One of the most valuable project management lessons I ever learned in my professional life is: Key words at key moments are the key to success. Despite the foundational importance of social and emotional awareness, this “underlying competency” remains unknown to a lot of managers and leaders.
Without this awareness, how can they succeed?
The truth is that most of them don’t thrive. I’ve worked with professionals at all organizational levels, from the operational floors to the boards of directors. They are usually equipped with more knowledge than they need to effectively engage and involve stakeholders.
Nevertheless, I witness stakeholder management disasters every day. Unfortunately, weak sponsorship, untruthful partnership, empty leadership and irresponsible citizenship are the norm, not the exception.
Allay Stakeholders’ Fears
I’ve been researching stakeholder management and related topics for years to cope with my daily struggles as a project management practitioner and consultant. (I recently delivered a webinar on the subject that you can watch here.)
While compiling tools and techniques, developing frameworks and applying theoretical knowledge in pragmatic ways, I keep coming back to what has become my stakeholder management mantra: Key words at key moments are the key to success.
Technical and managerial knowledge are must-haves for project success, but so are underlying competencies—what are known as soft skills.
Here’s an illustration. Suppose you are in a hospital waiting to undergo surgery. The doctor enters the room, does his job successfully, and then leaves you by yourself without saying a word. How would you feel? Even if the doctor were highly skilled, you would feel disappointed, right?
Caregivers and medical professionals know the importance of a warm reception and voice-guided gestures. Showing that you care is even more important than caring about your patients.
So here’s a better course of action: First, announce what you are going to do and explain why. Then, do what you have to do, explaining details during the action as much as possible. Finally, announce that you are done and explain the results.
Stakeholders are afraid of change. Anxiety boosted by a lack of the right kind of communication creates huge misunderstandings. That is why—yes, let’s say it again—key words at key moments are the key to success.
How about your projects? Do you plan the type and timing of communications to facilitate change management initiatives?
By Dave Wakeman
You don’t have to be a great philosopher to understand that our business environment has changed tremendously over the last few years. One result of all this change is that organizations now rely more heavily on projects to deliver on their strategic efforts.
Instead of considering this a problem, project managers should look at it as a huge opportunity to act more strategically and add value to their roles. We should work with executive leadership to help deliver successful projects aligned with the overall organizational strategy.
Many organizations have just begun to incorporate project management into their strategic delivery. Here are three ways you can align yourself with your organization’s strategy to take advantage of the shifting dynamics in the business environment.
1. Always jump to “why?”
I tell my clients that everything we do in an organization is driven by the answer to one simple question: Why?
As a project manager looking to jump into the strategic deployment of projects, you must move from implementer to strategic partner.
As a strategic partner, you want to get out in front of projects that you suspect won’t be successful from the start. To do so, always ask yourself, “Why this is important?” or “Why isn’t this important?” By being driven by the “why,” you can take control of wayward or poorly aligned projects.
Onecautionary note: When you explain that the project isn’t in alignment with the organizational strategy, you need to offer some alternatives.
2. Pay close attention to the business environment surrounding your organization and project.
As someone close to the implementation of the strategy, you will have a great vantage point to recognize and diagnose any challenges that might impede your team’s progress. You are also likely to be much closer to changes that present opportunities, technologies that will expedite delivery or unresolved issues that may derail the project.
The key is to stop thinking about just your individual project, and begin to think about how your project plays in the overall strategy. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, you should step into the conversation about how the project is working or not working with the organization’s strategy. But be prepared to explain how you got there and how you can get things back in order.
3. Think in terms of outcomes.
As a project manager in a project-driven organization, you’ll need to think and manage based on outcomes. This is in part because the demographics of our workforces are changing from on-site, lifelong employees to remote teams, project-driven workforces and employees who are looking for higher degrees of balance in their lives.
This makes outcome-based objectives a key component of delivering on the strategic promise of the organization. And it means you need to give up the idea that you can or should try to control every activity in your project.
It also means you are likely going to have to focus more on opening clear communication lines with your team and key stakeholders so you can communicate the importance of these outcomes in the context of the organization’s strategy.
How is your role becoming more strategic, and how do you drive strategic thinking in your projects? Let me know what I missed.
By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Send me an email at email@example.com
By Rex Holmlin
I teach project management to undergraduate and graduate students, and recently one of my students asked me which knowledge area was the most important.
My response: All the knowledge areas are important. Depending on the project and organizations involved, we would use more or less of the processes and tools, but most likely we would use all the knowledge areas in some way to help ensure project success.
But as I reflected on the question later, as well as my own nearly four decades of experience as a project manager, I realized my answer wasn’t great. In retrospect, I should have said Stakeholder Management is the most important knowledge area.
By training, I am an engineer. I love cost estimating and scheduling. But as important as these topics are, the source of most problems on projects is people. And the best way to avoid project problems is through the people involved in the project.
Therefore, paying attention to the four processes of stakeholder management can pay significantly more dividends to a project than a schedule or cost estimate.
When it comes to stakeholder management, I believe we shortchange our projects most often in two areas.The first is identification of stakeholders.
I am reminded of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Early in the film, train robbers Butch and Sundance are being chased by a posse. They stop to catch their breath, hoping they have lost the posse. When the lawmen appear over the ridge still on their trail, Butch and the Kid look at each other and say, “Who are those guys?”
This is the key question with the identification of stakeholders. We as project managers need to do a very thorough job of identifying the people, groups and organizations not only involved in the project, but who might be affected by it.
The second aspect of stakeholder management where project managers often fall short is stakeholder analysis. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge(PMBOK® Guide)includes some great stakeholder analysis tools, but I recently came across an outstanding academic article(PDF link) by John Bryson of the University of Minnesota about stakeholder analysis.
It provides step-by-step instructions on 15 stakeholder analysis tools and techniques that can really take your understanding of the stakeholders in your project to the next level. I think you’ll find it both interesting and a potential source of tools to help you avoid a lot of the headaches we often encounter with project stakeholders.
Which knowledge area do you think is the most important?
In my previous post, I promised to tell you a sad but true story of a sponsor who was against his own project. As you know, lack of sponsorship is one of the major causes of failure in projects. It is very hard to make things happen without senior-level support.
According to author and business consultant John P. Kotter, building a guiding or supporting coalition means assembling a group with the power and energy to lead and sustain a collaborative change effort. That is when strong sponsorship comes to mind in project management.
Unfortunately, I was the project manager tasked with the initiative featuring the unfriendly sponsor. By that time, I knew some of the tricks of the change management trade. However, I naively ignored that people have their own hidden agendas.
Sizing Up the Sponsor
The sponsor, let’s call him John, was a division manager with almost 25 years dedicated to the same organization. He proposed an audacious project to outsource almost half of his division, creating a new company to own the assets.
It was a brilliant idea, strictly aligned with the organizational strategy. There was a solid business case supporting headcount and cost reduction, improved service levels and an outstanding return on investment. The board of directors promptly approved the project and it took off with strong support.
You already know that a project, by definition, is a disturbance in the environment. “Project” is synonymous with “change.” Change usually implies resistance. This project faced enormous challenges related to cultural and structural change, power, politics and more.
It took me some time to realize John was a real threat to the project. At first, I shared all my information with him, and I trusted that he was an enthusiastically.
But along the way, I noticed John was not performing his sponsor role properly. In particular, he was not working on selling or on leadership.
Figure 1 – Sponsor’s roles (Trentim, 2013)
Consequently, crucial organizational decisions were postponed, resulting in serious negative impacts on the project. John was responsible for leading change, but he wouldn’t do it. The project was failing because I could not overcome the ultimate resistance barrier: the sponsor.
I started asking myself about John’s real intentions. It was a very uncomfortable situation.
One day, I was discussing the sponsorship issue with my core team members. Alice asked me, “Do you really think John wants this project to be successful?” A few weeks before, my answer would have been “Sure!” Now, I decided to hold a problem structuring session based on Alice’s doubt.
To our amazement, we concluded that if we were in John’s shoes, we would want the project dead.
It was simple. Although there was a solid business case with wonderful benefits, none of them appealed directly to John. In fact, John would be demoted from senior division manager to manager of a department of less than half its former budget and staff. He could even lose his job after the successful startup of the outsourcing project.
I confronted John. He tried to change the topic several times. Finally, he confessed. I will never forget his words: “Corporate politics forced me to initiate this project. If I did not propose the project, someone else would initiate it and carry it on successfully, destroying my division. I had no choice.”
After John’s confession, he was replaced by another sponsor and the project was soon back on track.
Ideals vs. Reality
This experience permanently altered the way I view sponsors. Ever since then, I’ve never assumed my stakeholders are ideal.
In an ideal project, you would have:
In reality, you have:
The fundamental lesson learned here is that managing stakeholders is far from simple. It is a combination of science (tools, techniques, and best practices), art (soft skills, communications, political awareness) and craft (experience).
What was your biggest stakeholder management challenge? Share your experiences and lessons learned below.
By Lynda Bourne
Whether an individual, group or organization, each stakeholder has a unique and evolving set of expectations and perceptions.
To effectively engage with and influence this diverse community, traditional “one size fits all” approaches to project communications—such as regular reports—need to be replaced by a structured methodology supported by adequate resources that consider the complexities of all stakeholders.
In earlier posts, I’ve discussed the relationship between stakeholder perceptions and project success and the three types of stakeholder communication. Of those three types, project relations (meaning PR/marketing) and traditional reporting cover the needs of noncritical stakeholders.
This post is focused on the targeted communication needed to change the attitude or behaviour of the small group of critical stakeholders who need to be doing something differently to support the successful delivery of your project.
Five Steps to Changing Stakeholder Behaviour
Each targeted communication is focused on one stakeholder to achieve a desired change in his or her attitude and/or behaviour. For example, maybe a functional manager needs to stop obstructing your project and actively support the loan of some key resources for critical work.
The first stepin this process is defining precisely what you need from the stakeholder. You also need to prioritize objectives so you focus your efforts on the most important changes you need at this time.
The next stepis to describe and understand the elements of the stakeholder’s uniqueness. These elements include national, professional and generational culture traits, as well as gender, personality and “their reality” (how they see the world).
Once you know what you want and understand the best approaches to use to engage the person, the third step is planning the communication strategy by designing carefully targeted information exchanges.
Strategies for achieving this can range from casual coffee meetings to formal presentations using a range of different media and messengers. You can approach some stakeholders directly, while others need to be influenced through your network of contacts. Any organizational currency you or your team have accrued can be highly beneficial, but needs to be spent carefully.
Then comes the fourth step: implement the plan and communicate!
The final stepin the process is to assess the effectiveness of the communication and adjust the plan as necessary to ensure that the stakeholder becomes appropriately engaged in supporting the project’s objectives.
The keys to effective stakeholder engagement are the strength of the relationship you have in place and mutuality—meaning that both your project and the stakeholder need to benefit from the engagement.
This process may sound like hard work. It is. But it is far better to invest in effective stakeholder engagement to make your project successful than to under-invest and fail because you do not have the support and resources needed for success.
How much effort do you put into planned and targeted communication?