Poor relationship management can put your design project in peril.
At the beginning of my career, I was involved in a project to develop a suite of e-learning modules for a training organization. As a project manager in training at the time, I made a critical mistake: I assumed that all stakeholders were similarly interested and had a positive outlook for the project. As it turns out, that is rarely the case. And making that assumption is the easiest and laziest approach to minimizing conflict.
Instructional designers don't operate in a vacuum. In addition to our work involving learners, we collaborate with team members, subject matter experts, and parties within the client organization. As a practitioner of instructional design for the past 20 years, I've learned (the hard way) two key tenets of relationship management for such projects:
- Each stakeholder has a conscious or unconscious agenda, which their power, interest, and attitude toward the project determine. Finding out what those agendas are and understanding that they can change over time is key to ensuring a project's success.
- The political angle of instructional design really exists. Navigating stakeholder relationships means we need to get along with all stakeholders, even if they have a negative interest or attitude toward the project.
Determine who's who
The realization that I could easily compromise a project's success by oversimplifying stakeholder engagement was eye-opening and made me do a more rigorous study before starting a project. I created a series of questions that would help me frame my approach.
Who's the project sponsor? This individual is the most interested in the project's success and has a positive attitude toward it. However, what makes them even more influential is the power they have to make things happen. Keep this person informed about the project's progress, and reach out with concerns about barriers and resources.
Who has a positive attitude toward the project? Cultivate your relationships with these stakeholders by highlighting their exposure to project progress details and benefits. The goals are to increase their level of interest and build advocacy for the project. One of the best ways to do so is by capitalizing on the positive results associated with every deliverable.
Who has a negative attitude toward the project? Generally speaking, minimize their influence in the project by addressing head-on their concerns and questions in a public way.
However, if these individuals have power (or will potentially gain power during the project timeline) within the stakeholder group, engage them and seek their support for the project.
While such a stakeholder registry exercise may seem excessive, understanding stakeholders' areas of influence and their interests and attitudes toward the project will only yield benefits. The stakeholder registry should include:
- Names and roles (in the organization or in the project)
- The collective perception of their power, interest, and attitude toward the project (Note the emphasis on collective perception—influence in a project is often a social construct that may not be tied to the roles these individuals play in the organization.)
- Communication preferences
- Time they were onboarded in the project
- Any helpful notes that could help manage relationships with these individuals The registry will help you monitor changes that can affect the project execution. I often split stakeholders into two categories based on their attitude toward the project. Also, keep the registry confidential, for your eyes only.
A taxonomy of issues
I've seen many stakeholder-related issues derail well-defined projects. The following categories are based on common themes that will help identify potential solution avenues.
Undefined/unmanaged expectations at the outset. It's frustrating to find that the collaborators are not all on the same page regarding the project. To make it worse, the frustration is contagious and can lower their levels of interest.
Regardless of their involvement and the timing of it, make all stakeholders aware of the project objectives, activities, deliverables, stakeholders, timelines, communication channels, and budget. The best way to do so is by creating a project charter and distributing it in advance of the kickoff meeting. Next, actively seek feedback and address any concerns at the outset.
In the context of the project, the kickoff meeting is crucial. It should occur at least two weeks before the formal start of the project timeline and involve all project stakeholders. After a round of introductions, an agenda for this meeting should include discussion about:
- Project objectives, deliverables, budget, and timelines
- Roles and responsibilities
- Communication such as touchpoints and the schedule for formal meetings
Miscommunication at different stages of the project. That stray email that states "When are we meeting again? I am getting mixed information" or "From previous messages, I believed Module 1 was final. What happened?" is more symptomatic than you think. In an age and time when you can send an email and copy many stakeholders, misinformation spreads like wildfire.
To minimize that situation, you, as the project manager, must be the communication hub—everything should pass through you before reaching the group. Consistency in timing and frequency also helps, because stakeholders will prefer regular updates rather than random communications. In addition, tackle any miscommunication as soon as it's evident. Remember to apply the rule of three: If the back and forth via email takes more than three messages, pick up the phone.
Personal styles getting in the way. First, don't tolerate harassment, disrespect, or hostility in any form. Having said that, what do you do when stakeholders seem to be bothered by the details, emotionally charge the conversation, appear to be unempathetic or disinterested, or are relentlessly pursuing a particular outcome despite ruffling feathers? Start by talking to the project sponsor to get an alternate reading of the situation and assess potential solutions.
The communication preferences and stakeholder mapping from your registry will be useful in these situations. More importantly, ensure that the necessary information comes across in a clear way and that decision making is based on it, regardless of personal styles.
Changes in the stakeholder roster. Such change throws off your initial stakeholder mapping and will leave you to figure out what the power-interest-attitude agenda is for the new players, as well as the potential interactions with existing stakeholders.
In such cases, start by getting to know the new stakeholders. Interview them to determine their agenda for the project and the best way to communicate and engage them. Next, fully onboard the individuals. To set and manage expectations regarding their involvement, share the project charter and run a kickoff meeting with them. After that, introduce them to the larger team.
Priority shifts. In my experience, this is something that affects projects with lengthy timelines (more than six months) and those that have been delayed. It is symptomatic of decision makers' change in interest due to disappointment ("This is taking so long."), changes in the alignment with business goals, or the emergence of other projects that stakeholders need to prioritize. Also be mindful of projects with a timeline that extends beyond the current fiscal year.
In all those cases, reprioritizing the project will fall outside your area of influence. Therefore, execute the project with a sense of urgency and have regular stand-up meetings with the project sponsor to keep them abreast of the progress and to learn about any priority changes.
Shifts at the organizational level (company ownership, upper management, departmental reorganizations) can likewise negatively affect projects and are out of your area of influence. However, your awareness of such changes is critical; staying in contact with your project sponsor will help keep you informed.
Principles of stakeholder relationship management
Considering the risks associated with the issues mentioned above, how can you avoid or mitigate them? Inaction is the least-recommended approach because stakeholder issues can only become worse if you decided to ignore them. Let's focus on what actions you can take.
Be transparent. Keep everyone informed about the project's progress, the challenges that can compromise the execution, and any additional information that can be of value to stakeholders. Cater the information to each stakeholder's level of involvement, the sensitivity associated with it, and whether the information is confidential.
Communicate well, often, and based on their preferences. Upon completing the stakeholder registry, you will be able to identify, for example, the individuals who prefer weekly, biweekly, monthly, or as-needed updates; those who like updates via email, phone call, or meeting (in person versus online); and stakeholders who are keen to receive as many details as possible versus those who prefer high-level updates.
Strive for clear and concise information. Although some stakeholders may condone a long, detailed update that recalls the project's history in every touch point, all will benefit from clear, accurate, and succinct updates that help decision making.
Advocate for the project, stakeholders, and learners. You are responsible for advocating for the project and other stakeholders, including the team you project manage. More importantly, it is your duty to highlight any decision that could affect the learners and their ability to do their work.
For me, it's easy to tell my project sponsor or any other powerful stakeholder that the direction they're giving will increase the associated project costs or lengthen the timing. I would even express that, from an instructional design standpoint, a particular decision is fundamentally wrong. Sometimes I compromise, but I draw a line when I foresee a decision negatively affecting the team under my direction or when I anticipate learners being subjected to real damage.
Use low-cost experiments and quick wins to sell medium- and long-term goals. I always see projects as a sequence of activities that I can aggregate into phases or stages. To a certain extent, that helps me contain the failures or successes in a low-cost experiment.
If the result is not what I was anticipating, I review what went wrong and correct course in consultation with stakeholders. However, when the experiment is a success, I emphasize the results by:
- Informing all stakeholders about the successful completion of the stage
- Highlighting why that milestone is important and how it is a precursor of future
- Shining a light on the people behind the result
Damage control and project recovery
Even after following the outlined recommendations, there's always potential for stakeholder relations to cause a negative impact on your project. When stakeholder relations hit your project hard, take these critical steps to recover.
Assess the damage and identify the causes of the disruption in a holistic way. Oversimplifying the problem and what caused it can lead to further issues and won't help you learn and do better next time.
Start by listing all the evidence of the problem—for example, communication disruptions with key stakeholders, miscommunication, wrong expectations conveyed at the beginning, or less-than-perfect interactions derived from personal styles. Be comprehensive and honest, especially if you were the origin of the issue.
Next, determine the causes. Was the issue the result of one or multiple stakeholders' actions or inactions? Of interactions between stakeholders? Of circumstances? Was it anything else?
Recalibrate your project charter in terms of costs, scope, and schedule. Assess the impact stakeholder management issues have on the triple constraint.
- Schedule: Have these issues caused, or will they cause, a delay due to the actions you will need to implement to get back on track? Look at both concurrent and dependent activities and the impact on deliverables.
- Costs: Will you need to rework some deliverables to meet quality expectations? Do you anticipate needing more resources (staffing, technology) to complete the deliverables?
- Scope: From my experience, many projects that need recalibration end up compromising the scope to meet schedule and budget constraints. That is when dividing the major project into two phases and focusing on the first comes into the conversation. If you can accommodate changes in time and costs, there may be no impact on scope. However, be aware that scope creep is particularly problematic in this scenario.
Talk to the project sponsor about potential solutions to bring the project back on track. This is a critical step to ensure you have the necessary buy-in to implement changes. Bring a list of arguments to support each action you're proposing, and relentlessly advocate for the project and learners.
Discuss stakeholder relations with the project sponsor and suggest risk-management responses. This is the moment to raise your analysis of the situation and its causes. The most important characteristic of issues in stakeholder management is that they tend to repeat, so an honest conversation with the project sponsor is warranted. As for risk-management responses, think about:
- Mitigation. Should we sit down with this stakeholder (or stakeholders) and discuss their contribution to the project and the changes we'd like to see? From a human capital perspective, this is the approach I always prefer to take.
- Transfer. Should we allocate the responsibilities and activities we entrusted to this stakeholder to other stakeholders? Some project managers prefer this approach because it averts difficult conversations. If you favor this approach, be mindful of the impact on trust-building and the reputation of the individuals who are being stripped of the responsibilities and activities.
- Acceptance. This is a hard pill to swallow because it means no other responses will work and you will need to keep navigating the disruption. This is often the result when powerful stakeholders are the cause of the issues. If that is the case, discuss with your project sponsor how to contain the impact of the actions from those stakeholders.
- Avoidance. Should we remove this stakeholder (or stakeholders) from the project to avoid further disruption? I use this strategy as a last resort and propose it only when I anticipate no other risk-management responses will work.
A people process
You will often master relationship management in instructional design via experience. As you take the reins of more instructional design projects, you will inevitably face issues such as the ones detailed here. As an educator and a believer in lifelong learning, I recognize this path can and will be difficult sometimes, but it will also lead to successful projects that are people-centered and resilient and will help position yourself as a leader in this industry.