Managing Expectations

When it comes to successful project management, the most daunting task often is not to complete the project, but rather to define in advance how various classes of stakeholders will measure success.

In fact, the biggest challenge faced by most project managers is often effectively managing differing expectations among stakeholders. And, as we’ll see, identification of expectations is critical to being able to manage them.

Consider the following project, which involved replacing back-office servers and upgrading point-of-sale systems at 5,300 locations for a national chain of 24-hour convenience stores.

Because of the nature of the client’s business, it was critical that the project be completed within four months, and work could only be performed between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. because it necessitated shutting down the gas pumps — a prime source of late-night revenues.

Before beginning work, primary stakeholders and their specific areas of interest were identified, including:

  • The client project manager, who was most concerned that there were no hardware or software issues and that the entire project was completed on time and within budget.
  • The IT director, whose focus was on whether or not the updated systems would be fully utilized and result in improved performance.
  • The CFO, who was mainly interested in whether the full cost of the project was properly estimated including hardware/software expenses, cost of services, anticipated lost revenues and rate of ROI.
  • The store managers, who were concerned with lost revenues and business disruptions, as well as the effectiveness of the new systems.
  • And the store employees, whose customers would be impacted by the disruption of business when gas pumps were shut down
  • Because time was taken to work with each stakeholder and address individual concerns, the project was considered a success by all involved. It was completed on-time and within budget, pleasing the project manager.

    The new servers and POS system ran faster and more efficiently, so the IT director also was happy. Also, because time had been take to estimate the full cost of the implementation, including lost revenues and how quickly those losses could be recouped with the new POS systems, the CFO and store managers were satisfied. Finally, the store employees found that there was minimal disruption during the implementation.

    But that outcome could easily have been different, even with the project coming in on time and within budget; all it would have taken was a failure to identify and address the main areas of concern for any one of those stakeholders.

    For example, had lost revenues and ROI not been taken into account, the CFO could easily have decided the entire implementation was a financial disaster.

    The store managers, too, could have decided the project was a failure if they had not been adequately prepared for the financial impact of shutting off the pumps for one night. And what if the systems were not fully utilized in some stores or did not measurably improve performance? The IT director and the project manager would likely not have been happy with the end result.

    Planning for Confict

    Such conflicting views can typically be avoided with the proper advance planning, which is why the best project managers — whether internal or consultants — are those who can effectively communicate with stakeholders all levels, both in writing and verbally, and during every phase of the project.

    In the case above, up-front identification of stakeholders and their concerns, followed by communications with representatives of these groups either directly or through the client project manager at various stages of the project effectively mitigated problems as they arose and resulted in a set of performance measures that everyone could live with.

    All this can be accomplished through the multi-step process outlined below that not only pre-sells the project to all the affected stakeholders, but also establishes the parameters, individual responsibilities and performance measures before work ever begins.

    Step One: Sit down with the prime driver of the project (for outside consultants, this is typically the client project manager; for internal project managers, this is typically the project initiator) and review the entire project, including budget, timeframe, purpose, performance expectations, constraints and stakeholders. These details will form the basis of a “stakeholder agreement.”

    Step Two: Sit down with each stakeholder to identify hot button issues and secure agreement on performance expectations and measures from their unique perspective. Include discussion of potential external factors that may influence your ability to achieve maximum results.

    Step Three: Assign responsibilities. First, determine who is responsible for the overall project. In most cases, this will be the project manager and/or whomever the project manager reports to.

    Next, identify individual stakeholder responsibilities and reach agreements on the impact any failure of a stakeholder to live up to his or her individual responsibility will have on the overall rating.

    For example, in the project above, the general manager of each store was responsible for coordinating the upgrade schedule at that location and ensuring that the employee on duty was fully aware of what he or she needed to do.

    Step Four: Establish contingency clauses in the agreement. These cover events that are beyond the team’s ability to correct, such as delivery delays from vendors, faulty software or “acts of God” that prevent work from being performed in a timely manner.

    Such things are expected, and should be addressed whenever possible, but they should not affect the performance rating. Along those same lines, if changes are made that are outside the scope of the original project agreement, it may be necessary to meet with the affected stakeholders and modify the existing agreement or establish the change as a new project.

    Step Five: Incorporate all the information and agreements reached in the previous steps into the stakeholder agreement and secure written approval from everyone involved.

    This gives the project manager and the stakeholders something to look back at when it’s time to evaluate the project. The unfortunate reality is that someone will always be unhappy, but a written stakeholder agreement gives the project manager a way to demonstrate that all commitments were met. By that same token, it gives the stakeholder a way to demonstrate when commitments haven’t been met.

    Step Six: Throughout the project, maintain a dialog with all the stakeholders as well as the primary driver. Do this with individual stakeholders as each component of the project is undertaken, and with the entire group as key milestones are accomplished. This ensures that there will be no surprises at the end of the project, and allows for immediate identification and resolution of problems as they arise.

    In a perfect world, all six steps should be undertaken for each project. However, most projects simply don’t allow enough time for that. Therefore, it’s important to get as many steps done as possible, get as much in writing as possible, and keep the lines of communication open throughout each phase of the project so that when all is said and done, as many stakeholders (and certainly the most influential stakeholders) as possible are completely satisfied with the results.

    Chris Egizi is vice president, Technology Consulting Services with Kforce Technology Staffing, a division of Kforce, Inc.. Dan Cobb, vice president, National Infrastructure Operations Center with Kforce Technology Staffing, assisted with the development of this column.