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A change is as good as unrest. How to engage disengaged stakeholders

IT & Project Management
IT & Project Management

A change is as good as a rest, so the old saying goes. Recently, it has struck me, that change can actually be a precursor to unrest, at least with some IT Change Projects.

While reviewing one customer’s challenges, I identified that it wasn’t scope creep that was impacting the project, nor was it any of the other usual suspects like lack of resources or capability.

Conflicts between departments were seriously risking the success of the project, internal politics, rows about budgets, blame and finger pointing … all causing roadblocks and holdups.

There is a universal truth here … Stakeholder engagement across the board could be the single most valuable asset for an IT Project.

Do you recall this headline about a major IT Project back in the nineties?

“Passport fiasco cost £13m, with a £16,000 bill for umbrellas plus 500 spoilt holidays”. (Independent, October 1999)

When the UK passport agency tried to introduce a new computerised processing system they needed two key stakeholder groups on board – staff and customers. They failed. The head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn, blamed bosses for failing to realise how long staff would need to adapt to the new computer system and criticised “a failure to communicate effectively with the public”. The result was that instead of more secure passports delivered faster, staff had to hand out £16,000 worth of brollies to applicants forced to queue in the rain!

Stakeholders were not engaged, unlike the helplines which, ironically, continually were! Many holidays had to be cancelled with compensation pay-outs of £161,000, half a million was spent on a publicity campaign to calm the public and £6m was paid in overtime and additional costs to staff. Staff interviewed by the media never seemed enthusiastic at this opportunity for overtime, they looked frazzled.

Of course, this was all a long time ago – so why mention it?

Well, off the back of the passport fiasco (and other Public Sector IT fails) the National Audit Office issued a report that identified three core principles which contributed to the delivering of successful IT programmes and projects. They are worth quoting verbatim …

1 – “Ensuring senior level engagement: clear and engaged board leadership, keeping senior decision makers informed of progress and risks and, for example, not creating undue pressure by making premature and unrealistic announcements about delivery dates”

2 – “Acting as an “intelligent client”: understanding the business process the department is aiming to change, having the right programme management skills, training the staff and creating effective and equal relationships with suppliers”

3 – “Realising the benefits: selling the benefits to users, winning wider support for the change, and assessing whether the programme or project has achieved what it set out to do”

Unilateral stakeholder engagement … in a nutshell.

This was in November 2006.

So, knowing and applying these three core principles it’s all been plain sailing since then … right?

Well no.

A friend working in the NHS cites a lack of stakeholder engagement as a key roadblock during the “National Programme for IT”, an update of healthcare record systems.  Again, the National Audit Office said the programme fell “far below expectations” and “the core aim” was “not achieved.” NAO head, Amyas Morse, blamed the department responsible for “fundamentally underestimating the scale and complexity of a major IT-enabled change programme.” (NAO 18 May 2011). My friend told me that those tasked with entering the data would provide sufficient insight into that scale and complexity had they been engaged properly … instead of working with the change some frustrated staff members had “passively” worked against it.

There are, of course, many similar cases in the private sector but commercial sensitivity often doesn’t give us the same insight. The accountability and transparency that comes with the spending of public money provides a window of learning for us all.

That, in 2006 the principles of unilateral stakeholder engagement were so clearly identified but within five years the same issues were still derailing IT Projects teaches us all a valuable lesson.

Any project needs unilateral stakeholder engagement and sadly it can be as easy as herding cats. Not just any cats either, really uncooperative cats.

It’s difficult. BUT it’s not impossible. Here are five ideas to help.

1 – Outsource the Problem

The beauty of the Project Management as a Service market is that there is now a solution to every problem. EVERY problem! Even that of stakeholder engagement.

An effective third party provides an independent perspective, gets to know you and your project and maintains communication with stakeholders giving advanced warning of potential bottlenecks. Office politics and disputes across departments can be a major IT Project hurdle but an independent partner is above all of this – they just want the project delivered and, frankly, couldn’t care less about the “he said, she said” distractions.

In a project, I worked with recently the staff (stakeholders) were crying out for extra permanent team members to deliver the project – but there wasn’t budget for this. This was a real potential deadlock but the capabilities needed, were available from the PMaaS market and without an overall increase in spending.

2 – Don’t Confuse Buy In With Engagement

Buy in happens at the start … it’s “this is what we’re gonna do … everyone in?” Think of the passport case study. Faster, more secure passports and a more efficient processing system was a proposition that was easy to buy into, but failure to engage stakeholders meant that they lost faith along the way.

Engagement is a beginning, middle and end kind of a deal. Gathering feedback on projects before, during and at the end of an IT Project and REALLY listening to stakeholder suggestions makes stakeholders feel like shareholders.

3 – Change The Way You Change Opinion

Manage processes, lead people.

IT Projects are ultimately a group of personal interactions. The way you interact with your colleagues, superiors and subordinates should be personal and tailored. How many IT Project presentations have lost you in a PowerPoint fog? When you ditch the slideshow and connect with a stakeholder’s values, feelings and beliefs you can really drive effective and durable change. Watch a TV ad break and identify the different approaches taken by the advertisers or listen to a politician deliver a powerful speech – how many different buttons do they press? How many do you press when engaging stakeholders?

In their work “Consequences for Managers of Using Single Influence Tactics and Combinations of Tactics”, Cecilia M. Falbe and Gary Yukl identified as many as nine primary influencing tactics but we tend to default to the same one or two. The most effective were “inspirational appeals and consultation”. For the record, the least effective were “pressure, legitimating, and coalition tactics” and somewhere in between came “rational persuasion, ingratiation, personal appeals, and exchange tactics”. Something as simple as rethinking our engagement approach could pay back huge rewards!

4 – Monitor Engagement

You have metrics for everything else in your project and yet how often does a stakeholder revolt take a Project Manager by surprise? It’s why infighting and disconnect are so damaging to projects – no-one ever sees them coming. One PM I know does this by running a checklist on engagement. It changes from project to project but broadly speaking it looks something like this;

  • Identify all internal stakeholders and involve them in the process at the earliest possible point.
  • Identify and understand departmental needs.
  • Identify any business or departmental language and seek to use in communication.
  • Identify and clearly communicate the goals of the project, the intent behind them and the benefits to all key stakeholders.
  • Identify potential risks, routinely question stakeholders about issues and discuss how to solve with ALL affected.
  • Listen to feedback and clearly document and communicate agreed issues and solutions.

It’s a neat template, almost a mission statement, that is stuck on the wall of every project he works on and regularly referred to. By doing this any issues get quickly, as he puts it, “flagged, tagged and bagged”.

5 – Meet The Disengaged One to One

A couple of years back, a Project Manager friend tried to tackle a bout of infighting with a big ‘clear the air’ conference call. It did not go well. I recall him telling me that he thought by getting everyone together they could bang their heads together, sort out their differences and get on with it.

Washing your laundry in public is what others might call it.

Those who had serious concerns about the project felt like they had been thrust into the spotlight or “fed to the lions” as one put it. Rather than being heard, they felt like they had been attacked, when the call ended and an ‘agreement’ had been reached they felt even less engaged.

If you can, find a way to meet with disengaged stakeholders on an individual, personal basis. Use this opportunity to hear their perspective and allow them to feel that they have a stake in whatever solution is agreed. This should never be an interrogation – try to ask open questions and don’t back them into a corner … “What’s your problem with the Project?” sounds like an accusation … “How can we improve the Project?” opens collaborative communication.

In the same way that you must communicate the goals and intent of the project to stakeholders, you have to allow disengaged stakeholders the chance to clearly communicate the motivation behind their unrest. Sometimes someone’s anxiety may be well placed and actually benefit the project.

In conclusion, infighting never helps anyone. As IT Projects become more complex and span departments, companies and even continents unilateral stakeholder engagement has never been so important. Get it right and you benefit from anticipating, mitigating and reducing risk, you open your eyes to greater opportunities and improve relationships between your organisation and individuals who matter. Now isn’t that something to engage with?

Find out more about Project Management as a Service from Stoneseed

About David Cotgreave

If you like David's blogs - he is now a published author - Straight Talk on Project Management (VOLUME II) - Free eBook. Why not download your copy today?  http://www.stoneseed.co.uk/ebook

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