Working With Your Project Team's "Real" Boss

Last Updated Sep 27, 2010 11:44 AM EDT

A lot of managers, especially Project Managers, work on virtual teams. These are like regular remote teams except the team members don't work "for" you, they report to someone else. You can refer to them as "stakeholders" or "influencers" all you want, but your team has a different word for them:their "real" boss.

This can create a whole world of challenges, especially when it comes to setting priorities and getting a realistic idea of how much time they can allocate to your project. This is not a minor issue. According to Deasun Oconchuir, an internationally renowned expert on managing international projects, it is a key skill.

"Look at a company like IBM", he says. "Imagine the thousands of projects they have going on and a recent report shows they don't have a single project going on that is managed and run locally... Not one." Yes, it's efficient, but imagine the cost in time, money and sanity if turf wars erupt or priorities change. So what's a manager to do?

Here are some tips for working well with the people your project team reports to:

  • Monitor your team's working environment. It's critical that a project manager know who they're working with and what's going on in their world. All too often we do a cursory check-in "so how's it going.....okay here's what I need". If you don't really talk to your folks and take the time to understand their working environment you're in for a rude shock when minor issues become major problems.
  • Get to know their boss. Early on, it's a good idea if you can, to introduce yourself to the person's direct manager. Give them an idea of how much time is expected, what the work involves and (if they don't already know) the details of the project including why it's important, what the outcomes are and who is the sponsor. In PM speak,the sponsor is the person who pays for the project and expects results. This is critical because in case you run into conflicting expectations or priorities...
  • Don't be afraid to get the sponsor involved. Sometimes you run into a situation where the person is torn between your expectations as project manager and keeping the person in charge of their paycheck happy. Guess who wins that fight most of the time? "You can't get into a big fight with the other manager", says Oconchuir. (This is especially true if the other manager is in a better position than you are- the VP of Sales, for example. Being right is no defense against revenue production). At this point whoever is paying for the project is motivated to make sure resources are properly assigned and used-- and has the clout to make things change.
Of course, the biggest issue for managers is knowing what's going on before there's a problem and that's where many Project Managers struggle- realizing that "resources" are people with a lot more going on than just the task at hand.

You can hear more of my conversation with Deasun Oconchuir about this and other Project Management Challenges on the Cranky Middle Manager podcast.
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photo courtesy of flickr user eschipul CC 2.0