CommunicationITMPI InsightsProject LeadershipProject Management

The 7 Aspects of Project Relationship Management

As project management professionals we all have become increasingly aware of the importance of the so-called “soft skills” aspect of our profession. In recent years, skills such as time management, communication (verbal and non-verbal), emotional intelligence (EQ), facilitation, conflict resolution, and organizational management have received more and more recognition as essential aspects of successful project management. Let’s add to that list a skill I like to call “Project Relationship Management” or PRM.

There are upwards of seven primary aspects of PRM that we face in every project. These include the business, working, and professional relationships between:

  1. Project manager and project sponsor
  2. Project manager and project steering committee as a whole and as individuals
  3. Project manager and project subject matter experts (SMEs)
  4. Project manager and end-user(s)
  5. Project manager and functional area management
  6. Project manager and his/her direct superior
  7. And if applicable, project manager and project-associated vendor(s)

As a project progresses all of the resulting interactions between the project manager and those associated with his/her project are essentially relationships that need to be recognized and managed appropriately. They are not however the same. We must be able to discern the different nature of each and act/react accordingly. Let’s take a look at each of these relationships.

Project Manager and Project Sponsor

This is the individual who commissioned the project and therefore holds the purse strings (financial resources). The project lives or dies at their command. Your role as project manager is to ensure that all management aspects of the project are known and understood by this individual. Next to you, this individual is the most well-informed project team member. When this individual speaks, you listen. Make sure that you are clear on their views and expectations. If information or issues come to your attention that could negatively affect the project, be the first person to make the sponsor aware. This is the relationship where you NEVER “assume.”

Project Manager and Project Steering Committee

Above I stated “as a whole and as individuals” because there are multiple aspects of this particular relationship. Here you must be able to manage the often conflicting priorities, wants, and needs of individual committee members. Make no mistake; these individuals are primarily concerned with making sure that the project serves their organizational responsibilities. They will be biased in their opinions and their support. Your challenge as project manager is to hear and see (non-verbally) what’s being communicated while taking this into account. In addition, you must continue to remain focused on the overall project objectives while ruffling as few feathers as possible.

Project Manager and Project Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

As in all relationships being able to empathize with others is essential. Here it is particularly important. Remember that, unless the SMEs are assigned to your project as “dedicated resources” (100% of their work time has been allocated to your project), you and your project will probably be a secondary concern to them. In a matrix-based organizational environment their functional area management determines their work priorities and has their loyalty. Your project can be perceived as an additional work load and an intrusion on their “real” job. They may even enter the project with resentment and thinly veiled hostility. Your task here is to put yourself in their position and ask, “What’s in it for me (them)?” You want to bring to their attention the opportunity for professional growth the project will provide. You want to express a “win-win” scenario in your communication and interaction with them throughout the project.

Project Manager and End-User(s)

These are the beneficiaries of the project deliverable(s). The project was initiated to resolve a problem experienced either directly or indirectly by these individuals. They may or may not include your functional area SMEs, but their importance cannot be overlooked. Their willingness to embrace the anticipated results of your project can determine its overall success or failure. Remember, their working world is about to change as a result of your project. There will be apprehension concerning those impending changes. They must have the feeling that their concerns are being heard and addressed. They must feel that they are actively involved in the changes. You as project manager can do a lot to ease their anxiety. Spend some time in their work area. Be available for questions and conversation, business-related and otherwise. Be mindful of your attitude and how you are perceived. Remember, you are not their functional area manager and therefore not their boss. Get to know those who are respected, carry clout, and have influence. Focus your PRM skills on these individuals (without ignoring others) and your influence and acceptance will spread within the group. As this happens the acceptance of your project and its impending changes will be viewed in a more positive light.

Project Manager and Functional Area Management

The non-dedicated SMEs and associated end-users report directly to this individual. The number of these individuals you will have to deal with will vary with the number of organizational functional areas involved in your project. Again you must empathize with this individual. Your project has been assigned resources from his/her area. Although your project has the support of upper-level management, it will be taking resources from that functional area, that individual, and their ongoing organizational responsibilities. You must remember to work closely with each functional area’s management to negotiate and agree upon the distribution and allocation of the shared SME resources. This must be done on an ongoing basis throughout the project. The priorities of other functional area assignments could impact the resources previously allocated and agreed upon for your project, rendering them unavailable and thereby impacting your project schedule and overall project plan.

Project Manager and His/Her Direct Superior

This individual may be a PMO officer, a program manager, or your functional area director. This is the person responsible for your performance reviews. Make sure his/her performance expectations are clearly defined for each project. Here the 80/20 rule applies. Eighty percent of these expectations will remain constant across all of your assigned projects. But because each project is different, the remaining 20 percent will apply to any given individual project. Make sure you are aware and understand the unique expectations of each individual project. These expectations may include organizational political aspects as well as the individual personalities involved. Get a feel for what you’re dealing with. Establish a working relationship with your boss that will encourage the comfortable exchange of insights, opinions, feedback, and information. In this relationship the emphasis is on open and honest communication.

Project Manager and Project-Associated Vendor(s), If Applicable

The need to include this relationship as an aspect of your Project Relationship Management skill set depends upon whether or not your project involves an outside vendor/consultant(s). When it does, you get to be the one directing the course of the relationship. In the other aspects of Project Relationship Management you get the feeling of “responsibility without authority.” You are being called upon to influence the relationship but have no final say as to the direction taken. It’s almost as if you are a vendor even within your own organization.

Here the tables are turned in your favor. Don’t allow yourself to be awed or intimidated by big name industry heavyweights. The vendor is there at your organization’s discretion, and you represent the organization. In this situation a savvy vendor and its representatives will cater to your project’s needs and wants. After all, vendors rely on satisfied customers, and you are the customer. Here your responsibility is to clearly define project and organizational vendor expectations. In addition, you are to ensure that those expectations are met. These expectations should have been defined in the project Statement of Work (SOW) and any resulting vendor contracts. These determine your guidelines and metrics for vendor compliance. Use these and your authority as project manager with due diligence while remembering that one of your responsibilities is to maintain a positive vendor/customer relationship.


We as project management professionals must combine an understanding of the five process groups and the nine knowledge areas & associated management processes defined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) with an understanding and practical application of non-technical soft skills. This skill set encompasses the ability to empathize with those we interact with on our projects. Our PM role and responsibilities require us to interact with other team members at different levels within the organization and from different perspectives according to the roles and responsibilities of each. Developing effective working relationships within these contexts is essential for project success. Project Relationship Management (PRM) is the active development, cultivation, and maintenance of these project-associated relationships. The practical application of this skill set, along with those mentioned at the beginning of this article, will go a long way in ensuring the successful completion of our projects.


Ruffin Veal presented a webinar on this topic with ITMPI.

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