Illustration of a project owner, depicted as the conductor or an orchestra

We’ve all been on two types of projects: ones that ran smoothly, and ones that crumbled to pieces. While there are lots of contributing factors in each case, I’ll go out on a limb and say that project ownership (or lack thereof) is what makes the biggest difference.

Think back to those dreaded group projects in college. You were all peers, so nobody was naturally in charge. And chances are, nobody stepped up to take charge, either. (Because that would be, like, seriously un-cool.) Each member of the group had their assigned tasks with due dates, but nobody was very excited about it. You knew the project counted for a large part of your final grade in the course, but beyond that, who cares? It’s just one more stupid hoop to jump through on the way to your diploma.

Now picture a project from your professional life that you think back on 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 project, both for customers and for their own careers. And in the end, the project was delivered on time, to the delight of customers and stakeholders alike.

Projects like that don’t “just happen”. The magic ingredient is good old-fashioned leadership from a competent project owner.

If you’ve played the role of project manager in the past, you might (understandably) think 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. Keep reading for a closer examination of these two roles, plus guiding principles and go-to techniques that will boost your success as a project owner.

Project owners vs. project managers vs. project sponsors

It’s easier to understand the differences between these three roles if we remove the word “project” and 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 team, a property, a project – that somebody else ultimately controls. Managers serve both liaisons and the grease that keeps the wheels turning. And “sponsorship”? Well, as with stadiums (remember those?), it means providing the funds and getting to have your name on the finished product for all the world to see.

How to be an amazing project team in a changing world

In the context of a project, the sponsor is generally an executive or director. They determine the project’s budget and let peripheral teams know that if the project needs their help, they should make that a priority. And, fairly or unfairly, the project will generally be thought of as “theirs” in the minds of other upper-echelon leaders.

The project owner is the person with the vision. They’ve identified a problem and are excited to solve it. They make sure the project aligns with the organization’s larger goals, secures funding from a sponsor, and champions the project with stakeholders. The project owner also assembles the project team and keep them motivated. A good project owner (hint-hint!) will do this by helping the team understand the value of the project, listening to their ideas, and offering them chances to deepen their skills.

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

Note that, the larger or more mature the organization, the more likely these three roles will be held by three different people. In many small- to medium-sized orgs (such as Atlassian’s marketing department, where I sit) the project’s owner and manager are often the same person. It can be a lot to handle – I won’t lie. If this is your situation, try to clear most “business as usual” work off your plate so you can devote at least two-thirds of your time to the project.

So, what exactly does the project owner do on a daily basis?

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

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 project’s scope, extend its timeline, or beef up the team. 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 work with whoever manages the web developers to understand what their team’s top priorities are and figure out how to secure a week 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 (who, in turn, may eventually need to escalate it to the project sponsor, although this usually isn’t necessary).

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 projects, 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 there are few things worse than getting to the end of a project and finding out it’s no longer relevant, right?)

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, then envisioning viable solutions doesn’t happen by accident.

Enthusiastic – When the project owner is excited about how the project 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 – With more teams operating in a distributed fashion, 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 channels that will reach the right people (think 1-to-1 chat vs. all-hands meeting), and has to come at the right time so people can adapt to changes if needed.

Empathetic – Listening is critical: soliciting feedback from customers and stakeholders, being open to ideas from project team members, and understanding whatever challenges they 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 project 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. Team membership changes. Project owners have to decide how to work around 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 situation: the nature of the project, the organizational culture you’re working in, etc. But what you can bring to each and every project you own in 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 the team to be intrinsically motivated to do the best work of their lives. One of the key ingredients 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 stakeholders 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 stakeholder communications below.) But it pays off. Without clear guidance from you, the project team may veer off in the wrong direction and put the project 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 – The second key ingredient in intrinsic motivation is autonomy. When people are trusted to make good decisions about their work, guess what? 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. So as the song says, “let it go”. (If it works for cartoon sorceress-queens, it can work for the rest of us, right?)

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 (in vain) that 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. Instead, craft an agenda that gets team members and stakeholders engaged from the start. The project kick-off play has loads of collaborative ideas like creating a vision statement, agreeing on a decision-making framework, mapping out milestones, getting to know your teammates better, and many others.
  2. Trade-off sliders to support smart, independent decision-making. This technique sets the project team up to make every-day 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. This is another early-detection technique, but 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)