I was listening to two of my friends on a podcast, and there were so many stories and lessons in there that I just had to share with you. One of the lessons brought up was tied to an interview my friend Carl Pritchard did many years ago with Mr. Rogers, the American television personality that many of us fondly remember from our childhood. He asked Carl how he wanted the world to look different after the interview was finished, and by knowing that, he promised Carl that the interview would be a success.
That got me thinking about stakeholder management and how we ought to be speaking in terms that our stakeholders understand to help them engage with the project. We have to make it about them!
What does that mean? Have you ever heard anyone say you are a great conversationalist when you barely got a word in? Sure! Maybe you asked some questions and then the other person just talked and talked. You made it about them. People love that… and it helps them see you in a better light, even though they did all the talking!
So now let’s apply that to everyday situations we face in working with stakeholders.
Have you ever been in a status meeting reporting on your project and you notice that the stakeholders’ eyes start to glaze over? I’m willing to bet you are showing them a bunch of data and facts about the project, but not in terms that are being connected directly to their WIIFM—“what’s in it for me.”
People are self-focused. It’s in our nature and it’s crucial to survival. We all look at things through our own lens. So knowing that, if we want to be successful as project managers, change agents, PMO leaders, etc., we need to know how to communicate our messages in the terms that our stakeholders can understand and connect to. Their lack of engagement doesn’t mean the customer/stakeholder/sponsor doesn’t care, but it does mean that if you talk to them in their terms, in their language, then you are likely to get better results.
So how do you do that?
At the beginning of the project or whenever new stakeholders come on board, ask them all this same question: How do you want the world to look different when we finish this project? Keep digging until you get enough to hold onto and use for later.
Then write it down and do some homework to start connecting what they said to what your project is going to accomplish. As you learn their personal interests and reasons for wanting this project to happen, you can then tie your conversations to that. Start thinking about the scope of the project as the enabler for their vision. Think about every piece of code as a step toward accomplishing their goals. Talk in terms of testing as a measure of getting the high-impact quality outcomes they want.
Let’s take risk as an example. No one seems to like having the risk conversations, but if you can show how proactively discussing the risks and then building a plan to manage them will get them closer to achieving their outcomes—their future state world of happiness—you can usually get them to talk to you about it.
How about budget or resources? Same thing. If you frame every conversation in terms of the outcomes you expect to achieve that get the stakeholders closer to their goal future state, you will at least have their attention.
So what does that look like?
Let’s say your sponsor wants to improve efficiency in operations by implementing a new system. You are the project manager for this implementation and you ask him how he wants the world to look different when you are done. He explains that people are working long hours now, and in addition to the long hours not really increasing productivity, they are making mistakes in their work. This new system will reduce errors, increase productivity, and help streamline this work to create an opportunity to grow in other operational areas.
OK, so we know what this sponsor cares about. Check.
As you go through the project and need to provide updates to the sponsor, think about ways you can tie the work you are doing to the goals they want to achieve. If you need more budget to hire an additional resource that could speed the project up, think about how you can tell the story of the increased efficiency gains for the year by implementing early. Explain how, instead of five months of improved efficiency, the sponsor can expect six months. Or if you need budget to complete the scope, talk in terms of ROI (return on investment) of money saved through fewer mistakes when the project is completed, which reduces costs to the organization.
Talking in terms that the stakeholders can understand makes you increasingly more valuable to them. They stop seeing you as administrative overhead unfortunately necessary for the project to get done or a box checker that just moves people through a checklist of tasks. They start seeing you as an invaluable resource that understands the value of their business needs, can speak to them intelligently about their business, and helps them solve business problems. You are no longer doing project management; you are now a business problem-solver. That is valuable. That is the kind of resource that business people want to work with—someone who can help them get things done in the business.
If you are building or running a PMO, this is becoming increasingly more important. You want to run a business-enabling PMO, not an administrative overhead organization that can be cut the minute the organization needs to do some belt tightening. You become the voice for the business. You become the go-to resource when they need to make sure their projects get done the right way the first time, by a team that understands their needs and enables them to get the results reliably. That’s powerful.
No more complicated charts or complicated data that isn’t easy for your stakeholders to follow. Just some simple conversation where you connect the dots for them from what you are asking for to what they care about. I’m not saying throw all reporting out the window. Of course, those reports can be handy to provide backup information, but nothing replaces good old-fashioned conversation—where they get to listen to and talk about what they care about.