PPM - Managing Upwards

  • By Allan Thomson, PPM Future Product Lead, AXELOS
  • 16 September 2014
  • Communication, Programme Management, Project & Programme Management, Project Management, Stakeholder Management
PPM - Managing Upwards

The "S" factor - sponsors and stakeholders - are critical to the success of any project or programme. And ensuring these vital people are actively supporting you and your team depends on how successful you are at "managing upwards".

Allan ThomsonPeople tend to "buy into" programmes as they can see the benefits of transformational change when a programme approaches m aturity. With projects, it may be several months before stakeholders see the benefits. In either case, project managers need to communicate continually the business case and business benefits so both sponsor and stakeholders are fully aware.

Managing upwards begins with your sponsor, who is a combination of sounding board and representative of the project board who you report to. Your sponsor is the person who needs to know early on if there are problems, not least with the budget or delivery date as overall accountability rests with him or her.

Sometimes, project managers can forget the sponsor's importance and this is a profound mistake. The sponsor helps to manage other stakeholders in the business, especially if a project is organization-wide and has an impact on other teams. The sponsor role is to remove any blockage in the smooth running of the project. The skill of the project manager is not to over-use his big guns but to choose when to bring them out.

Managing your stakeholders

Before you can manage upwards effectively, you need to understand the "Stakeholder Landscape". Stakeholders within your project team are usually committed to the project; beyond the team, stakeholders might be unaware of, or lack information about, the proposed changes which can result in opposition.

Good communication should address any opposition created by a simple lack of awareness. However, what about those who are aware of the change and are against it? Here, you need to explore where the problem lies. For example, stakeholders may be negative about a project because it takes away some of their resources, or it may be fear of change. Equally, they may have misunderstood an unavoidable fact that the change is a necessity to the organization.

In this case, you need to maintain a stakeholder register that maps the views and attitudes of the decision makers and key influencers across the project landscape. Some decision makers rely on the thoughts of key people who seem to be able to influence others. So the power may rest not with making the decision but with those able to mobilize the feelings of others, i.e. the power behind the throne.

Stakeholder Analysis

It's vital to conduct regular analysis on your stakeholders as the project progresses and build in the necessary frequency and means of engaging with them.

But What do you Need to Analyze?

It includes:

  • What is their awareness of the project?
  • Who are they in the organization? What is their role, power and influence?
  • Are stakeholders committed to the project?

Based on that, you can allocate a traffic light "stakeholder rating": for example, if a stakeholder is unaware or uncommitted they are a "red". It is also important to note whether your favourable and aware "green" stakeholders change at any point.

It's up to you - the project manager - to keep ahead of the stakeholders and keep your project on track.

Stakeholder Engagement

For your sponsor, the required level of engagement is face-to-face on a weekly basis and timed so the sponsor has the latest information before all other stakeholders. This enables the sponsor to be prepared for any questions from senior management.

Stakeholders are served best by an update report. Nevertheless, if any of them raises an issue, responding by email doesn't demonstrate sufficient commitment. It takes courage, but managing upwards either face-to-face or via telephone is the necessary approach in this case. If in doubt, consider it from the stakeholder's perspective and the fact that changes might affect them and their business units. It's a lesson that younger project managers need to learn, as well as avoiding the urge to communicate with stakeholders via text message!

The fall-out from not demonstrating the requisite level of commitment will inevitably come to a head at project meetings. And if a stakeholder identifies a lack of appropriate response to a request for information, you can be "dead in the water".

When a previously favourable stakeholder suddenly becomes unfavourable at a project meeting, the cause needs to be identified straight away. The first response is to discuss with the sponsor the movement from "green" to "red", followed up a meeting with the stakeholder in question.

Clearly it's important to map the commitment and attitude of stakeholders throughout the life of the project or programme.

Obstacles to Managing Upwards Effectively

There are three subsets under the heading of "lack of communication" that can hinder your ability to manage upwards: "wrong information", or "right information in the wrong format". And, don't forget, "too much information".

When decision making is critical the communication needs to focus attention on making the necessary decision. You need a decision so the communication needs to be focused, brief, have clarity and provide enough information but not too much so that the message is lost.

You can also easily sabotage yourself by presenting information with spelling errors, a variety of formats or even choosing different bullet points. It's about getting things right consistently and not distracting stakeholders from the message within the content.

In addition, the frequency and timeliness of communication is essential. If stakeholders don't receive communication when they expect it that's bad news for the project manager; only when you deliver on 100% of their expectation, i.e. reports on time, can you earn the right to a dialogue.

When Managing Upwards Needs Drastic Action

If a stakeholder is threatening to derail your project unnecessarily, it's time to:

  • Engage the sponsor.
  • Hold an emergency board meeting to find a solution (could be more money or more resource or de-scoping the project which seems to be the trend at present).
  • Do it soon. If not, the situation usually gets worse, resulting in issues such as running over budget or delays to delivery. Come prepared and have some options to suggest as well as your preferred option.
  • It is also necessary to have a representative from finance at the meeting to address the financial impact immediately.

In certain instances, the outcome might involve telling the sponsor that the project needs to stop. However, you know you're managing upwards effectively when you have the confidence in dealing with and resolving a highly emotive situation such as this.

Managing upwards effectively, requires a lot of self-belief; based on knowing your subject and what you're doing inside out; and it's crucial to be honest as the people you are managing when managing upwards always know a lot more than you think! It's fatal to believe they won't understand when millions of pounds' investment is going into the project or programme. Keep your promises, deliver what you say you will and convey that it's dependent on a team approach not just you.

Don't underestimate the power of the softer skills involved in managing upwards: look into their eyes with a firm handshake and be the best there is.

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