If your key stakeholders and end users aren’t happy, nobody’s happy. Key stakeholders can make or break the success of a project, even if all the deliverables are met and the objectives are satisfied.
I was thinking recently about what added value I bring to the success of a project in managing and engaging stakeholders throughout its duration. I often smile when my project management colleagues refer to this as the soft or, more often, the ‘pink and fluffy‘ stuff. Many add how ‘nice’ it would be to do the tasks associated with managing business readiness and change. Moreover, getting people to adopt the shiny, new ‘sparkling’ and, of course, labour saving, efficient systems must be a doddle – surely?
In most projects the management of change is often seen as a necessary evil – a hard sell. In project management terms it mainly appears as a few, well-documented artefacts which sit outside the strategic management of change; often appearing as a standalone stakeholder grid, a sketchy communications plan or, more frequently, end user adoption workshops. While laudable, in isolation this formulaic approach still fails to fully integrate stakeholders into the successful delivery of the project outcomes. Consequently, they often just touch the sides of the project rather than being a driving force and influencing the achievement of successful outcomes.
In 1994 the Standish Group carried out a far-reaching research on project failure. The Chaos Report focused on why IT projects fail and it’s unsurprising that one of the top reasons is the involvement of end users and stakeholders. Nevertheless, many Project Managers and their sponsors are still wary of this obvious tip. At the start of most projects, Project Managers repeatedly meet with a poor selection of so-called representatives then rapidly discuss THEIR operational requirements. Usually they will not engage with stakeholders or end users again until much later in the project, leaving Project Managers with very uninformed, unhappy and distressed stakeholders.
What you will have is an army of key influencers all geared up to resist any attempts at change. That needs a lot of damage control to regain trust and ensure the commitment to materialising the benefits which are often perceived as “imposed” upon them. Suddenly that soft and fluffy stuff becomes the ‘hard’ stuff, blocking, preventing and stalling progress.
So what can be done about it? The Chaos report offers some clues to this and states that most projects overrun in both costs and time due to restarts and content deficiencies. Why? Three main reasons: ‘user involvement, executive management support, a clear statement of the requirements’. This demonstrates unequivocally that it IS about the people! The report researched the main factors that caused projects to be ‘challenged’? Lack of user input was number one and the lack of user involvement and incomplete requirements came top of why projects are impaired and often cancelled.
To get under the skin of project failure the Standish Group* ran a series of focus groups with senior executives and IT executives. One participant summed up the risks and issues as ‘buy-in’ and ‘common purpose’.
Is there some hope to be found in Agile project management techniques? There are several agile project processes that seek to integrate user involvement. The agile community has embraced user driven design, therefore ensuring that users and stakeholders get a greater say in what’s needed (user requirements). A greater emphasis on collaboration and communication reduces misunderstandings and produces what is actually needed (common purpose) while extensive testing and design means your assumptions are proved or disproved. Transparency of process helps increase customer participation.
That said, there are several more tips that the business readiness and change community can add to ensure we get this right:
- Start with lessons learned and use insight and data to assist with any future engagement activity; be informed – know your stakeholder and their experiences and perceptions to date
- Consider stakeholder/end user proximity: how affected are your stakeholders, therefore how close must they be to the project lifecycle?
- Ensure your communication focuses on collaboration: use triangulated communication (vertical as well as horizontal communication)
- Frequently test and review assumptions (no surprises!)
- Ensure you address the cultural barriers to change. All parties involved, including your IT professionals and Quality Assurance staff, will need training and mentoring to adapt to re-purposing effort that places stakeholders and end users at the centre of these evolutionally practices.
With a better quality of ingredient and ensuring these are mixed robustly we can ensure we have the perfect recipe for baking the engagement cake!
See our PRINCE2® section for more information about project management
* Standish group 1995