What hat do you wear?

Posted by Elizabeth Harrin

On your project and in your company you probably wear different hats. For example, as a project manager, you will be driven by delivery, hitting milestones and achieving quality outcomes. As a senior manager in the company, you’ll be interested in profit and loss, company performance, succession planning and strategic objectives. How do you manage the tensions of operating in these different environments?

Project strategy versus Project execution

A project manager has to balance the needs of project strategy with project execution. You will have to compare the needs of the company (strategy) with the deliverables expected from the project (execution). This can be quite a difficult achievement, especially if the two are at odds.

You may not be a senior manager in the company, so uncovering how your project fits with the corporate strategy may require a conversation with your line manager. But once you know how your work in contributing, you should be able to align the execution with the strategy, even if that means making some compromises such as changes in scope or delivery timescales to better deliver for the overall good of the company.

Project team versus Sponsor versus Customer

This area requires a balance between three parties: the project team, the project sponsor and the end customer. You could also include yourself in here, and add another stakeholder to the mix. Ideally, the requirements and demands of all these groups will be aligned, but it is likely that as the project manager you will have to address tensions between the groups. One way to identify these (so you can begin to address them) is to brainstorm the interest and influence that each group (or individual) has over the project. Use a tool like Seavus DropMind and work with a key group of trusted individuals to try to identify any areas of conflict.

Once these are identified you can put in place a stakeholder management plan to begin to address any conflict areas and bring the groups back together – or to work out how you will manage them if there is no chance that the groups will ever agree on common ground.

Team work versus Individual contribution

As a project manager you will have to balance the needs of the team against an individual’s contribution. Everyone wants to do well and have their own personal contribution recognised, but sometimes for the good of the project and the team overall they cannot contribute in the way that they would wish. Another example of this is where one team member keeps valuable information to themselves as they see it as a source of power. Your role is to work with individuals like this to try to encourage them to share for the benefit of the project overall.

Projects don’t get done without team work, so you will have to create an environment where the team can flourish as a whole, but where individual contributions are recognised and rewarded appropriately.

Project versus Department/Business unit

At certain points in the project you could find yourself suffering from tension between your project and your department (or another department). What is right for the project, such as you attending a critical workshop, could be detrimental to your department or business unit – say, because they would like you to do some mentoring on the same day, or attend a team meeting.

You’ll have to balance the conflicting needs of each, and decide on a case by case basis which one to put first. It is too easy to say that the project always wins, because that will not be (and should not be) the case. You’ll have to take each situation on its merit.

Informal network versus Hierarchy

There will be times on the project where you can tap into your informal network to get things done. That’s great, but you should also be aware of the formal hierarchy operating in the company. Sometimes you’ll have to rely on the hierarchy to get things done, such as requesting resources to work on your project. That is best done through formal channels than through calling up a friend in a different department and asking them directly to be on your project team for a couple of months.

Learning how to make the most of both your informal and formal management channels is a great skill and one, frankly, that you may well not always get right. It is very easy to step on people’s toes, and if that does happen the easiest way out of it is to apologise and instigate the action through the proper or appropriate channels next time.

To be a great project leader you have to be comfortable operating at all levels, and able to manage the tensions between these different ways of working. That might mean preferring one mode to another at certain times on the project or in your working life. Or it might mean negotiating compromises between the different areas to ensure a balanced output.

Being able to balance different priorities and stakeholder groups is one of the traits of a great leader. How do you do it? Let us know in the comments.

About the author: Elizabeth Harrin is Director of The Otobos Group, a project management communications consultancy. Find her on and Facebook.

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