When it comes to successfully shepherding high-profile projects to completion, managing up is just as important as managing down. Whether you’re working on a product launch, advertising campaign, or major purchase, you’re probably going to need to get approval from a decision maker at some point before you can proceed with your plans.
In theory, this process should be fairly simple and straightforward. You have an idea to do something. You share a plan with your boss (or your boss’s boss). Your boss approves it. You and your team execute the plan while sharing progress along the way. And then you finish the thing you set out to do. Everyone is happy.
In reality, things don’t always play out that way. Sometimes it’s not clear who gets to decide on something. Or, if several people get to decide, they may not agree with each other.
If you’re the DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) on a project, getting the green light from decision makers can feel elusive and daunting. This doesn’t always have to be the case, though. Here are four things to remember about stakeholder management.
1. Not all stakeholders are the same
A stakeholder is anyone who plays a role in the success of your project. But the exact role of each stakeholder can vary, ranging from the senior leaders weighing in on key decisions to the team members who will help you execute your plans. When stakeholder roles aren’t clearly defined, you can find yourself in a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen situation—or you might unwittingly bypass some required approvals.
Among the various stakeholders of your project, it’s important to identify the approvers up front—and to make sure that everyone involved in the project knows who they are. (Usually, though not always, approvers are the senior leaders with budget discretion.) For more complex projects that require input from lots of stakeholders with relevant and overlapping expertise, it makes sense to designate a single approver with other stakeholders acting as advisors.
Advisors can, and should, still provide critical feedback to ensure the success of a project, but it is ultimately the approver who decides whether a project gets funded or whether a set of creative deliverables are ready to go out into the world. By clarifying who has decision-making authority, you’re less likely to get bogged down by chasing consensus.
2. Align early and often
Knowing who is approving and advising your project is the first step. Before you dive into execution mode, though, be sure to get sign off on your plan. You’ll want to make sure that you and your stakeholders are aligned on the overall objectives and strategy of your project. As the saying goes, don’t put the cart before the horse.
To get alignment with stakeholders early on, the marketing team at Asana creates a marketing brief for every project. The brief documents the goals, audience, channel, timeline, and stakeholders of the project and serves as a project proposal. As a starting point for gathering input, clarifying requirements, and setting expectations, the brief helps the project lead get stakeholders (literally) on the same page and address important questions before any work begins. And once the brief is approved, it provides an anchor for realigning the team should things start to go off course.
3. Know your audience
It’s not always what you say, but how you say something that can determine whether you get a thumbs up or thumbs down from a stakeholder. That’s why it’s important to understand the unique working styles of your project’s stakeholders. Some leaders prefer to discuss important decisions in person while others prefer a little extra time and space to think things through asynchronously.
Beyond personality-based communication preferences, it turns out that many senior leaders have specific decision-making styles. In a Harvard Business Review article, Gary A. Williams and Robert B. Miller identified five types of decision makers based on a study of over 1,600 executives. They found that “charismatics” love big, bold ideas while “controllers” are less likely to approve risky projects. “Followers” base their decisions on prior experiences or the decisions of other leaders while “thinkers: and “skeptics” can be the most difficult to convince.
Whatever the case may be, the point is to tailor your pitch—whether it’s a project plan or a set of completed deliverables—to the people who will be approving it. “After all,” as Williams and Miller point out, “Bill Gates does not make decisions in the same way that Larry Ellison does. And knowing that can make a huge difference.” One-size-fits-all approaches do not make effective stakeholder management.
4. Trust by default
Even after you’ve clearly identified stakeholders, aligned on goals and requirements, and figured out how to best persuade decision makers, you may still hit a few roadblocks along the way. Perhaps you’ve shared several iterations of designs without any clear sign of approval, or project goals shift weeks after they’ve been agreed upon.
Yes, this can be very frustrating. And yes, it’s easy to vent and externalize blame on difficult stakeholders to explain why things aren’t going right. But consider this: you don’t have to be at the effect of what’s happening around you.
Instead, trust by default. It’s more than likely that your stakeholders have the best interests of the team in mind and want to see your project succeed as much as you do. Rather than see project stakeholders as adversaries, consider them as resources with valuable experience and expertise to share.
Moving forward, together
Managing stakeholders while simultaneously making sure things get done can feel overwhelming at times, but don’t forget that you have a whole team behind you. After all, the basic idea of teamwork is that a group of people can accomplish better results than an individual working alone. The best way to keep things moving forward is to think of stakeholders as teammates, working towards the same goal as you and everyone else.
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