Stakeholder Perceptions Are Paramount

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One of the first things salespeople learn is that perceptions are reality. And the same goes for project managers.

Your perceptions and your reality may differ, but if you want to communicate effectively with someone you need to understand their version of the truth.

Perceptions are also closely aligned with expectations. If a stakeholder perceives an organization as unresponsive and inefficient they will expect bad service. From this starting point, the stakeholder will readily accept as true every experience that contradicts their view of the world. A good experience can be written off as "the exception that proves the rule."

This presents a distinct challenge to project managers who are developing a communication plan. Your stakeholder's perceptions of project management will be based on prior experience with other projects in other times and even other organizations.

This is neither fair nor reasonable but it is a fact!

The situation is made worse by another trait: our tendency to feel and remember bad experiences more strongly than good ones.

Where negative attitudes occur, your solution is basically hard work. You need to assess the current attitude of your key stakeholders, determine the optimum attitude and then work to improve the stakeholder's perceptions of your project.

There are three key elements to consider when working to change poor perceptions. 

1. Build rapport and open communication channels that will be effective. You may need help from supportive stakeholders to achieve this.

2. Build your credibility by providing accurate, timely and useful information that precisely meets the needs of the stakeholder. Help them to be successful.

3. Whenever possible, differentiate your current project from the person's previous negative experiences.

The bad news is one slip and you immediately reinforce the old perceptions. So stay focused and ensure every communication, authentic and credible.
Posted by Lynda Bourne on: November 25, 2009 04:18 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Raymond Posch
Thanks, Lynda, for an excellent article. I agree that managing perceptions and expectations is an important part of project management. Managing negative perceptions requires special steps as you point out. Thanks!

I tend to lump these PM skills into the broader category of "relationship management," and it really is a critical success factor area for the project manager. Managing the relationships with the team, with the customer, and with the stakeholders is a soft skill that is not often taught in PM training courses. I think it begins with paying attention to the relationships and supporting them with a lot of communication - of which listening is a key component.

Raymond Posch, Weekly PM Insights,

Stan Yanakiev, PMP
Good post. Everyone's perceptions are their reality, so a project manager has to deal with as many perceptions as the number of stakeholders on the project, plus his or her own. The challenge is how to align them as much as possible.

Perceptions are bound to change. It is important to work with a open mind. This applies equally for project managers as well as the stakeholder. As long as the stakeholders and the project manager are aligned with respect to the success of the project, project management should be successful.

Iona Brode, MBA, PMP
A piece of mentoring advice I received very early in my career was "perceptions rule, so rule perceptions!" For that reason Lynda's article truly resonates with me.

Whenever there are poor perceptions of a project the project manager needs to focus quickly on project perception recovery. Unfortunately negative perceptions can spread like wildfire, most dangerously planting seeds of doubt even in the minds of current champions and advocates - all that support and trust that you have worked hard to build is suddenly at risk.

Also, unfortunately, as project managers we often end up inheriting these types of projects, which means dealing with deadline pressures, low team morale and a whole laundry list of other issues. Despite that, re-instating positive stakeholder perceptions has to be at the top of the list. Building on the great advice provided by Lynda, as project managers we need to dig deep to understand what the negative perception truly is.

One tool I have found helpful is a "stakeholder healthcheck" matrix. Quite simply, project managers take a step back and document:

1.) What are the issues experienced by the stakeholder that are leading to the negative perceptions?
2.) What, precisely, is the impact this is having (or will have) on the project?
3.) What are the suggested, practical steps for addressing the perception issues?
4.) By when and by whom can these steps be implemented?

Simple as this sounds it helps project managers take the "emotion" out of the equation and focus on the facts and solutions objectively. Once documented you can also take it to trusted colleagues and mentors to sense-check your approach and ultimately take your recommended plan of action to the stakeholders themselves.

It takes courage to deal with stakeholders that have negative perceptions but, as we know, once dealt with, the reward is potentially transforming them into your strongest allies.

Vinod kute
Good article.

Generally, the negative perceptions are about the project performance in the real world.

Project managers have to prove/show project performance per the stakeholders requirement & communicate with them on regular basis to overcome the project constraints.

I think over a period of time stakeholder perceptions will change.

Joseph Kupec
Project management is as much an art as it is a science. While we have great technology at our disposal for developing schedules, it is the people on the project that must work together in persuit of the common goal. When confidence is shaken, offer a sincere apology accompanied by a concise action plan as a fourth element for digging out of a positive perception deficit.

Raymond Posch
Thank you, Iona, for your comment. Very good points, and I like your technique for assessing and responding to the issues with the stakeholder(s). And I see how it ties to what Lynda was recommending ... her 3 steps and your "healthcheck" can be used together effectively for stakeholder relationship management.

At first I was thinking that I've been lucky and haven't had many projects with negative stakeholder perceptions. But then I realized, well, maybe there was a period of time when I ignored certain situations with stakeholders - thinking that's just the way that person is - when, in fact, using these approaches would have been much more responsible and effective for the project and for the longer term relationship with that person.

Orlando Munoz
Thank you Lynda for a great article. I agree with Raymond on the importance of "relationship management"—but I call it "the human touch." And this is a trait we're losing more and more.

We're always caught up with numbers, the SPI, the CPI, the schedule, and deadlines, but what about the human part of our customer?

I remember a project I was assigned to some time ago, I easily perceived the state of the project when the CEO greeted me at the door and said, "If you try to collect any of your invoices I'll sue." The project was supposed to be over months before my arrival, there were plenty of objectives not fulfilled and a bunch of past due invoices to collect.

What I did basically was determine with my customer a plan to achieve the business objectives that the project didn't meet, set due dates and agreed to start over. Obviously this really didn't happen until the first couple of objectives were met on time but everything worked out, the customer ended up satisfied, and all the bills were paid.

What I'm trying to say is, never lose sight that a project is not cheap. Many times the stakeholders are putting their professional lives on the line for the project to be a success, the rewards are big but also are the consequences of failure.

And what I always try to remember is how would I like to be treated if I was paying that kind of money? Would I be satisfied with the quality I'm delivering? If the answer to these questions is yes, you can be not unequivocally, but quite sure that your customer will be happy.

Spyros Lecouras, MBA, PMP

Excellent article - thank you.

Communication is key—[as well as] establishing a pattern of meeting commitments, and your time line. I have found that sometimes stakeholders feel disconnected from implementation plans. Making the effort to review the teams' implementation and risk mitigation plans at a high level often soothes stakeholders' concerns.

Maureen Gan
While customers are often demanding, project managers are in a delicate situation to balance satisfying the customers and delivering to the project's requirements.
Sometimes, simply asking the customers to state their expectations on the project in a first step.

Knowing who is the "real customer" helps.

Getting the customer to prioritise the list of expectations.

Ask the customer what was the measurement of the project team in delivering to the expectations.

Continue to communicate to the project team so that the members understand them ans is able to work on meeting and exceeding those expectations.

Work out an action plan on those areas that does not meet client expectations with the plans to address and improve on certain timelines.

This need not be rocket science. Let's feel it.

Let's empathise and listen.

Let's be structured in problem solving.

Maureen Gan

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