PR professionals are involved in a wide range of projects that require planning, coordination and implementation with others. This usually means working with inter-departmental or cross-functional team members. One of the most common problems arising in such projects is how to lead or shape the project when you have no formal power or authority over the other team members.
How can you get good team results when you are not the boss or if someone else is nominally the boss and is quite ineffectual? Fortunately, there are various ways you can informally lead or influence a project outcome. You can lead such areas as communication (obviously!), team recognition for milestones achieved, project reviews, change management, measurement and reporting cycles.
These techniques are also suitable for projects in which you are formally the leader, because they help you avoid the problems of potential resentment and lack of cooperation that may arise when you outrank the other team members.
Poor communication is the biggest single cause of project failure
Many project management experts believe communication is the single most important factor in the success or failure of a project. For instance, Dow and Taylor believe communication problems represent 90% of the reasons why projects fail (2008, p. xxix). This view is supported by Baker, cited in Ramsing (2009), who puts the figure even higher: ‘95% of all project problems are caused by poor communication’. Technical problems are relatively easy to resolve, but miscommunication can cause lingering problems unless the project leader puts in place a competent communication plan up front.
Most people’s experience in teams starts with their role as a contributor. If you are good contributor you tend to get appointed a team leader at some stage. Usually team leaders don’t have much formal authority or direction; they are left to manage or supervise a project as best they can.
The key to success is good people management, and this comes through good communication. The reality is that good communication is labor intensive – it needs sufficient time to be allocated to it. Time is always a scarce resource, and communication can be let slide as more tangible matters are dealt with. However, unless project leaders discipline themselves to allow enough time for proper people management of a project, they pave the way for problems.
Time is the key element
PR people always find time is a precious resource. We have to multi-task various activities simultaneously. In prioritizing our time, we should put the project management or coordination at the top of our task list, or close to the top. It is an easy trap to fall into to think the various members of the team will be working diligently on their part of the project and that they can be relied upon to complete their work adequately if left alone. But this doesn’t happen enough in real life. Instead, team members either let their project tasks slide down their to-do list as other priorities hit them, or they do some things wrong that need to be noticed and corrected.
Astute time allocation
For large projects in which people are working full-time, a rough guide is that team members do the technical work for about two thirds of their time and spend the balance of their time on meetings, email, phone calls, miscellaneous administration and personal activities.Time would be spent on team meetings, meetings with individuals, email, collecting and writing progress reports, telephone calls, problem-solving and other interactions.
How to keep the project moving when there is no appointed leader
1. Establish goals and objectives.
Setting a clear set of goals and objectives is vital for a successful result. You can start the ball rolling by asking key questions. This puts you in a leadership role immediately. Put this question to the group, “What are our goals that we need to guide the main aspects of our project? Agree on the broad goals and then set project objectives under the respective goals your group decides. Goals would include budget, timeline, reporting structure, stakeholders including the senior project sponsor, team for planning the project and team for implementing the project, required labor resources, tools and other procurements, communication and reporting, risk analysis and management, quality control,
2. Consider the context
Your group needs to gather the necessary information from the start. Collect essential data, analyze the task ahead, and propose actions based on this information. Questions to ask the group: “Do we have enough information to fully understand what is needed for this project,” and “Let’s work out what we need to do to make good progress.”
3. Communicate clearly with others
Say exactly what you mean, and advocate politely what you want team members to do. Stay polite in all your interactions with other team members. When significant decisions need to be made, confirm by email the agreement of other team members to these decisions so everyone is clear about the ensuing action.
4. Seek and listen to others’ ideas
Many good ideas come from a range of sources, so seek suggestions from others as you discuss the project.
5. Note experiences learned during the project
Progressively review what you are learning from experiences gained in the preparation of the project. Better to make these notes as you progress rather than wait until the project is completed when you will have forgotten some things by then.
6. Team member roles allocated where best suited
Agree with the group on allocation of tasks according to the interests and capabilities of each team member. You could note a series of tasks needing to be done, and match them up with individuals or subgroups of the team. If people resist the thought of doing a particular task, think as a group about what could make this activity more interesting or challenging. Ensure quieter and less experienced members are invited to take on tasks they are comfortable with.
7. Provide feedback
Foster team spirit by engaging everyone in the team. Encourage collaboration, cooperation, and communication between members. Even if you are not the boss, you can provide encouraging feedback to participants, such as “Thanks for doing that. I thought you did a great job in locating that [resource].” Support and encourage team members when the going gets tough. There will be challenges along the way, so be supportive and positive during these times. Share the credit with the other team members when you successfully achieve the project goals.
Dow, W., & Taylor, B. (2008). Project Management Communications Bible. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing.
Kendrick, T. (2006). Results without Authority: controlling a project when the team doesn’t report to you. New York: American Management Association.
Ramsing, L. (2009). “Project communication in a strategic internal perspective.” Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 14(3), pp. 345–57.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.