Project Management

Getting Those Approvals

From the Eye on the Workforce Blog
Workforce management is a key part of project success, but project managers often find it difficult to get trustworthy information on what really works. From interpersonal interactions to big workforce issues we'll look the latest research and proven techniques to find the most effective solutions for your projects.

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This blog is about managing a project workforce. Stakeholders are not treated as a formal part of your project workforce, but maybe they should be at times.

When should you consider them as part of your workforce? When they have simple tasks that need to be completed. A common example is the project document approval task. (Simple?  Maybe in theory!) This is where you run into delays.

Day 1 (Project Manager):  "Please approve linked document in 10 days"
Day 10 (Stakeholder):  "Has Compliance approved?"
Day 11 (Project Manager):  "All other approvers have now submitted their approval. Please approve in 2 days."
Day 13 (Stakeholder):  "This is the first time I have seen this document. The version table is incomplete and there are misspellings. A paragraph is confusing in the Not in Scope section."
Day 14 (Project Manager):  "Versioning updates and spelling edits have been made. Clarification has been added in the Not is Scope section. Please approve the new version in 2 days."
Day 16 (Project Manager):  "Will you be able to approve the document today?"
Day 16 (Stakeholder):   "Thank you for your message. I will be in Aruba for the next two weeks and will respond when I return."

In project manager bars, where they drink the Release on the Rocks, this is a hot topic. How fast do you expect approvals in your organization? 3 days? 1 week? Two weeks? A month? I'm sure many of you Alert Readers have experienced extreme delays for approval at one point or another. If not, then you have just missed out on one of the fun times a project manager can have.

Here are some of the realities you must consider:

  • Environments where certain stakeholders are so busy that they cannot approve documents in a timely fashion
  • Environments where slow approvals have been part of the culture for so long that groups scheduled to receive the docs refuse to apply any resources on actual work until the document is received in fully approved form. And they will raise an issue if it is not received. (You cannot fault them for this.)

So it behooves us to come up with a list of tactics to avoid or handle this type of environment and the subgroup of stakeholders who do not approve in a timely fashion. Some of these you may think about doing but do not actually do.

Avoiding Delays Through Better Preparation

When you create your agendas for stakeholder meetings, be sure to explain:

  • The importance of timely approvals to meeting the timeline and getting the benefits they want.
  • That there will be at least a couple of weeks of warning prior to completion of the document. In addition, plenty of time will be provided for approvals once submitted (1 week, 2 weeks, or whatever is appropriate in your organization)
  • That a delegee should be assigned to approve if the stakeholder is away and cannot review and approve the document
  • That plenty of time will be given for availability of document during development.
  • Make it clear that you understand the importance of what it means to approve. You as project manager will make sure that the content has been fully discussed by a broad group of representatives before submitting for approval (remove the fear).
  • That questions should be asked prior to final day so that response can be provided in plenty of time and still meet the approval deadline.

Example:  At the initial stakeholder meeting (or an early one), include bullets representing statements above and any related that are appropriate to your project.

Beyond the stakeholder meeting, there are other things you can do:

  • Provide a list of the documents needing approval by stakeholders. Another way to reduce surprises and CYA (Cover Your Anatomy).
  • Review any ordered list of who is required to approve first and last (if using) and ask if any changes need to be made.
  • Do not ask publicly if any stakeholder foresees problems with approving in a timely fashion. This may be politically sensitive within the group. Ask that question to individual stakeholders, especially the "usual suspects" who routinely are slow to approve.

Work Planning for Better Preparation

  • If you work in a very challenging environment, consider adding to your project management plan or equivalent document, include some treatment of approvals. A couple of options:
    • Write an assumption that document approvals will be completed in the reasonable amount of time allotted.
    • Write an initial risk that documents may not be approved in a timely fashion and that this may cause delays or problems with resource management.
  • Assign enough time for serious editing to head off any specious reasons for non-approval so additional time can be gained. Get rid of

    • Misspellings / bad grammar
    • Mis-numbering or omissions in content (such as required fields left unfilled)
    • Differing format
    • Incomplete versioning
  • Help your project workforce to manage towards dates for key project management deliverables that need approval, such as the requirements document. Distribute drafts to interested parties, incorporate the feedback and set up plenty of review meetings.
  • Use the automated approval technology available to you, via web sharing system or other document management system, but practice using it if you are new to it. Practice learning its behavior with an internal team and an example document. Especially useful is any feature that allows you to choreograph the chronological order of those who must approve.
  • In your workplan, incorporate plenty of time for approvals. Don't just lump together "Complete XYZ document". For example, include separate tasks for requirement gathering sessions, stakeholder reviews of near-final document, and approvals.
  • Document which stakeholders attend each review session versus who was invited. You may need this information as objective evidence of how easy you made it when you get push-back on any approval. Reduces the need for escalation or makes escalation more in your favor.

What are some other techniques you use? Different environments need different tactics, so let me know what you have found successful. Do you have a problem with missing your chance to do these things and then having to suffer approval delays yet again?


Posted on: June 20, 2018 10:52 PM | Permalink

Comments (21)

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Joe, good points thanks for sharing

Thanks for sharing!!

Good points, thanks for sharing.

Good advice Joe, thanks.

Thanks, Joe. Hand-off's and a lack of a centralized system promote delay's regardless. We've used, and developed for others, an automated workflow built on-top SharePoint to notify others and allow for approval/reject.

Joe, thank you! As Andrew, I used centralized systems and also there are delays...

I laugh a lot with the first paragraph, I saw my own inbox...

Thanks Joe for sharing, very good points.

Joe, thank you for this very informative article. What seems to be a relatively straightforward task sometimes seems to be everything but that. I use Outlook's Approve; Reject Voting Buttons option as a sign off for project charters and release. It works great and allows me to save the response and paste it into the document. My problem is the timely response. You've given me additional tips that I've already added to my Kick Off meeting agenda! THANK YOU!

Thanks for sharing Joe.

That is a very good remark indeed!
Say, in my path I've, most probably, been just covered by luck. In the PM process used some time ago, the PM was also evaluated on the capability to respect deadlines during a checkpoint. For example, between Initiation and Planning, there were not only some documents to be done, but also to get approved before the checkpoint meeting. If the document was not approved, the PM could not hold the meeting. And if he goes in delay, the PMO came to check: was the document not available? Fault of the PM. Is the document available but not approved? Fault of the Sponsor.
Whatever the faulty person was, the PMO came to remind him/her.
And after that the PMO sent the Project Performance Evaluation tool to the Sponsor, that had to give a formal feedback, dates of all the occurred actions were already automatically populated, then the Sponsor had to justify what went wrong.
It has to be considered that PMO was a higher authority in the Company.

In short, when the PMO presented the process to PMs and Sponsors, it came clear that nobody desired to become the bottleneck.

Good tips! I really agree with you about not asking any stakeholder to publicly admit they have a problem with the timeline. Allowing people to save face is big and often micro communications can better address deadline challenges. Like Pier Luigi said, having a PMO with higher authority helped me apply pressure when needed even to crazy-busy, high-profile stakeholders. Funny and all too real conversation there in your intro.

Jose, excellent information on avoiding delays! Thanks for sharing.

Great advice, thanks Sir.

Joe, thank you for sharing information. I think all the project managers must be aware of techniques to avoid delays.

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