by Doug DeCarlo, Principal
The Doug DeCarlo Group
Author of eXtreme Project Management:
Using Leadership, Principles and Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility

Getting a Grip on the Anti-Project Team

Unless you are in project La La Land, you may have noticed that not everybody is sympathetic with the needs of your project. In fact, my experience has shown that for every eXtreme project team, there is an equal and opposite project team hard at work. I call this the anti-project team. The anti-project team is composed of individuals who feel that your project is affecting them, or will affect them, in some negative way.

Stakeholders who feel threatened by the project and cause problems drain the project of vital energy, just like weeds sap vitality from flowers in a garden. (Of course, there are fans of the project, although they are sometimes hard to find.)

Stakeholder management is the soft glue that holds the eXtreme project together. Failure to manage the stakeholder community effectively is the primary reason that eXtreme projects come unglued and go out of control. Traditional project management focuses heavily on project mechanics: tools and templates and the design and creation of the product or service being delivered. eXtreme project management puts the emphasis on the human dynamics: managing relationships and facilitating interactions.

A stakeholder is anyone who can affect the success or failure of your project either before or after the project has been completed. Stakeholders can be internal or external to the organization and include those who will provide inputs to your project, such as needed products and services, funding, approvals, resources, and other projects that you will rely on for your project.

The Stakeholder Challenge
Here's a partial list of what the saboteurs on the anti-project team can do:
  • Not provide needed input and direction, leaving you to second-guess what is wanted
  • Delay approvals for needed decisions on policy and procedures, equipment, and people
  • Continually find flaws in work delivered
  • Not provide needed feed back on interim project deliverables, causing delays
  • Reassign your team members to other projects
  • Engage in backroom politicking to kill the project
  • Blatantly go on record and make a public case against your project
  • Have team members they assign to your project act as unwitting spies, reporting back on project status and using or twisting that information against the project
  • Start a competing project to get it done their way
  • Delay or cancel a project that your project depends on
As if this weren't enough, there are several other factors that make managing stakeholders challenging.
The sheer numbers. If the primary role of the project manager is to manage the network of complex relationships among the stakeholder community, the sheer number of stakeholders can make this task overwhelming. Stakeholder communities can number into the hundreds and thousands.

Communication requirements. The large number of potential stakeholders geometrically multiplies the amount of interpersonal communication that that needs to take place: to resolve issues, get buy-in, get approvals, get feedback, report to management, and much more.

Matrix organizations. Further compounding stakeholder dynamics is that most, if not all, of the stakeholders will fall outside your boss's chain of command. This means you have no direct -- and little, if any, indirect -- authority over them.
In sum, on eXtreme Projects, you are dealing with a complex and confusing environment.

Stakeholder Conflicts
Exasperating the stakeholder challenge is that different stakeholder groups can have conflicting objectives and interests. And these can stalemate the project. Take, for instance, a project to bring a new sleeping pill to market. Senior management wants to gain market share while improving profit margins, generally considered to be opposing objectives. Finance understandably wants predictable results, yet the project is in the early development stage and has many unknowns. The development team wants to work with stable product requirements, but marketing naturally wants to keep its options open as long as possible in order to keep ahead of the competition. The consumer wants low prices, which may be in conflict with the desire of some senior managers for higher profit margins. And as toxicology pushes for more time to test the drug, management is exerting schedule pressure. And you, the project manager, are caught in the middle of this muddle.

Managing Your Stakeholders
How do you deal with all these people and their conflicting interests? The 10 Shared Values of eXtreme Project Management will help guide the way, especially the business value of clarity of purpose.

In addition to these values, there are several strategic steps you can take here:
  • Partition your stakeholders in terms of the size of their stake in your project and the amount of clout they can bring to bear.
  • Work with the most critical stakeholders to reach agreement on the win conditions for your project.
  • Set up explicit partnering agreements with everyone who is expected to provide resources, services, or other deliverables to your project.

Partitioning Stakeholders
With dozens and potentially hundreds of project influencers, you will quickly find yourself up to your neck in stakeholders unless you have a system to manage them. You need to map out all the stakeholders on your project, partition them according to how much power and influence they can bring to bear on the project, and then manage them accordingly.

Crucial Stakeholders. These are individuals who can kill the project at any time. They have the power to pull the plug. As crucial stakeholders, they can do this by withdrawing funds or simply calling an abrupt halt to the venture. Crucial stakeholders can also be active supporters of the venture. They can keep it going no matter what.

Key Players. These are individuals who can delay the project, sending it to a slow death. They can also ensure that the project is overlooked once it has been delivered. I was brought in to diagnose a failed project, one that was intended to introduce a new project management information and scheduling system into the IT organization. Turns out that the software developers and techies were able to kill the project indirectly by neglect and by malicious compliance: providing inaccurate information. Why? The software tool had the features needed to meet the information needs of senior management, but the already overburdened IT staff perceived the system as adding extra work and no value to them.

Important Stakeholders. These are people who need to be kept informed of what's coming and how it will affect their world. They want assurance that their needs are being represented by those planning the project. Keeping them informed can take the form of standup presentations, poster campaigns, e-mail, and other means of communication. Although important, this stakeholder group has no kill power, direct or indirect, over the project.

In my experience, it comes down to this: stakeholder management is nearly a full time job on eXtreme projects. Implication: it's unlikely that you can keep up with stakeholder management and also be responsible for managing the development of the project deliverable. Insist on having a subject matter expert to head development.

Bottom line from what I've seen: eXtreme project managers who focus on stakeholder management have higher success rates.

eXtremely yours,

Doug DeCarlo

P.S.: For the full story on eXtreme Project Management, see Doug's book on Amazon.com.

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