All project managers should insist on clear lines of responsibility

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013 By Jack Nevison

Nobody likes bureaucracy, not even bureaucrats. How often have you heard someone complain about government inefficiency? Or the utter lack of responsiveness from a big company? It seems that the larger the organization, the more difficult it is to maintain clear lines of responsibility.

Harvard Business Review contributor Julian Birkinshaw sums this up well in a recent article. As the owner of a small consultancy business, Birkinshaw had a problem getting paid by a large client in the U.K. Although the company promised to pay Birkinshaw's £3,000 invoice in March 2012, it took 20 months for for him to receive the money. And for the longest time, he could not figure out why.

"At no point in this 20-month period was there any dispute about whether my small business (my wife and I) was owed the money," he wrote. "Everyone we spoke to in the company was polite, helpful, and increasingly apologetic. And yet somehow they couldn't pay us."

As it turned out, a glitch in the payment system was preventing the invoice from being processed properly.

Birkinshaw wrote that the longer this saga went on, the more he wondered how to the problem could be solved. The business he had done the consulting work for was one of the largest in the U.K. There was no single boss to call up and complain to. Rather, there were a number of possible contacts, some of whom were not necessarily communicating with each other. And no clear line of responsibility existed for those within the big company.

While Birkinshaw eventually got paid, his story highlights a problem that occurs whenever groups get too large. Project managers who find themselves in charge of a growing project with an increasing number of employees must make sure that they focus on establishing and maintaining who is responsible for what. Otherwise, bureaucracy may well doom the project.

At New Leaf Project Management, we offer training programs, such as "Leading Project Teams: The Human Side of Performance," to show you how to establish and maintain a clear chain of responsibility. To learn more about this issue, you can also read our free white papers, such as "Multiple People on Multiple Projects," and "The Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM)." In addition, you can take white paper quizzes to earn convenient and affordable PDU credits for PMP recertification.

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