Define roles and responsibilities



Where are we?

We are in the identification phase, trying to understand the roles of the various key players before we make a start on the project.

Every project has at least two key players, namely the sponsor and the project manager. There may be other key players in your project; we will consider the possibilities once we have dealt with the two principal roles.

In simple terms the sponsor is the person who has commissioned the project (the person who wants it carried out) and the project manager is the person who has been delegated the responsibility of carrying it out. It is quite likely that neither of people will have the words ‘sponsor’ or ‘project manager’ in their job title, as we are talking about a temporary project role, not a position in the corporate hierarchy.

This difference in the roles means that the sponsor is probably working to a longer horizon than the project manager.

The sponsor is as a representative of the business, who wishes to use the project outcome for a business reason. The sponsor may well stay in control of the outcome long after the project manager has delivered it.

In fact many sponsors do not realise that their responsibility is ‘to deliver the business benefit’ that the project will facilitate. This may take several months (or even years in some cases) to finally achieve.

For many small ‘local’ projects your sponsor may well be your boss. He or she will ask you to undertake a job, sometimes in a formal manner, sometimes very informally, but he/she is in the role of sponsor for your project.
The role of sponsor carries with it a range of responsibilities, including:

  • Set and agree the scope of the project, confirm and authorise stages, obtain necessary resources, monitor and control through the project manager, accept the end product and close the project.

  • Delegate the day-to-day management responsibility to the project manager; allow the project manager some agreed tolerances for overruns etc.

  • Use the end product during its operational life; monitor its effectiveness, and achieve the business benefits.

It can be very useful for the long-term success of the project if you spend a few minutes during the identification phase with the sponsor, making sure that the sponsor understands the role he/she has taken on. This small investment of your time may pay dividends later if you run into problems on the project. You want the sponsor to be on your side, pushing to break the road blocks, acting as a senior management champion for the project. Of course this is more relevant on larger projects that affect much more of the organisation, but the sponsor can be the most usefulĀ  ’resource’ on the project team, and you should try to get the best out of him or her.


Is the sponsor the customer?

Well, sometimes but not always. Sometimes the sponsor is a director or manager who represents the business’s need, whereas the customer may be the person who will actually use what you deliver.

It can be useful to identify both roles, as you will need to use them differently throughout the project. The sponsor will be making strategic decisions (e.g. shall we cancel this project), whereas the customer will be involved in more tactical decisions (e.g. what colour will the new walls be painted).


What is the project manager’s role?

This sounds obvious, and can be expressed quite simply as: the project manager must ensure that the project as a whole produces the required end products to the required standard within specified constraints of time and cost.

This is accomplished by the activities of planning, defining objectives and responsibilities, monitoring progress and resource utilisation, taking corrective actions where necessary, and advising the sponsor of status and direction.

There is a further part to the responsibilities of a project manager: the project manager is responsible for making sure that the project produces a result capable of achieving the benefits defined in the business case.

This statement is most important, as it reminds the project manager that the project fits within an overall business environment. It is vital for the project manager to understand this wider environment, even if the project seems so small that it has no need for a formal business case.

It is also vital for the project manager to understand and constantly monitor the objectives, scope and constraints of the project, as they define the project’s outcome.

One common difficulty for many project managers is that they are also part of the project team (and, indeed, for many smaller projects the project manager may form 100% of the team!). It can be a matter of concern for the project manager to know precisely which hat (manager or team resource) he or she should be wearing today. We will address this point in more detail in the chapter on controlling progress.


Other useful project roles

Don’t think you have to define the role of every single person in the project. You don’t actually know who they all are yet. We are only interested in people who will undertake something that is not part of their usual job (and who will therefore appreciate a reminder of what you expect from them).

You may also require some specific input from specialists, and it can be useful to define the responsibility of each key player. There are some generic types of role to consider: regulators, inspectors (e.g. Health & Safety) and technical specialists.

There will be roles that are crucial to you project (for example a Health & Safety inspector who may have to approve something you are proposing in your project).



The roles can be shown in an organogram which should be supplemented with a few lines describing the detailed responsibilities.

In the Lake project there are two specialist roles (Environmental Specialist and Engineering Supervisor) that are crucial to your project, as they are the only two roles capable of issuing the certificates that form your major project deliverables. It is prudent to identify and document these roles in addition to the usual project roles.

For the Lake project key responsibilities are:


Sponsor: Mike Watson, responsible for:

  • accepting the project definition, project plans, progress reportsĀ  and project closure report

  • allocating the budget to the project

  • all aspects of communications with the Wildlife Trust (remember this was ruled out of your scope, as the sponsor wanted to do it himself)

Project manager: Jenny Harris; responsible for:

  • establishing objectives and scope

  • preparing project schedules and budgets

  • co-ordinating resources

  • tracking and reporting on progress

  • ensuring the agreed deliverables are completed

  • concluding the project and disbanding the project team

Environmental Specialist: Herb Erriott, responsible for:

  • survey to establish numbers of fish and plants

  • all aspects of day-to-day fish and plant welfare

  • testing the Lake water after the project, and issuing a certificate to ISO9876

Engineering Supervisor: Bert Simpson, responsible for:

  • all aspects of the pipe repair

  • testing the pipe and issuing a certificate to ISO1234




"I thought you were going to handle that" is a sign of a project that has unclear responsibilities. Sort it out at the beginning and make sure that the project progresses in a controlled manner. If someone is unsure of their ability to deliver their assigned activities then now is the time to find out, not half way through the project.


Further reading

Organisation management

A more detailed explanation of project and programme organisations.



Thanks to Mike Watson of Obsideo for providing this book


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