A Project Management Consultant Must Face This Classic Challenge

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Challenges a Project Management Consultant must face

Project Managers face daily challenges, and for career consultants, there’s one hurdle that requires greater effort to overcome: having responsibility, but not authority

A project management consultant must create a plan based on their responsibilities and lack of authority. Additionally, a PM will consider other micro-challenges before successfully partnering with management. Given the shared experiences from our senior team of project managers, we believe the following factors should be reviewed by consultants when starting a new project.

During a recent meeting, a former project management consultant — someone who managed many other PMs during his career — reiterated the most challenging aspects of the job were the familiar and classic project management issues of ‘having responsibility but not authority.’ That is, as a project manager, he managed individuals on the project team based on a “dotted-line” relationship. Still, in reality, the team members reported “solid line” into someone else. This is a reality for many consultants, so let’s take a look at several issues that can potentially arise from the situation.

Problems a Project Management Consultant Should Prepare For

1. As a project management consultant entering a new environment on a consulting basis, you rarely choose who is on your team. In other words, you don’t get to hire people directly and might not even provide input on who gets hired. In the best-case scenario, a project manager might have some input, but rarely the final decision.

2. An extension of the first challenge mentioned, a project manager doesn’t always build his or her team; therefore, the project team is made of substantial contributors, but also a few team members who may not align well with the project. Unfortunately for the lead role, “managing up” the performance or replacing the poor performers is a tricky and delicate task, and often well outside a PM’s authority.

3. Project managers deal with distinct business activities defined by a beginning and end. Because this role is a system of planning and controls based on set objectives, managing risk is always top of mind. A common problem for consultants is having team members’ time redirected by their solid-line management. It’s tempting for the Business Manager to poach some time from the project team and redirect them onto other tasks that might be labeled as a higher priority, potentially resulting in project delays.

4. Every organization has a distinct culture — or they are in the process of building one. But even more important for consultants to consider, project teams have a unique culture as well, which is influenced by tools and methodologies. With this perspective, the project management consultant must become comfortable with the technical landscape of the project as well as the project management style of the organization, its nuances (such as reporting practices), tools, stakeholder access, and operational preferences.

5. The contract PM must establish trust with his/her team and management, based on shared motivations and potential rewards. If the team senses that the PM is extending the project, or has a self-motivated ambition, problems arise. By preventing the self-serving bias, the PM ensures that all of their actions won’t be met with animosity or resentment.

6. Often the PM is handed a budget by senior management, who may not have a realistic view of the project. Therefore, It’s up to the PM to shape their understanding and what that understanding will cost. The challenge is building trust through successful budgetary practices. Of course, this trust is crucial for a PM when a project runs over budget.

For Consultants, Strategy is the Solution

Project managers, especially those who consult, rely on persuasion, selling, and socializing to get the job done. On the other hand, permanent PM’s typically have equal measures of accountability, responsibility, and authority. 

The challenges we identified above present authority as a grey area for project managers; however, a strategic consultant will ensure full alignment with an internal sponsor, someone who has authority, and someone who trusts that the consultant will act on their behalf and within the realms of their strategy/objectives. This way, the authority component is an extension of themselves and they remain confident that the “authority” would not be over-stepped.

“I’ve witnessed several contract PM’s and senior leads who used a [false] sense of confidence to make decisions they had no placemaking,” said one of our senior project managers. “On the other hand, I’ve witnessed more successful consultants create a case for their sponsor that enables the decision while making the sponsor look like a rock-star.”

In many ways, a good project manager should be able to manage any project, be it building a bridge or creating a mobile app. But how do some PMs become successful with such diverse project environments? The answer lies in mastering the art of strategic communication. 

“Nothing is more important to the success of a project than effective communication; more effective communication = Better project management.”

Being a project manager, especially a project management consultant, requires tremendous diplomatic skills. The role demands that a person manages the tasks, hours, and deliverables of the project, even if they don’t have total control over the team’s composition or the day-to-day priorities of the team members. In the best scenario, the project manager will have an excellent working relationship with, and the backing of, senior management who can intervene on behalf of the project manager to mitigate some of the issues.

If there’s one critical factor for a project management consultant to remember, it’s that buy-in from senior management is crucial to the completion of any project. Without it, the project will have a limited chance for success.