When we "wear two hats" we tell ourselves that both hats fit on one head at the same time. But do they really? What happens if the demands of two roles — or more than two — conflict? What assurances do we have that we're managing the inherent conflict of multiple roles? What risks do multiple roles introduce? Sadly, multiple roles become more common as we move up the management hierarchy in an organization, which means that the risks of multiple roles are more significant as we move up in the organization. We're more likely to put people in multiple roles when those people are more important to the organization. And that's exactly where potential conflicts of interest can do the most harm.
I'll focus in this essay on the effects of multiple roles on project work. People fill multiple roles in many other parts of our organizations, and that discussion is also worthwhile. A study of the consequences for projects is useful, though, because today more and more of our work is carried out in the project structure.
Roles for projects
Before we examine conflicts of interest between the roles we find on projects, let's consider the roles themselves. No two organizations run projects in exactly the same way, so the roles listed below might not be found in just this configuration in your organization. Think of these roles as examples. Things might be divided up differently in your organization, so you might have to restructure this discussion to fit your case more precisely. But the basic message about conflicts of interest will still survive. With this in mind, let's look at the four kinds of roles in any project:
- The project sponsor represents the organizational interest in the project, and delegates spending authority to the project manager. Each project has one and only one sponsor, though there might be many other people with an interest in the project's outcome. Often — not always — the project manager generated the original concept for the project, and acts as the project's champion. The project manager and the sponsor negotiate together the issues of schedule, requirements, and cost. The sponsor is in many ways the customer of the project manager.
- Project Manager
- The project manager leads the project team, and negotiates with those responsible for the management of various resources for access to those resources. Each project has one and only one project manager. For example, the project manager might negotiate with the sponsor for spending authority, or with a facility manager for use of that facility, or with an engineering supervisor for available engineers. The project manager is the owner for the project's process.
- Functional Manager
- Functional managers supervise or manage the resources that the project uses. For example, a supervisor might be the direct manager of several members of the project team. Another functional manager might be the boss of the project manager. There can be any number of functional managers associated with a project. They play no direct role in the work of the project, but since they do supervise the people who work on the project, their actions and decisions can have significant impact on the project.
- Functional managers supply staff and resources to projects. They supervise staff, and they're responsible for staff development. They manage the people who work on projects — they do not manage projects.
- Team Member
- The project team includes everyone working on the project. Except for the project manager, these are the people who do the actual work of the project.
Effects of multiple roles
However well we might want multiple roles to work, they don't always work well — especially in times of stress. There really is room for only one hat on each head. Let's look at some examples.
- "Hands-on" project manager
- The sponsor is also the project manager
- The sponsor or project manager is also a functional manager
- One sponsor for two projects
"Hands-on" project manager
Perhaps the most common form of role multiplicity is the "hands-on" project manager. This is a project lead or project manager who's also responsible for some of the work of the project. Organizations are tempted to create and prefer such positions, and managers want to believe that "hands-on" positions work well, for two economic reasons:
- A "hands-on" position often costs less. Since the hands-on project lead still does "real work," we tend to ascribe to the position lower status than we would to a purely project managerial position.
- When the project manager performs some of the actual work of the project, there's less need for other staff. For those who believe that project management is low-productivity overhead labor, the savings are apparent.
Some also believe that hands-on project managers are more likely to be in touch with the pulse of the project. This is probably true for those parts of their projects that touch on what those project managers have their hands on. But that work distracts them, and the result is less awareness of other parts of the project. These two effects counteract each other.
While these positions are partially valid, other effects also appear. And these effects can materially degrade the performance of the project team. A hands-on project manager has two sets of conflicting responsibilities. The first set relates to managing the project, while the second relates to the project work that's allocated to the hands-on project manager. These conflicts appear in several ways:
- Work assignments
- How does the hands-on project manager allocate work within the project? What happens when some portion of the work is especially appealing to the project manager? It seems reasonable to suppose that some allocation decisions are made not for the benefit of the project, but for the benefit of the hands-on project manager. This is much less likely to happen when hands-on project managers aren't also performing some of the work they assign.
- Project managers are normally responsible for establishing and tracking the project schedule. Typically, this work is iterative, and involves a cycle of negotiating with the project team, monitoring progress, and negotiating with sponsors and functional managers. When hands-on project managers are also performing some of the work, they have an inherent conflict of interest. They must also report progress to themselves, and then negotiate extensions and delays if necessary — with themselves.
- It's only reasonable to expect greater frequency of favored treatment for the tasks that the project manager performs. This bias distorts the project schedule and can have a negative impact on the rest of the team. It's especially dangerous when the project is in trouble.
- Balancing task and management
- The hands-on project manager is responsible for managing the project and for executing some tasks of the project. At times, in such a situation, it's necessary to choose between paying attention to the demands of the project, and executing the task. Hands-on project managers who've chosen a favorite kind of task often choose executing the task over managing the project, when paying attention to the project is actually more important.
The sponsor is also the project manager
When the sponsor and the project manager are the same person, the interests of the organization and the interests of the project are in the hands of the same person. At first, this might not appear to be problematic. In what sense could the project's interest diverge from the organization's? When all is going well, their interests probably are aligned. It's only when problems occur, or when events lead the project off the scheduled track, that the conflict of interest becomes apparent.
Let's suppose that the project is running late — maybe even in firefighting mode. When the sponsor and project manager are different people, we might expect the sponsor to make demands of the project manager. "Have them work overtime," or "Take time from the test phase" are two common sponsor refrains. The responsible project manager, who understands the true costs of these tactics, can explain them to the sponsor. Together, they can explore other options: outsourcing, slipping the schedule, scope reduction, etc. The sponsor pushes, the project manager pushes back, and then some real creative thinking can happen.
Such a dialog is less likely to occur when the project manager is also the sponsor. When these two roles are played by one person, the most likely dynamic is that one role dominates. Decisions are often either consistently sponsor-favored or consistently project-manager-favored. The chances of a creative compromise of the two positions are small, and the project suffers.
The sponsor or project manager is also a functional manager
Whether it's the sponsor or the project manager who has the conflict, the results are similar, so let's focus on the sponsor case. When the sponsor is also the supervisor of some members of the project team, we have two sources of conflicts of interest. First, the sponsor has a conflict between the duties of the sponsor and the duties of the project manager. Sponsors are held accountable for the delivery of the project within cost and schedule limits. Their interest is in obtaining the functionality that the organization needs, as soon as possible and at a low cost. The functional manager, on the other hand, is more concerned with the development of the staff, and with their allocation. It's the job of the functional managers to manage the development of the people that work for them, and to make certain that their people have what they need to accomplish their tasks.
So sponsors who are also functional managers are responsible for two areas that conflict. Chances are, they will consistently favor either the business objective of the project, or the personal goals of the people they supervise. The chances of creative compromise between these two sets of interests are clearly much greater when the responsibilities rest with two different people.
Second, when the sponsor and functional manager are the same person, the team members have no one to turn to when the sponsor asks for an unreasonable schedule, or when the sponsor provides inadequate equipment or other support. In effect, if a member of the project team were to register a complaint about schedule or resources with the sponsor, they would be complaining to their own supervisor — the very person who is responsible for conducting the annual performance review.
The result is often that bad news is squelched at the level of the project team. Team members are reluctant to carry the news to the sponsor for fear that it might affect their raises, their bonuses, or even their places in line when the next round of layoffs happens.
One sponsor for two projects
When one person is the sponsor of two (or more) projects, trouble can arise when the two projects contend for the same resources. Perhaps the most common example of this effect is the result of contention for the time of one or more members of the project team.
Let's suppose that we have two projects that require effort from Tim and Maria, and that they're both overloaded. When each project has its own sponsor, the respective project managers can sit down with the two sponsors and negotiate a sequencing of the work, or some other alternative, so that Tim and Maria can work reasonable hours. But when there's only one sponsor, that sponsor is tempted, when approached by the two project managers, to say something like:
- Don't bring me these problems. Work it out amongst yourselves.
- Both projects are high priority. I don't care how you make it happen, just make it happen.
Or any of the other tired refusals to set priorities. With two distinct sponsors, priority setting is more likely to happen. Once priorities are clear, Tim and Maria can work reasonable hours.
What to do about multiple roles in projects
The simplest way to deal with these problems is to avoid them, by making sure that nobody has two roles that conflict. That means, for instance, that if someone is sponsoring two projects, those projects should not contend for the same resources. But most organizations aren't really sure whether or not conflicts exist, because they haven't been paying attention to things from this perspective. Here's a step-by-step procedure for tracking conflicts.
- Define the set of roles for people on projects in your organization.
- Decide which roles are inherently conflicting.
- Establish a registration process for people who are assuming project roles. This will make sure that you capture all assignments as they happen.
- Take a census of who is in which roles for which projects. Find out the current state of affairs. Activate the role registration process to make sure that you have a continuously updated census.
- Make a list of role conflicts
Once you know which roles conflict, you have a choice to make — how to address the conflicts. You can try to eliminate some of them by swapping roles around, and that's probably a good idea. For the ones that remain, you might just have to live with them for now.
For the future, consider defining some new job classifications. For example, think about eliminating the idea of a "hands-on" project manager. Create a job that's responsible for sponsoring projects — often, this is called a product manager. And if you don't yet have a job category for project managers, think about creating one.
This might seem like a high-cost solution. But it only seems that way, because we don't have accounting systems that break out the true costs of wearing two hats.
Do you want to assess the level of inherent role conflict in your organization? Or do you already know you have a problem, and want to address it? Through consulting or coaching, I can help you to:
- Establish a process for tracking inherent role conflict
- Devise a program for reducing the level of role conflict
- Address role conflicts that you already have in place
I also offer a workshop on this subject, designed to explore this issue and show you ways of managing its effects. Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenaUGofMMCgwfnMEoVner@ChacTESzoFXjmLGnDuFeoCanyon.com or by telephone at (650) 787-6475, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.
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