Roles and responsibilities in projects

Actually, one should think, the whole thing is quite simple: at the beginning of the project a project organization is defined, everyone gets his role(s) and with it his responsibility(s) assigned and thus everyone knows what to do and the work, respectively the project, runs. Or is it perhaps not so simple after all?

Purpose of a project organization

  • The establishment of an own project organization deviating from the line is an essential element in the starting phase of a project.
  • The project organisation is a valuable tool to get a grip on the social complexity of each project.
  • The project organisation forms the basis for the definition of information, decision-making and escalation paths – in short: the basis for efficient work is created.

Procedure for the set up of a project organization

The procedure for the development of a project organization hardly differs from that in the line and can be summarized in a few points. The first step is to define the roles that are needed in a project. The number of different roles depends on the size of the project. But every project needs at least one client, one project manager and one project team member (definition: see box). Requirements, tasks and competencies for each role are then defined in detail before they are filled with real people in a final step.

Tasks and responsibilities of the project client

The project client probably plays one of the most important roles in a project. No client, no project. But has the project client always assumed his role and responsibility in previous projects?

Unfortunately, many clients forget that they have a lot to contribute to the project’s success between signing the project order and the acceptance. Of course, it is a matter of agreement which decision-making authority the project manager has, but in principle, decisions concerning the content of the project – especially if they are essential decisions – are decisions of the client which are only prepared by the project manager.

The basic yes or no remains a matter for the client and may not be delegated to the project manager. The seemingly so popular game „What would you do?“ is not appropriate here!

Two examples of decisions that the client likes to pass on to the project manager are the premature end of the project and the proclamation of a project crisis. Although these extremely critical decisions must be agreed with the project manager, they must always be made by the client, who must also stand fully by his decision afterwards – together with the project manager.


The role of the project client in cooperation with the project manager

The most urgent need of a project manager towards his client during the project duration, but also before the start of the project is simply expressed, but usually difficult to implement: TIME! Every client has to take time for his project. For smaller projects that do not require real project marketing and do not present any serious problems, it will be sufficient for the client to meet with the project manager every two weeks, for example, in order to get a report on the project status and make any decisions.

But the more complex and strategically important a project is for a company, the more time the client must invest in the project. This is the only way he can show the project staff that the project is important and this is an enormously effective lever for increasing motivation.


Projekt vs Linie

Definition of project roles

Project client

Initiator of a project, highest decision-making authority in the project; responsible for the provision of project resources; should fully support the project

Project Manager

Overall responsibility for achieving the objectives set out in the project mandate, first contact person for the client; his tasks, responsibilities and powers should be defined company-wide.

Project team

Under the supervision of the project manager, they are responsible for the execution of the content work, and mostly experts for special areas.


Also known as the Review Board, steering committee, etc.; is particularly necessary when several organisations are involved in a project; the chairman is the client, the other members are representatives of the organisations involved; they resolve cross-project conflicts and set priorities and decisions.


Monitoring of mood and motivation

One of the most central tasks of the project manager, which unfortunately often gets a raw deal, especially in socially complex projects, is to constantly raise the mood and motivation in the project team. Is every project team member satisfied with his or her role? Does he perceive them properly? Does he perhaps feel over- or underchallenged? All of these can be signs of emerging problems that a project manager must recognize early on.

Evaluating the mood in the project team

A target-oriented instrument for this is the periodic snapshot of the atmosphere in the project team by means of a mood picture. However, this type of social controlling is only meaningful if it is carried out continuously over the entire course of the project. Regular project meetings are a suitable framework for this. In this way, fluctuations and potential crises can be identified. In many cases, poor quality of results and technical difficulties can also be an indicator of bad mood or lack of motivation in the project.


Watch out for gossip

The situational perception of atmospheric disturbances is at least as important, if not more important, than continuous perception. Most of the time you learn a lot more about the individual teams from the informal conversations in the coffee break, at the aisle or in the smokers‘ corner than from formalized snapshots during a meeting. On such occasions, the project manager should be particularly attentive and react as quickly and sensitively as possible to any signs of discrepancies or problems.

Is the assigned role and responsibility being performed by all project staff?

If the work is qualitative and delivered on time? Do all of them then assume their roles and responsibilities? Not at all, because the question is who does the work! For corresponding signs that some colleagues are shifting work, the project manager should be extremely attentive and react accordingly and above all quickly, because the affected employees react to all cases.

In the beginning, they support their colleagues in the sense of the common goal, but if they notice that this becomes a permanent condition, they will possibly react with dissatisfaction, demotivation and decreasing work performance, and also an increased number of sick leave could be associated with it. After all, who likes to work continuously for two?

Dexterity and experience are required

If the project manager finds out that the mood in his project is bad or the motivation poor, then there is an immediate need for action. Depending on the cause analysis, targeted intervention measures have to follow, which demand distinct qualities from the project manager in the areas of mediation and conflict resolution. Above all, this requires a high degree of sensitivity and experience.

Personnel changes in the project team

Unfortunately, it also happens again and again that such a low can only be averted by an exchange of the acting persons. This is, for example, a decision that must be made together with the project client in any case. In such situations, care should always be taken to ensure that all affected employees can save face.

In most cases, it is much easier to change personnel for external employees than it is for an employee of the customer company. Here the solution could be a change within the project organization, in order to pull the affected coworker from the sensitive area of responsibility.

Showing the human side as a project manager

Be a human being as a project manager!

This gives you the double benefit of being able to relax and talk to your staff about sports or the weather in the coffee kitchen. Firstly, you create a real bond between the employees and you when you notice that they can’t just think about the project and the work. And secondly, you have also provided employee motivation in its simplest and possibly best form.

The correct distribution of roles and tasks in the project organization is a success factor in every project.

The development of an adequate project organization with all its roles, tasks and responsibilities is a foundation for the success of every project. Another equally important foundation is communication, the constant contact between the project manager and the „simple“ project member. Everyone in the project organization must have the feeling that the project manager is there for them.

The majority of the skills that a good project manager needs are so-called „soft skills“, such as leadership, team building, motivation, communication or conflict management, because project management is primarily a task with people and for people. It is precisely for these reasons that it is all the more important that the project manager does not manage the project from his office, but talks to those involved and assists the team in all phases of the project.

The project manager should see himself as an organizer and service person who prepares a suitable working environment for the project staff. This is because projects usually fail not because of technology but because of people.

In this sense: Get out of the offices and to the employees!

Checklist: Does the client fulfil his role?

  • Did the project manager receive a clear project assignment?
  • Were the strategies, project goals and priorities defined with the project manager?
  • Were the organizational framework conditions agreed with the project manager?
  • Does the project manager enjoy the full support of the client, also in case of problems and crises?
  • Does the client make the strategic decisions in the project?
  • Does the client make the budget decisions in the project?
  • Does the client represent the project interests externally?
  • Does the client participate in project meetings at least once a month?