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.

Putting the ‘Live’ into Delivery

May 17, 2009

The DeliveryDemon has recently had the good fortune to spend time with some world class athletes. They are at the very top of a highly demanding minority sport and the pressure to deliver is intense.

  • In competition there is no second chance to deliver the goods. Just a little less than top performance on the day, and the medal goes to someone else.
  • Delivery in competition depends on rigorous training and other preparation prior to competition. It’s not just a one-day effort.
  • There’s a lot of risk management to consider – highly trained athletes operate on the fine line between top fitness and injury, where a brief misjudgement can lead to weeks of layoff.
  • It’s impossible to operate at competition level all the time, and athletes need a cycle of preparation, peak performance, and relaxation / recuperation.

There’s another aspect of minority sports where delivery comes into play. In the absence of commercial sponsorhips, athletes may fund their training by coaching others. Some may branch out into the production of specialist clothing and equipment for their sports. Since minority sports by their nature have a limited number of participants, the coach or equipment supplier will become known quite quickly. They will be judged both by the quality of what they sell, and their sporting achievements. Other participants will quickly become aware of any new or innovative products which they introduce to the marketplace. Equally, news of poor delivery is quickly passed around.

There is a surprising number of well-run small businesses in this field. Because the reputations of the business and its owner are intertwined, the athlete is under intense pressure to deliver quality in competitive results and quality in goods and services. There is also a need to balance peaks of performance with periods which allow for both physical recovery and product development. The athlette lives constantly with a focus on delivery.

The principles which apply to delivery by these micro businesses are equally applicable to large scale commercial enterprises. However, the complexity of large organisations means that they often lose this single-minded focus on customer delivery. Large organisations often look to high profile sportsmen to deliver training on individual motivation. They would do well to look closely at the less well-funded areas of sport. These microbusinesses provide a delivery benchmark which many large companies are incapable of equalling.

Cats Don’t Do Risk Management

May 1, 2009

A couple of ginger kittens decided to take up home with our neighbours last year. They are now just about adult and curious about everything. And dangerous into the bargain.

We were heading out for a quiet evening walk when we noticed that another neighbour’s house had acquired a ginger cat on its steeply pitched roof. It had obviously scrabbled up a fence onto an equally steep garage roof and leapt across the small gap to the main house. As we watched, it turned to make its way back down, dabbing a tentative paw on the row of tiles below. The tiles, it seems, were slippy, and the cat didn’t like it. The cat headed upwards till it reached the roof ridge. Attempts to come down the far side were equally unsuccessful – the cat was stuck up there.

Cat on the Roof

When the owners realised the cat’s predicament, the ladder came out. Up climbed our neighbour onto the garage roof – as slippery to his trainers as the main roof to the cat’s paws. The cat made a few tentative moves towards him but just couldn’t manage to reverse the moves it made to get to that position. Other members of the household tried to tempt it with various titbits, all to no avail. Cats are normally to cool to look terrified but this one was quaking every time it placed a tentative paw on the downward slope.

Eventually the cat decided to chance all with a slithering descent of the roof and a leap over to the garage, narrowly avoiding dislodging the neighbour’s footing. The neighbour edged his way down the garage roof, down the ladder safely to the ground. Happy ending, so why is the DeliveryDemon talking about Risk Management?

Well, in going from fence to garage to roof the cat gave no thought to its ability to reverse the moves. It certainly didn’t think about the consequences of a move going wrong. No way did it consider potential consequences such as:

  • A pathetic starved ginger-furred skeleton on the roof ridge
  • A flat cat on the ground
  • A flat neighbour on the ground
  • Dramatic fire engine rescue of cat and / or neighbour

Cats are egotistical optimists, confident that things cannot go wrong for them, or that the universe will sort things out if it does. When they decide on a course of action, it’s the one which best suits their purpose at the time. There’s no thought of consequences for others, no thought of an exit strategy.

Does this sound like anyone you know? The DeliveryDemon gets very nervous when she identifies a ‘cat’ on a project team. If a team member is making decisions without considering and communicating the knock-on risks to their own work and to others, that’s putting the whole project at risk. That’s one reason why informal project communication is so important – it’s the only chance you have of identifying this feline attitude to risk BEFORE the consequences start to hit.

Do you have any cats on your project team?

Surprise, surprise – Risk Management

April 22, 2009

The DeliveryDemon was interested to see some risk management being discussed in the US Treasury.

The US bank bailout includes the setting up of a public-private partnership to buy up toxic assets. As this Reuters article explains:

  • The cost risk to taxpayers outweighs the potential for benefits
  • Conflicts of interest have been identified and recognised as a source of risk
  • The scheme is inherently vulnerable to fraud, money laundering and other forms of abuse
  • The ‘public’ element of the public-private partnership dilutes the risk for the private element, increasing the likelihood of a high risk approach to managing the overall funds

What is surprising is that these risks are being so publicly and simply stated. The early days of most public-private partnerships are normally wreathed in a mist of bonhomie as each party strives to protect and enhance its relationship with the other party. Reservations are rarely made public.

The DeliveryDemon will be interested to see how strongly this risk management and transparency is followed through. And whether the UK takes a lead from the US when it comes to acknowledging and managing the risks associated with the UK government’s bank bailouts.