Stakeholders Benefit From a PM’s Perspective

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
Our recent series of IPMA (International Project Management Association) meetings and events in Asia was rich with the opportunity to meet great people, dialogue about the benefits of our chosen practice or profession, and with innumerable sudden insights. Not to mention a wealth of topics for this often-longer-and-deeper-than-normal blog.

In this case, the setting was an early Sunday morning flight over the Himalaya mountains of Nepal. Sponsored by PMAN, Project Management Association of Nepal (thank you again!), it was a beautiful morning, and on takeoff, we saw the city of Kathmandu waking up. Soaring to mountain heights, and rising above the clouds, we were able to track each of the peaks jutting above the clouds. Showing the benefit of a plan, we each had a map of the mountains we would see in our journey from North to South. 

The Stakeholder View
The first mountain we saw barely peeked through the clouds. The next several were progressively higher. From our window seat in the small plane, those on the left side of the plane had a decent view out of the tiny windows. Those on the right had a more obscured view. We all had other obstacles, such as the wing of the plane blocking a portion of the view.

Similarly, in many projects, our key Stakeholders don’t always have the same clear view of the project as does the team. The Stakeholders are often part-time participants. They don’t have time to read all the documents, and may miss important meetings, “because of pressing priorities.” They do not have the clear project vision they deserve.

One quick discovery made a difference in our blocked view. If we looked out-and-back, rather than out-and-ahead, the wing was not in the way. Of course, this was difficult, because it was clear that the route of the plane was taking us to ever-increasingly tall mountains, so in our eagerness, we were still often looking, even straining, to see what was coming.

Unfortunately, in many projects, we see the opposite problem. Key Stakeholders, and some team members, spend much of their time looking back, in this case, at the way things were—and the problems of the past. Because Projects and Programs represent the discipline of managed change, we need teams, stakeholders, project managers (and their managers) who are comfortable and competent at looking ahead. And yet, most not-yet-competent project managers spend far too much of their time looking behind them. Just look at most status reports!

Better Stakeholder View

The discovery improved our view. Of course, our progress was also bringing us to taller mountains, just as project progress adds clarity, and a better understanding of needed results. And of course, for those of us on the plane, being friends and being fair, we took turns with those seated on the right side of the plane so they too could see the grand view. We were still limited by the tiny porthole size of the airplane window. It was big enough for a camera, but not for two people to look at the same time.

The Project Manager’s View
I had noticed that one by one, each of the passengers was invited to see the view from the cockpit. I was in the back of the plane, so was one of the last to be invited forward. Timely, because we were approaching Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. My first glance out the pilot’s window was stunning! It was a 180 degree panorama, as opposed to the tiny view out the side porthole-sized windows. And, straight ahead, I could see Mt. Everest well enough to see that its South face was devoid of snow. Such a difference between the tiny, 6′ side-window wide porthole of the Stakeholder seats, and the 120 degree, 6 foot wide view of the pilots!

This is one of the times I wish I had the photopower that Les Squires wields; my “brownie” snapshot was thwarted by the autofocus “seeing” the airplane’s windscreen, not the mountain. But to my eye, the difference between the pilot’s view and the tiny porthole view was overwhelming. Which inspired this article. Here is the analogy: Competent and performing project managers have the pilot’s full-180 degree panorama. Stakeholders have a tiny 18 degree view of most projects. The challenge: How to increase the field of vision for all Stakeholders? Also, how can we improve the forward vision for those project managers who focus on the past? Of course, we have posted guides to these preferred behaviors and competences, here and elsewhere for years. Yet, most projects that fail do so because of ignorance of these insights.

Among the Actions
Primary among the actions needed, both by Project Managers and key Stakeholders, is to understand and trace project scope, from inspiration through benefit realization. Some have recently discovered the importance of this, but this was common sense in the mid-1980s, as my business partner Dan Myers, a Requirements Management expert, and I, with my ProjectExperts firm, generated a range of commercial PM methodologies that solved the problem for the government agencies, small, medium and large consultancies, and smart businesses, that adopted our methods.

The actions did involve some project manager training; that training (or learning, as we prefer) certainly covered technical topics, such as how to scope and estimate a project, but it was focused more on leading teams, emphasizing interpersonal skills, engaging key stakeholders in organizational change, and how to communicate upwards so middle and executive managers knew how to support delivery of business benefits. While this was the mid 1980s, those competences remain important in any organization, and our experience is that for many, they are the essence of PM Performance. And, in fact, this is why those of us who founded IPMA-USA were attracted to the IPMA way: It was very compatible with the factors that increase project and program success.

And yet, where have you spent your project improvement funding? What has it gotten you? We have reported frequently on the tens of billions of U$D spent on classes that have absolutely no connection with improved PM Performance. Foolish managers, unfortunate companies. And, as we have reported, smarter managers and companies are changing their patterns, to only embrace actions that measurably improve project business results. Some did this 25 years ago. Others have recently discovered this and are trumpeting their discoveries at conferences and in periodicals.

And the majority remain mired; they have not yet discovered the IPMA way.

Improving the Stakeholder View
So how do we improve the key Stakeholder view from the tiny, blocked side window, to the Pilot’s Panorama? One way we did that 25 years ago was to make a key Stakeholder the Project Manager. We found that it was easier to teach (and perform follow-on coaching and learning) key Stakeholders to manage projects, than it was to teach most technical project managers how to manage the results of a business or government agency. That remains an option today. Another alternative is to focus your project managers on business needs, not just memorizing processes.

There are many more actions that will contribute, but they are out of scope for this article. They do include improving the core PM competences of managers, mid-managers and Executives, but we are separately engaged in that challenge. For our key Stakeholders, I can think of a dozen more actionable items, but that will be some future article. What do you think it takes, to help key Stakeholders to become panoramic, forward looking pilots of your projects?

Your Comments?