Delegation of Authority – Project Manager Responsibilities

Project Manager Responsibilities“You can delegate authority, but not responsibility” – Stephen W. Comiskey – A key to Project Manager Responsibilities.

I came across this quote by Stephen W Cominskey when I was studying for my MBA over 10 years ago and it really resonated with with me as a project manager and manager in the way it related to project manager responsibilities.

Cominskey was a lawyer and his message is, that just because you have delegated authority to someone to undertake a task, that does not mean your responsibility or accountability for the tasks outcome is abrogated.

All too often you see inexperienced managers blaming their subordinates for failures, trying to deflect the blame for a situation turned bad and what’s worse is that they often get away with it.

So, what does this mean for us in a project environment?

Well, the last thing it means is do not delegate, absolutely not and if you read my other blog posts you will see I am a strong advocate for delegating and leading rather than being too hands on as a manager.

It simply means, that as a manager, when you delegate a task and the authority required to execute it, you need to put mechanism’s in place to ensure it is progressing as it is supposed to, because in the event it fails you remain ultimately responsible.

I’ll give you an example. I came into a project mid stream, and approximately 80% of the project scope was sub-contracted to 3rd Parties, it was a warship refit alongside at the Navy base and still fully manned by Naval personnel. Sometime during the first week, sub-contractors has been scheduled to work into the night to catch up schedule on a particular task, all our supervisors were preparing to leave. I enquired, “who is staying behind to supervise”, blank looks. Now as the main contractor we had a duty of care for anyone engaged by us to comply with all of the health and safety regulations and quite frankly just be there in the event something went wrong or a technical query was raised. The bottom line is we had delegated the authority for the task and also tried to delegate the responsibility, which was not on. From that point on we engaged a night shift supervisor, our responsible person. Believe me, when you are fixing someone warship and something goes wrong, you need to be there.

Now, we don’t want to reverse our good work of delegating authority to our project team by you peering over their shoulder constantly, it means as part of your project manager responsibilities, putting in place a regime that will have you become involved only when necessary.

Delegating authority to projects and project team members alike is one of those things often talked about, but rarely done well, most manager’s just can’t let go.

For those that are concerned about delegating and losing control, one of the easiest ways of doing this is to employ an exception reporting regime. In simple terms, that means delegating a deliverable, activity or task formally via work authorization document or similar to a project team member with scope execution, budget and schedule authority and setting rules around how far that deliverable, activity or tasks budget or schedule or other variables performance can vary before the person is required to report the variance to you.

Typical examples would be:

  • Instigating a spending limit for major procurements before your approval is required, this could be a % of the procurement budget or a procurement limit over a certain dollar value.
  • For cost variances, if Estimate at Completion (EAC) forecast varies greater than +5% or -10% of the budget, the manager is required to report to you on the reason for the variance and the rectification plan.
  • For schedule variances, if forecast schedule completion date varies greater than +5 day or -10 days the manager is required to report to you on the reason for the variance and the rectification plan.

This allows you to give the manager some room to work inside, you don’t want to be chasing minor variations in cost and schedule performance which can jump around from week to week, but you decide your level of tolerance for variation, the measures that are important to you and the point you feel you need to get involved.

I’ve outlined only one example here, but the same principal applies to management of people, communications and most other areas in a project organization.

This is also a very good way to ensure your project team feel they are empowered to manage the work and own the outcomes, but that’s another blog post.

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