How Responsibility and Authority Affect Project-Team Roles

Each project-team member has a responsibility to reach specific goals; and a few members might assume some authority to help others achieve those goals. As a project manager, you have to assign people to do specific pieces of work, make decisions, and coordinate the activities of others. To help you coordinate people’s efforts, consider the following concepts as you define and clarify how team members should relate to each other and to their assigned tasks:

  • Authority: The ability to make binding decisions about your project’s products, schedule, resources, and activities. Examples include your ability to sign purchase orders that don’t exceed $3,000 and your ability to change a scheduled date by no more than two weeks.

  • Responsibility: The commitment to achieve specific results. An example is your promise to have a draft report ready by March 1.

  • Accountability: Bringing consequences to bear in response to people’s performance, such as your boss's noting in your annual performance appraisal that you solved a tough manufacturing problem.

Although these three terms are related, each term is a distinct and necessary element of defining and reinforcing team roles.

Both authority and responsibility are upfront agreements. Before you start your project, you agree who can make which decisions and who will ensure particular results. However, authority focuses on processes, while responsibility focuses on outcomes:

  • Authority defines the decisions you can make but doesn’t mention the results you have to achieve.

  • Responsibility addresses the results you must accomplish but doesn’t mention the decisions you can make to reach those results.

Remember, too, that you can transfer the authority to make decisions to another person, but you can’t transfer the responsibility for the results of those decisions.

Suppose you have the authority to issue purchase orders up to $5,000 for your project. Assume no policy or instructions specifically prevent you from giving some or all of this authority to someone else, so you give Matt, one of your team members, authority to sign purchase orders for your project not to exceed $4,000. However, if Matt mistakenly issues a $3,000 purchase order for ten reams of specialty paper instead of a $1,500 purchase order for the five reams that he really needs, you’re still responsible for his error.

You can always take back authority that you gave to someone else, but you can’t blame the person for exercising that authority while he has it.

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