The Project Notebook

Managing a Project — When You’re not the Project Manager

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2010, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Many of us know the challenges related to being the manager of a project. Probably more of us know the challenges of working on a project that is not being managed effectively. A common question is, “What can I do to manage a project when I’m not the project manager?” The unspoken but clear implication is that there is a project manager who is not doing his/her job appropriately and that the team recognizes that they need to assume the project manager’s functions. This article will address some proactive measures that can be taken to rescue a project that is floundering because of the project manager.

The first principle to keep in mind is “Don’t be afraid to ask questions”. Team members have their own specialties, while the project manager tends to be a generalist. Asking questions is a powerful technique to prod the project manager to explain his/her strategies and actions. It can also be a less confrontational method of making the project manager aware that not everyone understands what is happening on the project or where the project is headed. Finally, asking questions that are rhetorical can lead the project manager to conclusions that the team feels are necessary for the project to proceed on a more effective course.

Some of you may be thinking at this point, “Asking questions is for timid people who have lots of time”. A more direct approach is to provide solutions to problems that the team has identified. For example, if the project has fallen behind schedule, the team may have specific recommendations that relate to activities that can be delayed or eliminated. Providing solutions with rationale allows the project manager to make decisions without having to put time and effort into analysis and alternative assessment. Of course, if the team can make the manager feel that the solution is his/her idea, so much the better.

Proactive risk management actions can also be addressed by project team members even if the project manager seems unable or unwilling to forecast the future. Some project managers do not learn from their previous projects or assume that “bad things” only happen once in a lifetime. A wise person once said “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. If the team knows that the project manager has a history of budget overruns, poor performance and/or time delays on his/her projects, the members can take it upon themselves to head off the actions that typically cause the problems. An example is a vendor who is notoriously late in delivering key components. Rather than the project manager’s waiting to see if “it happens again”, a team member can make phone calls, send emails or even make a visit to determine what needs to happen for on time vendor delivery.

The bottom line, as we all know, is that every project needs management. “Managing from below” as a team member is a challenge. If the team knows more than the project manager about how to manage the project, then they must take the actions necessary to produce a project worthy of their capabilities. The project management principles do not change. However, more tact, finesse and “soft” leadership are required when the team has to manage the project in the absence of true project management.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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