
I shrugged, “Not my call, I just track the projects. I don’t have the authority to change resources.” I shoved aside Hogarth’s feet and flopped into my chair. “Jake thinks work on the simulator is more important, Paul works for him.”
“I didn’t think the simulator was even gonna be used until next year.”
Resisting the urge to complain about Hogarth’s banana breath I gave another shrug. “It’s not, but I have no authority to change things.”
“So what? That doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility!”
The Authority vs. Responsibility Gorilla. I think we are all familiar with the lack of authority gorilla . I’ve yet to meet a project manager who never had to run a project in which he had little or no real authority.  But how many of us think about, the responsibility gorilla?
Authority- Dictionary.com defines authority as
The power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.
“The Power”
I get all tingly when I read that. Reminds me of the 1980’s cartoon, He-Man, and his magical transformation (work safe video) from medieval geek to super hero. There is a small problem with this. At least in Silicon Valley high tech power is practically a fundamental myth. Mark Horstman, of Manager Tools, maintains there are three kinds of workplace power. Role Power, Expertise Power and Relationship Power. Role power is the power a boss has, the power to hire and fire, to make decisions that will affect everything in his organization.
Role power in the 21st century is a myth. Anyone who tries to operate exclusively on role power will ultimately fail. Without a healthy measure of expertise and, especially, relationship power that manager is headed for a short career.
Still the concept of authority does exist and all to often a project manager has limited or no authority on their projects. So what do we do? Do we throw up our hands in despair and give up?
Like bloody hell we don’t.
We are project management professionals.
What does this mean? Great question! A web search for the definition of “project manger” returns back thousands of answers. Some of these answers are contradictory to one another, but there is one theme that pops up over and over.
“The person responsible for the project”
Responsible. The word makes me feel all grown up and mature, but it is the key to this concept. In fact, let’s take the grown up analogy a little further. When Tommy gets suspended from school, for throwing spit wads, his reaction is “But the other guys were doing it!” And if you grew up in the United States you are probably familiar with the stereotypical parental answer, “And if all the other boys jumped off a cliff, would you?”
PMI members reading this should be familiar with the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. This code is mandatory for all PMPs and I personally think is part of what can set apart a PMP from other structured project management certifications. If you look with in the code you will see two key points.
1.1 Vision and Purpose
As practitioners of project management, we are committed to doing what is right and honorable. We set high standards for ourselves and we aspire to meet these standards in all aspects of our lives
2.1 Description of Responsibility
Responsibility is our duty to take ownership for the decisions we make or fail to make, the actions we take or fail to take, and the consequences that result.
There it is again, responsibility. And the big kicker in all that “and the consequences that result.” If we don’t take responsibility then we have to be prepared for the consequences.
This is where the professional part comes in. As professionals we are under an obligation to be responsible.
Quick and Dirty Example:
In the United States, citizens have the right to vote. It is not a requirement but a civic right. And with this has become an often repeated concept. “If you don’t like how the country is being run, then vote. If you don’t vote, then be quit complaining.”
A real world example:
One of my project management jobs was in a global support organization. The job had two key components; ensure the support organization was ready for each software release, and feedback into future projects support’s experiences from supporting previous releases. This later responsibility was a constant challenge. We ran into roadblocks, barriers and just plain confusion. Some projects didn’t have a way to roll in lessons learned, others didn’t want any outside input, and so on. It made for many a long and stressful day.
So what did the support planning group do? We decided to be the most professional and helpful group humanly possible. We made sure our house was in order. We made our processes transparent, we published our templates, we communicated constantly in all directions and we adopted one of the most powerful tools in communication.
We stopped saying “no” and we started “yes, and”. It’s a trick I first learned in improvisational theater and one that made perfect sense when my boss suggested it. We no longer said “No, you can’t ship this it’s not stable” and instead said “Yes, you can ship and here is what we expect the call volume will be and how much those calls will cost.”
These two changes, openness and “Yes, and” made a dramatic change. In a few short months we had addressed more critical support issues than we had in years of prior work. And the more fascinating thing we saw, was how other groups started to change their own processes and procedures. It’s a bit thrilling when you see another department using a document that is clearly based on a template you designed.
We didn’t have real authority. We couldn’t change the products being built, we didn’t have the power of the purse that sales can wield so well. But we did know we were responsible for support being able to do its job and we took that responsibility to heart, being the best and most professional we could.
Conclusion:
No matter what our authority level, project managers can never surrender their responsibility. It is our job to help a project from point A to point B. We may be the CEO anointed leader, fully empowered to hire and fire at will, or we may have little more authority than updating the Gantt chart. In either case though, we have the power of influence, the power of experience and the responsibility to, at the very least, be the most professional and helpful person we can be.
We are the glue.
Joel BC
Veteran, the Project Manager wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
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