Case study – The stakeholder from hell
Melvin was a project manager on a software development project. On a weekly basis, he reported status via a conference call with project stakeholders that were distributed around the world. The meeting was usually a formality. Melvin sent the status report the day before to all stakeholders for them review before the meeting.
Donna, the lead stakeholder was particularly difficult at times. She had a habit of taking one small detail and turning it into a big problem. Because of that, Melvin always entered this meeting with some trepidation.
In one particular status call, he reported on a requirements review meeting that had been held earlier in the week. As soon as he mentioned the meeting, Donna spoke up, “Why wasn’t I invited to that meeting?”
There was a moment of silence as Melvin considered her question. “I thought you were invited.” He replied.
Donna had found her problem. “I was not invited to that meeting! I need to be invited to any meeting where we review business requirements!” She went on for what seemed like several minutes to Melvin. When she was done, or at least paused long enough for him to reply, he apologized for the oversight. She continued to scold him for a few minutes before he continued on with his status.
After the meeting, Melvin flipped his laptop open and looked up the meeting invitation. Donna had indeed been invited to the meeting. She did not respond to the invitation, which is why it didn’t show up on her calendar.
Project stakeholder management can be a difficult aspect of project management. Some stakeholders, like Donna, can be intentionally difficult and seem almost impossible. Others may be easier to deal with. But they will almost always have high expectations.
To be successful, a project manager needs to know how to manage the stakeholders in order to manage a project.
It is important to start the project out on the right foot. This can be most effective if expectations are set with all stakeholders on the team.
For project team members, meet with the team as part of the kickoff meeting and develop a set of team norms. This is a list of self-prescribed and self-enforced rules and regulations. Some of the rules that my teams have come up with include keeping music limited to headphones at volumes others can’t hear. If the team has flexible hours, the team may establish a window of time that everyone is present so that they know when to schedule meetings.
The expectation should also be set with team members about the project manager’s accessibility, when can they call the project manager and when should they wait or send an email.
The project team should also know what to expect throughout the project. Explain the major milestones and what you hope to accomplish at each point. Changes may occur and the expectation should be set for that as well. When the changes do take effect, let the team know how you expect to deal with those changes. If there is a change management process, this is the time to explain it to them.
Business stakeholders need to know what to expect from the project as well. Meet with the key stakeholders and make them familiar with your management style. Explain to them the purpose of the project and how long it will take to accomplish everything. They should also be made aware of your change management process.
Explain to the business stakeholders how things will occur at the end of the project. Let them know how the system will be deployed and handed over to them when everything is tested and approved. Explain any training that will take place if necessary.
Some of this should be done verbally so that it can be heard personally from the project manager. Most of it should be done in writing too so that they can refer back to it and verify things they may have forgotten.
Expectation management is a big part of managing your stakeholders and making sure they are kept satisfied.
Once expectations are set with stakeholders, it’s important to live up to those expectations. The project manager should establish a weekly meeting with key stakeholders early on in the project. While major changes may not take place every week, it is important to meet to discuss any issues, risks, and other project updates. If business stakeholders begin skipping status meetings, impress upon them the importance of meeting on a weekly basis.
An effective visual way to communicate status of various aspects of the project is using the red/yellow/green (RYG, also called RAG status for red/amber/green) format. Like a stoplight, Green indicates that everything is in “Go” mode with nothing to worry about. Yellow indicates caution. This is used when events occur on a project where there is risk of going late, over budget, or there is an inability to meet certain critical requirements.
Red should be reported when project overruns occur, or if there are obstacles preventing the team from delivering any business requirements.
The important thing to remember is that status should be reported honestly. If major risks exist causing any component to be yellow or red, the project manager should have the guts to report it. A corrective action plan should be presented with the negative status to inform the business how it will be fixed.
There is often a tendency for a project manager to report the item as green and hope that the contingency plans in place will fix the problem. No one will have to be alarmed and the problem will just go away. However, if the plan does not fix the problem, it is usually a bigger issue that needs to be reported. Business stakeholders rarely like to be surprised with statuses that go from green one week to red the next. It is much better for them to have a heads-up on any issues, even if you fully intend to fix the problem.
Reporting status of a project regularly and honestly develops trust with the business stakeholders, allowing the project manager to work with them in a more productive environment.
The project manager has the responsibility of making many decisions. But those decisions are not made in a vacuum. Team members on the project have experience and access to front line matters that the project manager may not be privy to. Including other team members in decision making is a way to brainstorm new ideas and to include information that may not have been considered otherwise.
Additionally, including team members in decision making will be more likely to obtain their buy-in. If they feel like they helped in the decision process, they will be more likely to get behind it to prove that it is a correct decision.
The project manager must also make sure that his or her decisions don’t over step the bounds of the role. There may be decisions that the business will want to be included on. If the project manager makes a decision regarding how a requirement is implemented, the business may find out late and disagree, requiring expensive rework or even renegotiating of a vendor contract.
It is sometimes a delicate balancing act by the project manager trying to determine which decisions the business stakeholders want to be a part of. Some may be hands-off, while others may want to be part of every decision.
Learning the stakeholders’ preferences and working with them will help to develop a strong working relationship.
Creativity and a Sense of Humor
Stakeholders want to work with strong, decisive, and competent project managers. But they also want to work with a human being. Project managers sometimes come from technical backgrounds. They are more comfortable with numbers and absolute terms.
But a good project manager is also creative, coming up with unique ideas that can make a project successful. Creative ways to report status to business stakeholders can help them understand how the project is actually doing, rather than a group of statistics that can be meaningless.
A project manager with a sense of humor can also endear the business stakeholder to them as well. Business stakeholders will find it hard to deal with someone who is stiff and all business. If the project manager can make light of things and create a casual environment, the stakeholders will be more likely to enjoy being around the PM and will develop a better relationship.
While a good sense of humor is a good personal trait, the project manager should temper that with the personalities of the stakeholders. If the business culture is no-nonsense, people who don’t have patience for a lot of “messing around,” it may be better to model their attitudes rather than go out of your way to make them laugh. It can backfire and hurt your chances of developing a stronger relationship with them.
Communication may be the most important aspect of managing your project stakeholders. The basis of any strong relationship is clear, concise and honest communication.
We discussed setting expectations and reporting status clearly and honestly. These are all communication skills that will help you develop a strong relationship with stakeholders.
Additionally, a project manager needs to be willing to have difficult conversations with stakeholders. If a team member is not performing well, or has an attitude problem, it is the project manager’s responsibility to talk to that individual. The meeting should be a private, one-on-one conversation. The project manager should explain the situation and state the expectations for improvement. The team member should have an opportunity to reply, but should ultimately agree to make the requested changes.
Some project managers will put off those difficult conversations, allowing the problem to fester and get out of control. Confronting the situation early is the most effective way to deal with such issues. It usually develops a stronger relationship between the project manger and the team member.
The project manager may have to have difficult conversations with business stakeholders as well. If the stakeholder is distant or uninvolved, this creates a risk to the project that the project manager must deal with.
Having a face-to-face conversation with such as stakeholder will help to improve the situation, develop better rapport, and ultimately, develop a better relationship with the stakeholder.
Working with the various stakeholders of a project can be challenging. Some are easier to work with than others. By having strong communication skills and being a good decision maker, the project manager can develop a strong relationship that will lead to success.
How do you handle your project stakeholders?
If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.
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