7 Factors influencing Project Management Authority

Project Management Authority

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Aspiring project managers are often curious about project management authority. This makes sense, if you want to be a project manager you will want to know how much authority the project manager holds. The short answer is: it depends. In this guide on project management authority, we will try to understand what it depends on and what are some possible scenarios.

What does the Project Manager do?

Before discussing project management authority in detail, we should spend a few words discussing the project manager role in general. Most of us have a straightforward definition for this role: someone who manages projects. Yet, as much as this definition is correct, it is not very precise.

The truth is that what a project manager does also depends. Specifically, it will depend on the structure of the organization where the project manager works. In any case, there are many different aspects of a project to be managed: the costs, the schedule and timeline, the risks, the resources (people and equipment), the communications and more. According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, there are 10 different aspects to manage in a project (the 10 “knowledge areas).

Not all organization are created equal, and in some the project manager will have to work on all 10 knowledge areas, while in other organizations it may focus on just a few. This clearly influences the project management authority – the more areas you manage, the more authority you will need.

This is just one side of the coin. The other side is the organizational structure, either in the entire organization or in one department. It is important because it sets the rules of the game the project manager plays, defining its authority level.

How Organizational Structures Impact Project Management Authority

Everyone has a boss, no exception, not even for project managers. Corporations tend to have hierarchies, that clearly define who is the boss over who else. All these power relationships and ties form the organizational structure, which influences a great deal the freedom of movement for the project manager.

Some organizations will put more responsibility and project management authority over the PM, while other will keep it in the sidelines. As you can imagine, most organizations tend to find a balance somewhere in between no authority and full authority. To better understand possible scenarios, we need to discuss the most common organizational structure.

Functional Organizational Structure

Our journey in project management authority should start with the basics: the functional organization. As the name says, the functional organization places great importance on functions.

All organizations tend to have functions, regardless of if they adopt the functional organization or not. Functions are just departments, specialized group of people in the organization: marketing, sales, IT, HR, logistics, purchasing and so on. Typically, each of these functions will have a Vice President reporting to the CEO, or at least a director reporting to a VP.

The functional structure repeats into itself until it reaches the field troops. Each function can be divided into sub-functions, and then sub-sub-functions until we reach teams and individuals. HR may be divided into Recruiting and Administrative, Administrative may be divided into Payroll and Benefits, and so on.

The Functional organizational structure comes with low project management authority
Typical organizational chart with a functional structure.

Whenever we divide a function in sub-functions, there will be a manager to oversee such sub-functions. That is the functional manager, the person in charge of making that function (which is the collection of sub-functions) work.

In short, in functional organizational structures, the functional manager is the one in charge. She will have control over her team, directing their effort in the way she see fit, and she will also manage the budget for the team – having the money she needs to get things done.

This does not mean there is no place for a project manager in a functional structure. However, the project management authority in this case will be particularly low. In this case, we do not call him even project manager – we call him project coordinator. He will be tasked to oversee the day-to-day activities on a project and report issue to the functional manager, so that she can act. In this structure, the PM can forget about having control over the budget, and he may even work just part-time (not much to do). We can see him as a sort of secretary and facilitator for the functional manager.

Project-Oriented Organizational Structure

Now we can move to the other side of the spectrum, toward a project-oriented structure. This is the diametral opposite of the functional organizational structure. Here, the project management authority is at its peak – the project manager is the one in charge.

With this approach, when the organization decides to undertake a project it will appoint a project manager. As the project will be created with a budget, the project manager will have full control over that budget, and he will be able to use that money to recruit a team within the organization (but also outside from it), conduct procurements and get things done. In this case, the project manager is accountable and responsible for the project, as it has all the means he needs to get it done.

In this context, there are no functional managers, or if there are, they are on supporting role and with limited authority.

Not many organizations are entirely project-oriented, but they rather have some divisions that work in that way. However, if the entire organization is project-oriented, we call it project-based organization, or PBO. This is common in the oil & gas industry.

To recap: in a project-oriented organizational structure the project management authority is maximum. Project manager will definitely work full-time, have full control over the budget and over the team.

The Matrix

Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You’ll have to see it for yourself.

Morpheus explains The Matrix. Beyond being a successful movie franchise, the matrix is an organizational structure that can influence project management authority
Morpheus gives us some (wrong) insight on The Matrix. Picture under creative commons.

As much as I love The Matrix, I have to say Morpheus was wrong this time. The matrix organizational structure is simply somewhere between a functional structure and a project-oriented structure. In a matrix, the project management authority is somewhere in the middle. The PM will have some authority, and the functional manager will have some other authority.

Not all matrixes are made equal, they come in many different flavors as responsibilities are distributed between PM and functional managers in many different ways. Nonetheless, we can categorize matrixes in three categories: weak matrix, balanced matrix, and strong matrix.

Remember, the weakness or strength of the matrix refers to the strength of the project manager. Hence, in a strong matrix the project manager will have more authority than the project manager, while in a weak matrix the opposite is true.

Organizational Structures in Summary

The organizational structures that influence project management authority are often depicted in the following table, so it is worth spending a few minutes familiarizing with it.

FunctionalWeak MatrixBalanced MatrixStrong MatrixProject-Oriented
Project Manager’s AuthorityLittle or NoneLimitedLow to ModerateModerate to HighHigh to Almost Total
Resource AvailabilityLittle or NoneLimitedLow to ModerateModerate to HighHigh to Almost Total
Who controls the budgetFunctional ManagerFunctional ManagerMixedProject ManagerProject Manager
Project Manager’s RolePart-timePart-timeFull-timeFull-timeFull-time
Project Management Administrative StaffPart-timePart-timePart-timeFull-timeFull-time

This is the same table you will see in the PBMOK, setting the standard for project management jargon. It is well worth remembering particularly if you are pursuing a certification from the Project Management Institute.

Other Factors Influencing Project Management Authority

The organizational structure can tell us a great deal about project management authority, but it is not the only thing to consider. To start, we want to identify at which level in the organization the project manager is operating.

Project managers working high in the organization, for example for directors or C-level executives, will tend to have a significant authority. This may seem obvious, but it is not if we think about it for a second. Even at that level, a project manager may have no direct control over the budget and may even work part-time. However, when working at this level, the project manager is typically tasked to coordinate the effort of different departments, and he is appointed by a senior executive. Because of that, the senior executive is placing a lot of informal power over the project manager, which translates into some form of authority.

On the other hand, working low in the organization chart means that your authority will be limited to the control you have over the budget. If you have no control, you will have no project management authority. Instead, you will work as a facilitator, ensuring information flows properly from those who have it to those who need it. Like a plumber, but making information flows rather than water.

Do you need Project Management Authority?

Depending on what you want to accomplish, yes – to some extent you do. However, remember that authority is a failsafe. It is a soft power, exercised just by the fact that you have it – not by actually enforcing it.

Authority works pretty much like nuclear weapons: nations can exert influence over other nations by the fact that they have nuclear weapons, not because they actually use them. Just knowing that you have a nuclear weapon you can potentially use tend to make other nations see your nation differently. Authority works in the same way.

(Do you want to learn more about Nuclear Diplomacy? This casual podcast episode is really a good listen).

Think of it in the opposite way: if you have to tell other people you are the boss, then probably you are not the boss. Hence, relying on formal authority is your last resort, where all other means of directing effort have failed.

Big companies like Amazon or Microsoft often seek for new employees asking the capability to “lead without authority”, and that is what you should aim for. Often, organizational structures are slow to change, slower than the market needs, so you cannot rely on organization and formal authority to drive the change that the organization needs. Instead, you need other means to ensure your ideas are heard, and that the good ones are actually executed.

One way to do that is by start building referent power, something you can do on your own regardless of where you have in the organization. This can give you a jump start to get things done, up to the point where you do not need much authority after all. We have a good guide on referent power to get you started.

In Conclusion

Project management authority is not that complex, and the factors that define it tend to be the same across many organizations. For sure, the organizational structure plays a key role, because it decides on average the level of project management authority that will be present in the organization.

Yet, organizational structure is not the only factor to consider. You should also consider at which level in the organization is the project manager working, and what soft powers he can bring to the table.

I hope this guide will help you to better understand project management authority, and will give you some edge on your journey to become a proficient project manager!

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Alessandro Maggio



Project Management