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Re-establishing Communication on a Stalled Project

Five Steps to Success

Any study on project failure will list poor stakeholder communication as one of the top three reasons for a project’s demise. This brief case study discusses the steps I took to revive project stakeholder communications and move a group of stakeholders from intense distrust to frequent (and pleasant) collaboration.

Background: This web application redesign project for the military had petered to a low level grind, characterized by tersely worded emails, accusations and entrenched opinions. Project status meetings were held monthly, and sometimes skipped. There were no other recurring communications.Following please find key steps I used to shift this group to collaboration.

Step 1: Perform a Gap Analysis on As-is and Should-be Communications

The PMBOK version 4 now includes a Stakeholder Management Plan, which should be used by every PM. Many of us PMs were already doing something similar with the communication plan. The key here is to recognize that the PMBOK does have tools that, when used, will actually help you. I used the Communication Matrix and RACI chart to scope out all the stakeholders Just the process of interviewing stakeholders to fill in the RACI chart surfaced mis-conceptions about roles and responsibilities that proved to be the source of many an argument.

Step 2: Use Your Ability to be Impartial as Long as You Can

When you are a brand new PM on a contentious project, you have a window of opportunity in which you are perceived as impartial; you just haven’t had time to form opinions yet. Use this time to your advantage. I decided to talk to the customer, the armed forces personnel, first. I wanted to understand how they perceived my team before my team could influence me. I knew from my stakeholder review in Step 1 that their experience with each other was based on the lack of clear role definition from the start. I also used this time to clearly understand the client’s perspective on scope, time and cost.

Step 3: Establish Credibility by Responding to Your Action items Right Away

After my initial set of meetings with stakeholders, I came away with a list of action items. These became my priority. In an environment where trust has been broken, it takes many demonstrations, over time, to regain trust. But you can start off on the right foot by simply responding quickly. Distribute meetings notes right away, do what you say you’re going to do, but do it sooner than expected. If you can’t do it, communicate why and explain when you can.

Step 4: Set up Recurring Meetings Right Away

The first thing stakeholders are going to do when they stop trusting each other is to stop meeting. My job as PM was to get them back in the same room again, stay calm and not take sides. The first few meetings were not stellar. But, I knew that the point is that they actually get face time, even begrudgingly, on a recurring basis.

Step 5: Don’t Get Sucked into the Vortex

In stalled projects, people can behave badly. They will say things that are hurtful and don’t move things forward. Many times I made the conscious choice not to get sucked in. I knew that it took history for negative feelings to develop, and I didn’t have that history. As the new person, I had to be impartial and mature – at times it was a huge struggle to do so. When problems do surface, focus on the problem, not the people. Shift the group to problem analysis, not people analysis.

Result: Within six months of recurring meetings, reestablishment of credibility, slowly introducing proper roles and responsibilities and keeping my mouth shut when I wanted to scream, this group of about 20 armed forces personnel, civilians, and contractors have become re-energized, meeting weekly for a Change Control Board that is effective and collaborative.

Michiko Diby is a collaborative, goal-oriented professional with an excellent track record of leading projects in both the public and private sector. Ms. Diby is Principal with SeaLight, LLC a consulting firm she founded to provide project conflict resolution services. She is a leader in the Washington, DC Project Management community, serving as PM for the 2007-2009 International Project Management Day, and 2008 AVP for Community Outreach. She holds a Project Management Professional credential (PMP) and a MS in Conflict Resolution. Ms. Diby can be reached at [email protected]