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Project Roles in Project Management 

 December 19, 2020

By  Dave Litten

Project Roles

One of the biggest challenges faced by the project manager in creating the project organization is defining the Project Roles that are necessary – a decision that will be informed by the scale of the project to be delivered.

In most cases, the project sponsor and project manager are required. Thereafter a number of other Project Roles may be considered based on the project’s needs.

The project has a different culture from the day-to-day organization. Most of the roles are cross-functional team activities, where the traditional organizational hierarchy dissolves.

Distinct roles need to be clearly defined and the relationship between them fully established; this not only promotes teamwork but ensures complete coverage of responsibilities and ownership. A typical project organization structure of project management roles are shown here:

Project Roles

The role and the key responsibilities of the project manager

The project manager’s role is to plan, organize, staff, motivate, evaluate, direct, control, and lead the project from start to finish and to deliver the project objectives.

Project manager responsibilities include:

  • Delivering the project to time, cost and quality/performance priorities
  • Making timely decisions to ensure project success
  • Communicating with the sponsor, informing them of progress and seeking direction when necessary to aid success
  • Managing sponsor and user expectations
  • Defining and planning the project through the creation of the Project Management Plan
  • Monitoring and controlling project progress
  • The building, leading and motivating the project team throughout the project
  • Ensuring work packages are allocated and the responsibilities identified
  • Keeping the sponsor and senior management informed of progress/problems/issues
  • Initiating reviews and assisting the sponsor in the decision to terminate the project, if justified
  • Communicating and acting as the prime point of contact with team members, other organisations, contractors, suppliers and operations representatives, etc.

The role and key responsibilities of the project sponsor throughout the project

The sponsor is the individual considered as the primary risk-taker and has ultimate accountability and overall responsibility for the project.

The sponsor will most likely have managed the project through the concept phase, once the business case has been approved a project manager will be appointed to take over the delivery of the project.

The sponsor still remains accountable for ensuring that the project’s benefits are realized when the project is handed over to operations.

The sponsor is a member of and has the delegated authority of the steering group, as a chairperson, to assist with business management and project management issues that arise outside the formal duties of the steering group.

The sponsor also lends support by advocacy at the senior level and ensures that the necessary resources (both financial and human) are available to the project. The project champion, corporate client, functional head of the department may have the same responsibilities as a project sponsor in some projects

Sponsor responsibilities include:

  • Being the arbiter for user and stakeholder requirements through chairing of the steering group
  • Determining the relative priority of time cost and quality
  • Initiating the project and ensuring a project manager is appointed
  • Monitoring high-level project progress and making control decisions when necessary and when escalated by the project manager
  • Monitoring the project’s business environment and reviewing the business case at gate reviews
  • Keeping senior management informed of project progress
  • Terminating the project if necessary, after a gate review
  • Providing ongoing support to the project manager
  • Liaising with the programme manager if the project is part of a programme
  • Developing and maintaining ownership of the business case.

Other roles within project management

Users
User(s) are accountable for specifying operational requirements and for accepting and operating the deliverables to achieve the defined benefits.

User(s) responsibilities include:

  • Identifying project requirements, ensuring objective separation of ‘musts’ and ‘wants’
  • Identifying project constraints and dependencies
  • Accepting and operating the deliverables
  • Providing practical assistance and guidance through a user representative or senior user as part of the steering group structure, if it exists
  • Assisting the project manager with handover/acceptance
  • Informing the project manager of any operational changes that may influence delivery
  • Actively participating as a member of the project team.
Everyone in the Team has a Project Role
Project Team Members work Together

Project team members

Project team members may stay with the project throughout its life or may only join the team to carry out a specific task.

The primary role of the project team is to support the project manager in managing the project to meet its objectives, by providing the combined expertise to allow the project objectives and scope to be correctly identified and achieved.

Specific responsibilities may include:

  • Managing communication with stakeholders as assigned in the communication plan
  • Managing sections of the work breakdown structure (identifying tasks, estimating, monitoring, problem-solving, ensuring completion of quality, on time and within budget)
  • Acting as a risk owner and effectively managing risk within their area of expertise
  • Supporting the project manager and other team members in solving project-wide problems (acting as action owners)
  • Contributing to the evaluation of the project at all stages and reviews
  • Reporting the progress of their assigned tasks in a timely manner.

Project steering group/board

A project steering group, also known as the governance board, project board, or steering committee, is the key body within the governance structure that is responsible for the business issues associated with the project that is essential to ensure the delivery of the project outputs and the attainment of project outcomes.

This includes approving the budgetary strategy, defining and realizing benefits, monitoring risks, quality and timelines, making policy and resourcing decisions, and assessing requests for changes to the scope of the project that has the potential to impact the business case.

The membership is often determined by the project sponsor, who normally chairs group meetings and may consist of

  • The organizations business unit managers/owners
  • Representatives from selected key stakeholders
  • Experts from within the organization; and
  • External, independent representatives, who may be quality auditors, consultants, specialist consultants, or representatives from other agencies
  • Representatives from key suppliers to the project, these could be internal or external
  • Representatives from the user population.

The project manager is not a member of the steering group but is ‘contracted’ by the steering group to ensure the work of the project is undertaken as agreed, whereas the steering group provides support, guidance, and executive oversight of progress.

The project manager will normally attend meetings of the steering group to answer any questions raised by members.

An additional resource (such as a project team member or administrative staff) may attend to assist the project manager by recording the minutes and decisions of the meeting.

Collectively, a steering group’s role is to:

  • Take on responsibility for the project’s feasibility, business case and achievement of outcomes
  • Ensure the project’s scope aligns with the agreed requirements of the business owners and key stakeholder groups
  • Provide those directly involved in the project with strategic guidance on project business issues
  • Ensure effort and expenditure are appropriate to stakeholder expectations
  • Ensure that strategies to address potential threats to the project’s success have been identified, cost and approved, and that the threats are regularly re-assessed
  • Address any issues that have been escalated from the project manager and assess any major implications for the project
  • Keep the project scope under control as emergent issues may force changes to be considered
  • Reconcile differences in opinion and approach and resolve disputes arising from them
  • Report on project progress to those responsible at a high level, such as executive management groups; and depending on the nature of the project, take on responsibility for progressing any organization-wide issues associated with the project.

It is really only large projects that would justify the inclusion of a steering group within the structure; however, all projects, regardless of scale, would need to ensure compliance with whatever governance framework the host organization required.

Product owner

Often categorized as a part of the overall ‘supplier’ input, the product owner’s main contribution is to lead the focus on product development.

Very much part of an agile approach, they have strong expertise and deep knowledge of stakeholders’ needs and can act as the intermediary between stakeholders and those team members delivering the project.

Product owner responsibilities include:

  • Defining goals and creating a vision for the operability of the project’s outputs
  • Acting as the on-site customer for iterative or agile projects;
  • Communicating with stakeholders to ensure that the project remains aligned with business objectives
  • Providing feedback to the project team on iteration planning, task dependencies, constraints, priority, and progress in relation to business needs
  • Establishing priorities for scope, budget, and time with relation to stakeholder requirements and accepting incremental delivery
  • Acting as the primary communication link between stakeholders and teams, ensuring stakeholder buy-in linking major decisions with strategy and providing clear instructions and an outline of deliverables to product developers
  • Evaluate progress providing feedback to the team on delivery performance and advising if continuation is feasible.

Dave Litten


David spent 25 years as a senior project manager for USA multinationals, and has deep experience in project management. He now develops a wide range of Project Management Masterclasses, under the Projex Academy brand name. In addition, David runs project management training seminars across the world, and is a prolific writer on the many topics of project management.

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