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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Managing a Project’s Conversations

“It seemed rather incongruous that in a society of supersophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.”
– Erma Bombeck

Most projects start off as an amorphous blob. It’s the dialogue among stakeholders that gives a change the definition it needs to deliver value. That’s why managing a project’s conversations is a key success factor.

In this post, we’ll see how a project manager recognized the critical nature of the communication challenges on his new project and how he responded creatively to deliver successfully.

Thanks to P.C. for the details on this case.

The Situation

Amir was given a promotion to Senior Project Manager. And then his company, a midsized, diverse manufacturing organization, gave him a big new project to go along with his elevated status. The company had been struggling with its order management, invoicing and fulfillment processes for a number of years.

Costly and cumbersome manual procedures, old and in some case unsupported technology, lost and misplaced orders, slow and sometimes unpredictable delivery often strained relationships with its customers and resulted in inter-departmental accusations and finger pointing. The company’s rapid growth and the pressures from increasing competition made a remedy mandatory.

The sponsor, the VP of Operations, viewed the initiative as the number one corporate priority. He had the support of the CEO and senior management. All he needed was a capable leader to get the job done. And so he picked Amir. He had worked with Amir on a number of projects and was impressed with his ability to deliver quality solutions to plan. He was knowledgeable, unflappable, up-to-date technically and professionally and a proven leader, respected by management and staff alike.

The Goal

To implement a high performance order management through fulfillment process using lean techniques and appropriate technologies to improve customer service and reduce costs by $1.8 million annually on full implementation. Staff made redundant by the new processes would be redeployed within the organization. The company allocated $5.4 million to the endeavour over eighteen months, targeting a three year payback.

The Project

Amir was excited about his new project, the largest he had undertaken. His past projects had been under $1.5 million and a year or less in duration. Perhaps more importantly, they had involved far fewer key stakeholders than this new endeavour. He realized that managing the relationships with this diverse group would involve some significant changes in his traditional approach.

As Amir started to formulate his plans, he pursued what he thought were the nine most important factors:

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  1. davison 01112019aBuilding and sustaining key stakeholder relationships – Amir developed a communication matrix that identified the key stakeholders, their role and accountabilities (RACI), the subject matter they were interested in receiving and the frequency of contact. He was hoping that the matrix would provide the collaborative “glue” to get the project up and running quickly and keep it on track.
    He then proceeded to meet with each stakeholder to introduce himself, establish an initial relationship and fill out the matrix. When he met with the VP of Sales, he expressed his concerns about managing the communication with their over 1200 customers. He wondered aloud if there was an opportunity to use the sales staff to make the contacts and manage the conversations as the project progressed. After some hemming and hawing, the VP of Sales started to realize the opportunity. By the end of the meeting, he was on board. When Amir met with his sponsor, the VP of Operations, he asked if he could use the expertise of existing Operations staff to help out with the project and support the sales staff and customer transition. The VP was on side.
    Developing the Conversation plan gave Amir tremendous insight into the diversity of the stakeholders’ expectations. It also exposed the challenges of keeping them all engaged and contributing over the eighteen month project. Because of that insight, Amir committed to spending as much as 50% of his time on the conversation challenge.
    Finally, he wanted to track stakeholder satisfaction on a milestone by milestone basis to help identify and resolve any issues. He found a scorecard online that did the trick. Here’s an example that we covered in the Measuring Key Stakeholder Satisfaction post.
  2. Acquiring the right skills and capabilities – Amir’s past successes were always about assembling the “A” team, talented people with the right skills, attitudes and capabilities. On this project he knew there were four key roles that he needed to fill up front: an architect to lead the technology review and selection; a Lean consultant to direct the process review and design around the new technology; a change manager to ensure all affected staff had the skills, capabilities and support to function effectively in the new environment; and the development lead, someone who could take charge of implementing the new technology solution in concert with the redesigned processes.
    He acquired the company’s senior technology architect and got him started immediately on the technology selection.
    Concurrently, Amir began the search for a suitable Lean consultant. The VP of Operations had previous experience with a lean project and was convinced the practice would make a significant contribution to streamlined business operations. He passed Amir his contacts. Amir did his own search and selected three more candidates for an interview. He formed an interview panel, had all five candidates assessed, collectively reviewed the results and agreed on their consultant of choice. The VP of Operations approved the recommendation quickly (she was one of his two suggestions) and the consultant was brought on board to begin the process review and redesign.
    Amir was able to secure the services of the firm’s senior change management expert to fill the change manager role. And finally, he contracted with the SaaS provider to supply a senior development lead for the project. His core team was in place.
    Here’s another Project Times article on building the “A” team – It’s the Mastery that Counts.
  3. Selecting application and technology platforms – The options considered were build (either internally or co-developed), a purchased package (run internally or on an external cloud service), and a Software as a Service (SaaS) offering. The architect developed an extensive assessment checklist and, with the involvement of senior staff from the business and IT, ran the three generic options against it. The SaaS option easily won out and was endorsed by the key stakeholders. That led to the development of a short list of suitable SaaS vendors and the issuance of an RFQ. After vetting the submissions widely, a vendor was selected, approved and the contracts were signed.
    Here’s a Project Times post on a similar topic, infrastructure transformation.
  4. Phasing delivery and staging rollout – Amir knew that he needed to find a way to break down the development, implementation and rollout of the solution to reduce risk, gain experience incrementally and accelerate value delivery. Doing a one time, big bang implementation was a lose-lose proposition. He worked with his team to identify the phasing and staging strategies and plans and reviewed the approach with his stakeholders. After extensive discussion and some give and take, the strategies and plans were approved, including five development phases and staged rollout by region and district. 
    Here’s another take on the benefits of phasing and staging
  5. Applying change management practices – This change would impact the work lives of the majority of head office staff, with new business processes and technology or new job assignments. Effective management of that impact, one person at a time, from the board room to the warehouse floor was paramount. Amir was a proponent of John Kotter’s 8 Step change model and so he used the model in the development of the release plans and to shape the additional staffing decisions going forward.
    This Project Times post covers the effective use of the Kotter change model.
  6. Managing risk – In his initial meeting with the stakeholders to fill out the Conversation plan, Amir asked each person what they saw as the project’s risks and potential pitfalls. Based on that input, he developed a risk plan that identified the perceived risks, the probability and potential impacts along with the mitigation plans. The top three risks: project cost and size, customer impact and technology choice. You’ll notice that the factors covered above provide extensive mitigation coverage for each.
    Here’s another Project Times article addressing project risk management.
  7. Building a high performance team – It is absolutely necessary to have top talent. It is also absolutely essential that that top talent form into a high performance team as quickly as possible. In selecting his four team leaders, Amir focused not only on their technical and professional competence, he also looked for leadership skills and communication, coaching and team building capabilities. In addition, he acquired a tool to assess formally each team’s views of their performance to be administered at the end of each milestone.
    This Project Times article covers more on high performance teams.
  8. Managing scope – On the question of project scope, Amir was a pragmatist. He realized all scope discussions boiled down to the basic tradeoffs between time, cost and value. The final arbiters were the key stakeholders, with the sponsor holding the deciding vote. He urged his team leaders to find solutions within their allocated funds but always keep their eyes and ears open for opportunities to add value. Given the selection of a SaaS solution, he also encouraged his leaders to look for ways to eliminate complexity and leverage the capabilities available.
    Finally, Amir asked his leaders to ensure the stakeholders were challenged on their expectations around non-functional requirements – factors like performance, ease of use, service levels, security, flexibility and compliance with internal and external dictates. In Amir’s experience, ignorance and confusion around non-functional requirements was often the fatal flaw in failed projects.
    Here’s more on delivering value.
  9. Controlling progress – Amir’s project control mantra was “To be informed at a glance”. Amir held project “blitzes” every morning for 15 minutes. They were collaborative, supportive and celebratory in nature. The blitzes were mandatory for leaders and optional for everyone else. Coffee and muffins were provided. 
    Amir acquired a project assistant to dialogue with the teams to produce a weekly graphical scorecard and help out with other control and project administration duties. The scorecard highlighted earned value, earned schedule and earned benefits, quality, issues, change requests, risks and satisfaction measures. The scorecard also included a milestone Gantt overview. A succinct, high level project update was produced personally by Amir every two weeks featuring achievements, misses and remedies, if necessary. All projects artifacts were stored on the project’s SharePoint repository. All other control and communication activity was carried out according to the Conversation plan including monthly one-on-one meetings with the stakeholders.

And so the project continued on to its conclusion…

The Results

The last of five releases was delivered at the fifteen month mark at a total project cost of $4.3 million, considerably less than the allocated funding. As well, an additional $550,000 in annual benefit was realized from improved productivity and attributable revenue increases. The opportunities were proposed by Amir’s teams as they were discovered (the importance of focusing on value delivery throughout the project). The sponsor and affected stakeholders approved the scope expansion and allocated the funds during the conduct of the project.
Stakeholder satisfaction surveys yielded exemplary results – on a scale of 1 to 10, 9.2 for senior management, 8.7 in aggregate for Amir’s teams, 8.9 for involved staff and 9.5 for customers. It seems the company’s customers liked being asked to participate in the process and were thrilled with the resulting offering.

As well, they voted with their wallets! And Amir, he was promoted to Project Director.

How a Great Leader Delivered

It’s noteworthy that all of the items included in Amir’s “important factors” list have been covered one way or another in this blog and in other Project Times posts. No surprise! The nine items are proven, in fact essential, best practices for successful project delivery.

It’s also noteworthy that Amir chose to spend almost half his time on conversations. Communication isn’t just about sending out periodic status reports. It’s about fostering a multi-way dialogue, ensuring all stakeholders, including the project manager and project team, get what they need, in the format and medium they need, in a suitable time frame. Amir recognized the massive communication challenge on his plate and responded accordingly. It was all about managing a project’s conversations.

In addition, his use of the sales staff, with the VP of Sales’ enthusiastic backing and promotion, with the support of the Operations staff, was a master stroke. It positioned the sales staff as valued contributors and the company as an organization that could be trusted to collaborate fully to deliver value for their clients. It also gave the Operations staff, many of whom would be reassigned on completion of the project, an opportunity to leverage their knowledge and skills, take pride in their important contributions and focus on something other than their impending job change.

So, when you are challenged to deliver a major change, put these points on your checklist of things to consider. Then you too can be a Great Leader. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation on this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your experiences. Thanks

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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