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Stakeholder Engagement: Add Some Comfort and Cheer!

Project Management Essentials
Leadership

In the spirit of sharing project management techniques, I’d like to share a lesson learned from a job I had many years ago during a summer break from college…

Experimenting with Cheer

I had the fortunate opportunity to be a glorious collections agent, responsible for calling up past due accounts and obtaining details on payments for outstanding accounts. After days of struggling with the drudgery of my daily tasks, I did an experiment. I called 10 accounts and was very direct, getting right to the point in requesting that they provide remittance details. On the next 10 accounts, I started the call with some chit-chat asking about the weather, how his/her day was, and then asked for remittance details. I knew that the people on the other end didn’t like their jobs any more than I did, so why not add some cheer to the calls and see how that worked?

Do you know which calls were not only more enjoyable but more productive, too? The ones where we had some fun chatting with each other, talking about the weather, commiserating about our mundane jobs, or discussing what we were going to eat for lunch that day before we discussed payment information. Not only did I enjoy those calls more, as did my counterparts, but they were more productive. The first set of calls resulted in most of them saying that they didn’t have any information for me and would call be back, but never did.

Applying the Lesson Learned

I’ve carried that lesson with me to this day. When working with others, it’s important to find ways to relate on a human level, to provide some comfort and add some cheer. It may seem like the wrong focus to some, but in my experience, it actually facilitates collaboration and productivity.

Here are some Interpersonal and team skills, along with some communications techniques, I’ve learned along the way that have helped me to engage stakeholders so that we accomplish great things together:

  1. Be Amicable: Allow time to get to know people and start meetings with some general conversations. Give them a break from the meeting they just came from. Let them settle in and take a breath before moving right into the tasks at hand. 
  2. Meet Sooner: Communicate early on even if you only have partial information. Sometimes, it helps to provide a little bit up front, instead of waiting until you have everything at a later time. The earlier in the process you can communicate with key stakeholders, the easier it will be for them to feel comfortable with the approach of the project and align with the goals outlined.
  3. Review Roles: Provide clear details on what role each plays. Discuss what each will provide and contribute so that everyone understands what he/she is accountable for or needs to deliver, test, or review. When discussing an agile approach, help stakeholders understand that the process will be iterative with more frequent touch-points, which allows opportunities to try things out and then make changes later on if needed.
  4. Provide Visuals: Provide something simple to look at as you discuss the approach or scope of what you will work on first. A picture truly is worth a thousand words and can help provide a starting point to inspire questions. I like to use roadmaps or basic diagrams in a PowerPoint slide to show the high-level milestones or the short processes that might be repeated inside the high-level milestones.
  5. Think Ahead: Ask stakeholders for any upcoming events/projects that might take up their time or conflict with the timing of other deliverables. Allow them to plan out for backup resources if needed. For example, for a larger project I was a part of, we knew that we were going to need several weeks of the summer months for user acceptance testing. So we communicated that fact months ahead and made sure that the business partners knew the level of commitment and number of resources needed. The stakeholders appreciated that communication, and there were no issues or delays when the testing window came and went.
  6. Be Humble: You might not know everything (hard to believe, right?). You also won’t have all the ideas, and you don’t have to. You are working with a team and everyone provides his/her own unique value to the team and project. Be humble. Admit your mistakes. Ask for their input. “What have I missed?”
  7. Reach Out: Sometimes checking in with a stakeholder face-to-face is just the thing that helps to bridge some gaps. Don’t assume no news is good news. Being proactive and keeping in touch can help prevent issues that might become roadblocks to progress and delay future iterations.
  8. Be Understanding: Put yourself in their shoes. Not everyone works at the same pace, grasps concepts at the same rate, or has the same comfort levels. Try to put yourself in their shoes to understand where they are coming from. For example, I was once involved in a small project that we couldn’t get over the finish line. There seemed to be a recurring hesitation when it was time to go live. The deliverable had either too many words or not enough. It was reviewed and reviewed and edited and discussed several times. In the end, speaking with the stakeholder and providing some reassurance that it was okay to go live and then update later seemed to be just the boost they needed to go live. And we did.
  9. Add Cheer: Bring some treats to a meeting; highlight the great accomplishments from the last week; set up a coffee talk meeting; ask for restaurant recommendations; or share a quick tip you might have just learned.

And for the record, I know there are cases that no matter how many techniques you try, some stakeholders require a little less comfort and cheer. That’s for another blog post. :)

Now, what did I miss?

About the Author

Jennifer Walsh, PMP, CSM, is an IT and Enterprise Applications leader in the Denver area. She volunteers with the Military Outreach program for PMI Mile Hi Chapter.

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