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.

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Expectation Management

June 7, 2009

Any well trained project manager knows that surprises are bad news. Underperform, and it’s your fault. Overperform and people want to know why you didn’t make a more challenging commitment in the first place. Such is the lot of the project manager!

Every project is surrounded and permeated by expectations. The team has them, so does the project sponsor, and all the suppliers, not to mention customers, and the operations team. All those expectations are coloured by the recollections and assumptions and experience of the individual stakeholder. Ask a stakeholder what their expectations are and you will get a response but that won’t be the whole story. Often expectations aren’t identified until they are not met, and the stakeholder sees it as a project failure. As project managers, we talk glibly about expectation management, but it’s a complex and delicate subject. A project manager needs to analyse the project environment and decide how much effort needs to go into expectation management. It’s not a one-off exercise either. This decision needs to be reviewed at each stage and major change and decision point, and at any time their are indications of loss of confidence in the project, or excessive expectations. And of course the communication plan needs to be updated to deal with the reality rather than the situation which the project manager *expected* to exist!

Thinking about expectation management in general, DeliveryDemon did an analysis of her own expectations during a recent trip to Edinburgh for a Saturday meeting, and was surprised at the extent of the assumptions made during the trip and how they affected her.

Lift to the airport DeliveryDemon assumed the driver would head for the motorway, the driver preferred the direct route through towns. There probably isn’t a lot to choose between the routes but at each red traffic light and school crossing the DeliveryDemon got twitchier and twitchier.

Before check-in the DeliveryDemon was hungry and popped into M&S for a sandwich and bottle of water, an obvious thing to do in an airport mall full of food shops. Full marks (sorry, pun!!) to the checkout girl who recognised the assumption of eating the food on the plane, and provided a gentle reminder that drinks can’t be taken through security.

Airside is really designed to take expectations, shake them up and leave the traveller feeling jumpy. On the one hand shops and restaurants encourage browsing and relaxing over a meal or a drink. On the other hand the departure boards demand attention. When the distant gate is finally announced, the delivery-oriented DeliveryDemon wants to head straight for the gate, and is frustrated by the shuffling, 6-wide groups who expect that others will match speed to that necessitated by their in-depth discussion of last night’s soap or football match. Then once the gate is open, airline staff rush the passengers through and chivvy them along  – to wait in a queue. Rush, stop, rush, stop – the metabolism doesn’t know what to expect. What a recipe for high blood pressure and heart attacks!

In the sky the DeliveryDemon tends to expect interesting clouds and clear, photogenic, views, and feels vaguely cheated by a flight through grey cottonwool.

Meeting people provides a good test of assumptions. The DeliveryDemon and colleague got the mobiles out to make contact with another colleague arriving on a different flight, arranging to meet at the luggage carousel in arrivals. After some confusion the invalid expectation became clear – the colleague had arrived on a European flight, coming through a different arrivals area.

The hotel was one of two in a larger chain, situated in the Grassmarket. Expecting to stay in the same hotel as other colleagues, several people were annoyed to lose out on the opportunities of discussion over breakfast or a late night drink as overbooking meant the party was split between two hotels. For the unlucky group diverted down the road, the hotel failed to meet expectations of cleanliness with rooms where evidence of previous occupants had not been removed, and failed to meet expectations of construction standards with double glazing so ineffective that it would have been as quiet sleeping out in the Grassmarket during the Friday night festivities.

Finding a restaurant also upset a few expectations. Nose to the steamed up glass, DeliveryDemon waved to colleagues crammed round some window tables in the recommended eatery. There was no way that three of us would be able to battle through the crowds to the tables, never mind find seating space. But we did. And the staff conjured up chairs and created elbow room from a fifth dimension. The DeliveryDemon was very glad of being persuaded to ignore her expectations of not getting a seat, more so when faced with a steak served up on a hot stone with a pile of jacket wedges!

Grey days Having lived in Edinburgh, the DeliveryDemon expected and was prepared for grey skies and sharp winds, seasoned with the odd rain shower. Fortunately the DeliveryDemon also favours contingency planning, and adapted her expectations when faced with warm sunshine and clear blue skies, sneaking out between sessions for some impromptu architectural photography.

 Lunch hadn’t been a high spot at previous meetings, but the DeliveryDemon’s expectations were overset by a tasty cooked lunch which was light enough to avoid doziness during the afternoon session. Of course, with the Edinburgh hotel showing what can be done, expectations have been reset for lunches at future London meetings.

The return flight DeliveryDemon had hoped for a return flight to Luton, much closer to home than Heathrow but the expected evening return didn’t exist. DeliveryDemon is unimpressed with the UK’s domestic transport arrangements. At least Edinburgh airport was quiet, the rugby fans still celebrating in town. But the expectation of a leisurely browse round a selection of malt whiskies was upset by the feeling of urgency generated by a departure board announcing that the flight was already boarding, well before departure time. The flight left on time and arrived early. The DeliveryDemon expected problems on arrival, given the publicity Terminal 5 has attracted, so the quick baggage arrival came as a surprise.

Just a step on the way Of course, whatever expectations the advertising raises, Heathrow is not a destination in its own right, and the hapless traveller is often faced with an onward journey of a few miles which takes considerably longer than the flight.

London Underground For decades, a big red circle with a blue bar through it has raised the expectations that a Tube station is nearby. It’s a simple, brash, logo whose message is well known. Brash, not sophisticated, and that’s the problem. When designers are let loose on the signage of a transport hub, the prissy result has no place for such a dominant and informative graphic. They tone it down so it doesn’t stand out among all the other information. The result is that the tired traveller, looking for train or toilet or taxi, has to search through an undistinguished clutter of signs for the information they need. Not good for the traveller, not good for the traffic flow, and not particularly clever, given that the purpose of signage is to deliver information. So it is at Terminal 5.

And finally the train home Saturday evening. London. The last train. One might expect it to be full of happy people who followed a show with a meal and a glass or two of wine before returning home. Not with East Midland Trains’ final departure at 10.30. It made a nailbiting journey from Heathrow for the DeliveryDemon who couldn’t be sure if she could expect to catch the last train, or have to rely on the slow and uncomfortable line which goes no further than Bedford. And not knowing the train meant having to buy the ticket on the day. UK trains are notoriously expensive, but who would expect the cost of a single ticket to be the same price as a return?

It was just an overnight visit to Edinburgh for a meeting. But what a lot of expectations and assumptions arose. Some were met or well managed, others not. If that’s the expectation pattern for a single person on a simple trip, how much more varied and complex are the expectations and assumptions of the many stakeholders over the lifetime of a project? For a project manager, expectation management is a serious business, and a major factor in the success of a project. Forget this at your peril!


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.