Illustration of a project owner, depicted as the conductor or an orchestra
5-second summary
  • Well-executed project ownership is often the key to a project’s success.
  • While a project owner is the person with the “vision” who aligns their ambitions with company-level goals and budget, a project manager coordinates people and logistics to make that vision a reality.
  • Plus, the six qualities of a great project owner, and five Team Playbook plays for successful project ownership.

Think back to those dreaded group projects in college. Nobody was really in charge, and nobody stepped up to take charge, either. Each member of the group had their assigned tasks, but nobody was invested. You were all just in it for the grade.

Now picture a project from your professional life that you remember with pride. You had clear high-level direction but also the autonomy to make the smaller decisions about your work, because you knew the subject matter best. Bottlenecks were few and far between. The project team believed in the value of the assignment, both for customers and for their own careers. And in the end, you delivered on time, to the delight of customers and stakeholders alike.

These success stories don’t “just happen.” The secret sauce is good old competent project ownership.

Project owners vs. project managers

If you’ve played the role of project manager in the past, you might think, understandably, that being a project owner is essentially the same thing – except as the owner, you’re assuming a higher level of accountability. In truth, the differences go deeper than that. 

It’s easier to understand the differences between these two roles if we focus on the underlying concepts. “Ownership” suggests a high level of responsibility, both in the sense of accruing credit for success and having to answer for failure. There’s also a sense of authority, especially when it comes to big decisions. “Management” implies dealing with the day-to-day operation of something – a group of people, a property, a project – that somebody else ultimately controls. Managers serve as both liaisons and the grease that keeps the wheels turning. 

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The project owner is the person with the vision. They’ve identified a problem and are excited to solve it. They make sure the endeavor aligns with the organization’s larger goals, secures funding from a project sponsor, and makes the business case to get buy-in from stakeholders. The project owner also assembles the project team and keeps them motivated by helping them understand the value of the project, listening to their ideas, and offering them chances to deepen their skills.

Project managers, then, take that vision and coordinate the work to make it real. They map out the steps needed to reach each milestone and find the right people to do it. Capacity planning, dependency management, week-by-week planning, and communicating progress all fall to the project manager.

Note that the larger or more mature the organization, the more likely these roles will be held by different people. In many small- to medium-sized orgs, the project’s owner and manager are often the same person. It can be a lot to handle, and if this is your situation, try to clear as much “business as usual” off your plate as possible so you can devote at least two-thirds of your time to the project.

So, what exactly does a project owner do?

A project owner’s role is less hands-on than the project manager’s, but there’s still plenty to keep them busy. As the project’s Champion In Chief™, they look for opportunities to boost its profile every day: talking with stakeholders about how it contributes to their goals, getting feedback from target customers, and celebrating milestones met.

They’re also responsible for making high-level decisions, whether it’s settling a dispute about the overall approach or prioritizing “must-haves” vs. “nice-to-haves.” For example, if the project falls behind, the project owner is the person who decides whether to reduce the scope, extend the timeline, or add personnel. By contrast, implementation decisions – say, whether a campaign needs a landing page or a blog post – should be left to the subject matter experts on the project team.

Last, as part of ensuring alignment up and down the org, a project owner advocates for resources. If the project team needs the help of a web developer for a week, the project owner will coordinate with whoever manages the web developers to understand what their team’s top priorities are and figure out how to secure seven days of someone’s time. Similarly, if the project manager needs help untangling dependencies or unclogging a bottleneck, they can escalate that to the project owner.

Why are project owners important?

Here’s a dirty little secret: some projects can get along just fine without a project owner. But for big, ambitious, complex, longer-running endeavors, a project owner is vital. They take charge of the vision and overall direction, leaving the project manager free to organize the nitty-gritty details. And while the team is busy executing, the project owner has space to pay attention to what’s going on in the larger organization and adjust the project’s direction as necessary.

Because the members of a project team are often involved in multiple workstreams, the continuous focus of the project owner acts as the glue that holds the whole thing together.

Qualities of a great project owner

Strategic thinker – Identifying problems that are preventing the organization from reaching its biggest objectives – and envisioning viable solutions – doesn’t happen by accident.

Enthusiastic – When the project owner is excited about how the end product will benefit customers and the company, their excitement is contagious. The project team stays motivated because their work has meaning, and stakeholders will support the project however they can because they understand how it furthers their own goals.

Great communicator – Given the prevalence of distributed work, a project owner’s written communication has to be on point. It’s not enough to articulate the vision, updates, and feedback clearly. It all has to be communicated through content that will reach the right people, and has to come at the right time so people can adapt to changes if needed.

Empathetic – Listening is critical: soliciting user feedback, being open to new ideas, and understanding whatever challenges the team might be facing. Every “business problem” or “technical problem” is ultimately a people problem, so you have to approach the solutions with humanity and compassion front and center.

Perceptive – Every big undertaking encounters problems. The best project owners can detect them early on, or even anticipate them, and prevent or address them while there’s still time.

Adaptable – New information comes to light. The competitive landscape shifts. Budgets get cut. Personnel turnover happens. Project owners have to decide how to sidestep obstacles and keep the train rolling down the track.

Guiding principles for project owners

No guidebook can offer the perfect advice for every situation you’ll encounter and decision you’ll make as a project owner – so much depends on the specifics of your deliverable. But what you can bring to each and every project you own is a set of principles to guide your actions.

Start with the “why” – Let’s assume that you don’t want to micromanage your project team. In fact, let’s assume that you want them to be intrinsically motivated to do the best work of their lives. The key to this is a sense of purpose; understand this project’s value to your organization, your customers, and yourselves as individuals, then put those benefits front and center. Discuss them in depth at your project kick-off. Remind the team at every meeting. Put them at the top of every document, chart, slide deck, and chat channel. Bonus: starting with the “why” is a great way to get management excited, too.

5 questions about motivation with Daniel Pink

Clarity is an investment, not a tax – Connecting the right people with the right information at the right time takes effort. (More on that below.) But it pays off. Without clear guidance from you, the project may veer off in the wrong direction and put the whole undertaking at risk. And the more you can anticipate what information they’ll need next and provide it before they even have to ask, the faster things will move along.

Trust wins; control backfires – When people are trusted to make good decisions about their work, they tend to make good decisions. Not only that, but they’ll also come up with more creative solutions than if you had dictated allthethings from on high. Conversely, micromanaging breeds resentment, which degrades the quality of work. 

Priorities matter more than plans – Following a plan feels good, I know. It’s all comforting and cozy and secure. But remember that stuff about adaptability? When your plan is disrupted, it’s better to recalibrate it to align with the project’s priorities than to plow ahead, hoping the disruption will just evaporate.

5 essential project ownership techniques from the Atlassian Team Playbook

  1. Interactive project kick-offs that actually move the project forward. Most project kick-off meetings are one-way broadcasts of information that (let’s face it) should have been a Confluence page. The project kick-off play has loads of collaborative ideas like creating a vision statement, agreeing on a decision-making framework, mapping out milestones, and getting to know your teammates better.
  2. Trade-off sliders to support smart, independent decision-making. This technique sets the project team up to make everyday choices based on the relative priority of cost, timing, customer delight, security, scalability, quality, etc. In this exercise, you and your team with brainstorm all the factors you could optimize for, identify which factors compete or conflict, and discuss the trade-offs. Once you’ve agreed on which direction to lean, the team will be able to make most decisions autonomously, removing a pesky bottleneck.
  3. Stakeholder communications planning to keep you organized. Consistent, proactive updates are the best way to prevent constant requests for info from this person or that. So take an hour to think through who you’ll need to communicate with, what type of updates they’ll want, and which channels will work best for reaching them. Then document it and review it with your project team.
  4. “Pre-mortem” analysis for detecting and addressing risks. Don’t just float along hoping for the best. Gather up your project team and brainstorm all the ways the project could fail, then figure out how you can address these risks now while there’s still time.
  5. Team health check-ins to keep performance high. Here, you’re looking at how you’re functioning as a project team. Do you have a shared understanding of the project and its value? The right people with the right skills? Are you managing dependencies effectively? We developed the Team Health Monitor framework to help you self-assess your strengths as a team and address weaker areas.

Now that you understand the role of a project owner, what separates the great ones from the mediocre, and which practices will keep your project running smoothly, the only thing left to do is get to work!

How to be a successful project owner (without micromanaging)