Delivering Stakeholder Management

June 14, 2011

It’s relatively easy to identify most stakeholders. Once they have been identified it’s relatively easy to put together a communication plan which allows you to tell them what they need to know. The plan can include two way communication events such as requirements analysis, Q&A events, document reviews and user tests. These are all part of the tried and tested approach to stakeholder management.

Rather more difficult is the management of stakeholder expectations. The project manager can issue crystal clear bulletins about what has been agreed and what is actually happening. At some point these butt up against stakeholder assumptions, recollections and aspirations. The bits which match will bolster the stakeholder’s world view. The bits which don’t match may provoke a reaction. If they do, that’s all to the good as it allows the project manager to identify and deal with any mismatch between the project as agreed and stakeholder expectations. But not all readers will bother to react. The danger comes when stakeholders skim project communications for the bits which confirm their expectations and ignore the rest. Then expectations may begin to diverge substantially from the project aims. Once that happens to any extent the project will never be a success. It may deliver to scope, cost and timescale but it won’t be viewed as successful because it’s not delivering what stakeholders have come to expect.

For a project manager to become a good stakeholder manager, it’s necessary to look beyond the project’s formal structured communication, and apply the black arts of expectation analysis and expectation management. Catch a straying expectation before it’s far from the straight and narrow and it’s easy to nudge it back on course. Let it stray long enough to become feral and you may not catch it in the lifetime of the project.

Becoming a curator of expectations requires a diverse set of skills, but the core skill is networking. Informal chats can alert the project manager to straying expections much more quickly than any formal discussion. It’s not just the obvious stakeholders who can be useful sources of information. Other projects and BAU targets may hide a reliance on invalid expectations, and people may set such targets as a means of pressurising a project to change its remit.

Sometimes divergent expectations arise because the business has moved on from the original project requirements, and the project may need to change in order to deliver business benefits.

It may not be easy to decide whether expectations should be brought in line or the project changed to meet expectations. This is where stakeholder management feeds into risk and issue management, and through that to the broader project governance and sponsorship if it appears that problems are going beyond the authority delegated to the project manager.

You can, in isolation, deliver a project which meets all its objectives. But unless you step outside the ivory tower and keep abreast of events in the wider context the project may not be seen to be successful. That’s why a project manager needs a taste for coffee, beer and cocktails, not to mention a tolerance for the smoky, windy conditions endured by the huddles which gather outside the doors of most office buildings.

Well, What Do You Expect?

March 16, 2009

Driving up the A1 can be pretty tedious and it’s surprising where the mind can wander – while concentrating on the road of course. That’s exactly what I was doing when I noticed something which immediately had me thinking about delivery and expectations.

Of course, anyone involved in the successful delivery of goods, or services, or anything else, will have realised that it’s essential for the supplier and customers to reach a common expectation about what is to be delivered. Under-delivery is an obvious problem, but what about over-delivery – is it a good thing? In practice, over-delivery is a two edged sword. The customer may well be delighted to get more, or better, than they paid for but, by contrast, the next adequate delivery will look like  a drop in quality or in service unless the supplier manages the situation so that the over-delivery is viewed by the customer as a special event. Expectations need to be recognised, considered, and managed.

Back to the A1. Like many of the UK’s major roads, the fixed traffic signs are supplemented by expensive matrix signs which were originally intended to display warning text or symbols. In the past, the blank faces of these signs used to offer mute reassurance that all was normal on the signed road and others nearby. When this situation changed, a message appeared on the signs. The driver’s expectation was that a blank  sign indicated all was well while a lit up sign was a warning. The sheer simplicity of this allowed the signs to function with minimal distraction of the driver’s attention from the traffic. It also allowed the signs to exercise their warning function from a far greater distance than reading distance.

Now a driver can no longer expect that a lit sign is communicating information about current road conditions. It may:

  • Distract attention with wordy nannying platitudes – ‘Tiredness kills – Take a break’
  • Confuse with lack of precision – ’21 miles and 20 mins to J36′. For whom?  A caravan limited to 50 mph or a 60 mph lorry or a car going at the 70 mph speed limit?
  • Imply an undefined problem – ’15 miles and 20 mins to J13′. On a 70 mph road? What’s the holdup? What are they not telling us?
  • Lie! ‘Slow traffic queuing ahead’ remaining lit long after the problem has cleared.
  • Assume that local problems affect the entire road network. ‘Debris on the road’ without a matched sign indicating that the danger area has been passed.

On the surface all of this may seem like just another of the many factors which can make driving in this country a less than pleasant experience. But it’s much more fundamental. Drivers used to expect matrix signs to deliver warnings of current local problems. Over time, the operators have become sloppy about delivering that function so that information can no longer be relied on as current and accurate. Worse still, decisions have been taken to use the signs for several completely different purposes with little or no regard for the context in which the displayed messages are being delivered. The mute reassurance role has been lost completely as a lit sign can no longer be assumed to convey a warning. And the genuine messages are so outnumbered by the noise that they cease to register with drivers.

The taxpayer’s costly investment in the network of maintenance signs has been wasted. And it’s all because of people who thought their particular agendas were so important they could abandon the expected safety function of the matrix signs and ignore all considerations of context and good practice.