Bridging the gap between sales and project management: Issue 4 of 6

How to create stakeholder alignment

Put your project folks on the same page

This is the fourth instalment of our mini-series on Bridging the gap between sales and project management.

Issue 1: Assess your client & project alignment
Issue 2: From sales to project setup
Issue 3: Stakeholder types and their quirks
Issue 4: Stakeholder alignment
Issue 5: Tips for stakeholder onboarding
Issue 6: Wrap-up & resources

Let’s dig in:


Last week, we introduced the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the people on our projects can impact it (and impact us), and what we should watch out for. This week, we’ll talk about how you can sniff out misalignment and work towards getting all your people on the same page for smoother projects and happier teams.

All your internal and external project stakeholder interactions snowball into a thousand signals flying a multitude of directions over the course of your project. Those signals are supreme: they set the tone all the way through. So, what does your project environment feel like when everyone in it is aligned?

Happy. Productive. Efficient. Satisfying. Fun. Magical…

In many cases, stakeholder misalignment is one of the most significant predictors of project failure. The trick is to include the right people, for the right amount of time, at the right times throughout the project. As project leads, you are fundamental to this alignment, and by knowing your allies and bridging these gaps, you are doing more than the average digital project manager to run a successful project.

Stakeholder distance from the ‘project nucleus’

An diagram of two series of touching concentric circles: one showing the layers of your internal team and the other showing an external team

Look at these beautiful worlds colliding. On the left is you, your team, and your organization. On the right sits your point of contact, their project team, executives and owners, and their boards and advisory panels. And you’re at the centre of it all—you and your point of contact control a universe of responsibility and each layer is more diluted from the day-to-day activities and outcomes of the project than the last. Ironically, each layer seems to impact the project scope, budget, and timeline exponentially greater. How do you align everyone? What is alignment anyway?

Alignment: when everyone is pulling in the same direction, fighting for the same things, uniting for the same purpose.

Psst: Often, the loudest or squeakiest stakeholders are the ones who feel like they’re not included or respected in the decision making process. Find out in advance who needs to be involved and think about simple ways you can encourage goal based involvement in project decisions that directly impact them. A great way to do this is to ask your point of contact to ask these squeakers: “What’s the most important thing that we need to get right on this project and how do we know we’ve done that? What kind of input do you need to offer to make sure we do that?” You’ll notice the squeaking will usually subside.

What does alignment look like?

Magic, collaboration, and persistence are the ingredients that cement stakeholder alignment. The magic part is what you see when it starts paying off. To get stakeholders aligned, you have to be clear on a few major things:

  • What are we aligning on? Aka what does project success look like?
  • What does alignment look like? What observable cues and behaviours need to happen?
  • Are stakeholders aware they are misaligned/aligned?
  • Can you help them recognize it or be self-aware?
  • Can you help them improve alignment? Should you?

As a project lead, you want to do your best to model and explain the actions, attitudes, and behaviours that lead your team and other stakeholders to the finish line. You will never have a completely aligned group, but communicating about alignment, modelling good behaviour, and outlining goals and outcomes helps a ton. Check-in with your stakeholders to assess how aligned they truly are. Here’s what your stakeholders should aim to align on…

  • Goals (both business AND project goals)
  • Agreeing that we should build the right thing and built that thing the right way
  • Which priorities favour importance over urgency
  • Agreement on what the definitions of urgency vs. importance (e.g., a house fire is urgent, replacing your fire extinguisher is important, putting out the fire is both urgent and important)
  • Agreement on project roles and involvement
  • Process and communication channels that support the project and organization
  • The brand aesthetic (e.g., ‘luxury’ to you looks different than ‘luxury’ to them)
  • Audience needs
  • Their ability to adapt to change as an org
  • Actions and behaviours that positively impact the project
  • Trust and respect for the people and processes tied to the project

When clients and stakeholders know the goals of their organization and can define their importance, you can more easily help them prioritize features during implementation.

Warning!

This hand-holding comes with a project price tag: it takes time and energy to ensure that stakeholders are chasing after the same goals, so consider how those extras might factor into your budget (think: this is a partnership, not just a project). Think about it: what is the cost if you don’t factor in the cost? You can even turn alignment into a consulting offering: you’re charging clients not just for the ‘making’ of the assets, but offering expertise so you can come together to complete them. Ask your sales folks about any offerings your org supports and do a working session to figure out how to share that risk.

How do you know if stakeholders aren’t aligned?

  • They might fight with, contradict, undermine, or disagree with one another
  • The project might experience massive delays
  • Stakeholders may go quiet or ‘dark’ on you and pop up months later
  • Stakeholders may ask for numerous extensions
  • Sudden changes in project direction or scope (swoop and poop)
  • New faces show up midway through the project
  • Conflicting feedback or requests
  • Multiple rounds of feedback; lack of clarity about the direction
  • Awkward responses or behaviours during meetings
  • Passive aggressive, whiny, or defiant behaviour
  • Fearful, disengaged, or exhausted teams
  • Repeated misunderstandings

I’m a big nerd, but this video cracks me up like old leather on a sunny bench. Misalignment in all its transparent perpendicular red line glory: The Expert (YouTube; 7:34 min)

What to do if stakeholders aren’t aligned

Stop. Address the situation immediately. You cannot push a project to the finish line if the forces meant to focus it are pulling it in opposite directions. Here are some helpful questions you can ask your stakeholders to vet alignment:

  • Ask them if they feel like the org and team are aligned on goals/outcomes; if misaligned, ask if it is something they can work through together
  • Remind them of the goals and outcomes they’ve outlined with you during kickoff
  • Ask them if those goals are still relevant or need to change (this will affect the scope and budget)
  • Remind them that most projects fail because of stakeholder misalignment
  • Remind them that you cannot move forward until they are aligned
  • Ask them how much time they need to get aligned and set a firm date together
  • Ask if you or your team can help them get alignment or do an alignment workshop (charge for that)

You will have to get good at being uncomfortable. It takes practice, but it also means you are the best ally they have because you’re helping them work through their own discomfort. That’s magical. Trust is a natural side effect, here.

Remember, you can attempt to align stakeholders around things like goals, timelines, and outcomes, but if your client or executive stakeholders fundamentally disagree on why they exist, what they want to accomplish and why, it will derail your project. It is not your responsibility to fix that, but you do need to ask your stakeholders to fix it. You should pause the project and make ‘alignment’ a client deliverable. If that deliverable is late, invoke the Pause Clause and pause the project (i.e., if any sign-off, deliverable, approval, turnaround, payment is late, we put the project on hold and restart based on our availability). If you need to pause the project due to misalignment, you’ll need to re-estimate any changes to direction, deliverables, or outcomes. Changes to direction mean changes to scope. You’re not in the same project environment anymore and will need to evaluate what and how you’re building this evolving product.

Scripts you can use to promote alignment

  • “What happens if you sit down with your [team/stakeholder/execs] to see if you can agree on the why/how/what of your organization? How difficult does this feel?”
  • “How are you feeling about alignment in your organization right now? Do people want the same things?”
  • “I just want to check to see that we’re aligned…[restate feedback in stakeholder’s words]”
  • “How can we support your alignment so we can get to the finish line?”
  • “What needs to happen next to make sure you are aligned on what we should be creating?”
  • “Sometimes when we see feedback that takes the project in opposite directions, it means that clients/stakeholders aren’t aligned on their goals or next steps…what do you think the next step should be?”
  • Here’s what our team sees happening: path A will lead to [X outcome]; path B will lead to [Y outcome]. Which path aligns most with your goals to do [goal description]?

We talk about alignment frequently throughout our apprenticeship so project leads can learn how to become resilient in the face of potential project earthquakes. If you can sniff out misalignment early on, you have so much power to be able to create a stronger, healthier relationship with your teams, clients, boards, and investors. Maybe you’ll even make a little magic.

Up next

Keep your peepers on your inbox. Next week we’ll be covering tips for stakeholder onboarding; some dandy ways to treat your newest additions like part of the team.