I have found myself using this article’s title quote frequently over the past few weeks when speaking with project managers.
Unless they have the luck of working within a projectized or strong matrix organization (and believe me, the grass is not always greener with those organization structures!), project managers very rarely have formal authority over resources or key project decisions. This is one of the reasons why competency in soft skills is the most important attribute of a project manager – it’s hard to be a dictator when you don’t wield absolute power.
What this should not imply is that project managers don’t have the ability to act. The excuse I have heard many times over my career when reviewing troubled projects (or counseling troubled project managers) is “I didn’t think I could do that”. This lack of initiative due to insecurity about the informal authority a project manager has can lead to delays in issue solving, decision making or conflict resolution which could also impact project timelines and scope delivery.
This cardinal sin of project managers acting as if they wear invisible handcuffs contributes to the concern raised by those who feel that project management adds overhead without adding value.
Now this is not to say that a project manager should be a bull in a china shop and blindly ignore policies or well-established power boundaries, but in the same way as every employee is trained to pull the fire alarm lever if they see a fire (and not wait for their manager to do it), effective organizations and management teams will trust their staff to act if there is a clear danger in not doing so.
A project manager can always ask their team or a mentor, “What’s the worst that could happen if I make this decision?”.
As long as their actions are in the best interests of the project, the customer and their organization and they do not violate organization or ethical boundaries or policies, the project manager will have demonstrated the type of behavior that is critical to keeping projects moving in fast paced, resource-strapped organizations and is more likely to be praised than punished for their initiative.
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”