Ask a PM: How to Get a Stakeholder to Take Action on a Problem
Dear Elizabeth: My project has problems. On the team, we all know and can see them, but the project stakeholders don’t understand the issues. Even if I can explain the problems, they fail to take any concrete action to resolve them. How can I get them to see what we can see and do something about it so we can get on and finish this project?
Take a breath, because this might be hard to read.
It’s not them. It’s you.
You’re responsible for communicating in a way that helps them understand what is going on. You’re not doing that. If they don’t know what the issues are, it’s because you aren’t explaining them properly. Your stakeholders are not mind readers. They’re also not involved in the day-to-day work on the project as much as you are, so they can’t have all the detailed knowledge that you do.
Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment and look at how you can communicate the problems more effectively. Then, you’ll both get what you want: they’ll get the knowledge of what’s happening, and you’ll get a decision that helps your team move forward.
Tailor What You Say and How You Say It
You need to explain a problem to someone. First, put yourself in their shoes. They don’t have the technical knowledge that you do. They most likely don’t have the first clue about the detail you are managing daily. Your project sponsor is invested in the result, not so much the process. If they are an ex-developer or someone who has risen through the ranks, then you might be starting with a higher baseline of vocabulary and knowledge, but let’s assume not for now.
Think about what the problem is and how you can explain it to them. Cut out the jargon. Stick to the facts. Wrap them in business value.
Here’s a formula to use:
- “We have hit a problem.
- “The impact is [delay/budget overrun/increased risk/unhappy customers/etc].
- “The problem is [high-level statement of the problem, without getting too technical, blaming anyone or being confusing].
- “We could [Solution 1] or [Solution 2]. Can I tell you more about [your preferred solution]? That’s what I recommend we do next.”
If they want to hear the solution you recommend, outline it. If they don’t, we move on to the next part of the conversation.
Ask for Action
Many times, execs don’t make decisions because
- They don’t know you need them to;
- They don’t have the skills to choose between the options and are waiting for you to recommend a solution; or
- This project isn’t that important to them, and they’ve got other things to deal with right now—your turn will come.
In the first situation, you need to ask them to make a decision. Don’t assume that they will work out that you need their input. Sometimes you have to be really clear. If they are busy or, in the past, you have dealt with things and not needed them to take action, they may assume you’ve got it covered. Be specific. Say, “This feels like it needs the project sponsor to make a decision. What else can I tell you to help you make the decision so we can get on with [the next task]?”
The second situation is similar. The stakeholder avoids making the decision because they truly don’t know what the best course of action should be. Make a pros and cons list. Write an options appraisal paper. Summarize your recommendation and why.
Present them with the facts they need to make a decision, and if you already know what you think the outcome should be, make that your strong recommendation.
Finally, you need to accept that your work is only part of what goes across the desk of an exec. If you can’t get a decision from them, ask when you can expect the decision. Say, “I know you’re really busy. This is holding us up, but we can carry on with other work for [number of days/weeks]. After that, we won’t be able to do any more work, and the project will stall. Will you be able to get back to me by [specific date]?”
Then at least you can manage your own expectations and those of your team. The sponsor may not be able to get back to you in that timeframe but now you know. If they give you a date, manage up. Remind them of their commitment a day or so beforehand. Simply drop them an email or pop by their desk and point out that tomorrow the project comes to a halt because you need the decision. Don’t make it sound like you are blaming them for not yet having made the decision. State the facts: we’re a day away from not being able to make any more progress.
If you might lose resources to another project, say that too. In my experience, the perceived threat of losing project team members to other projects is often a good motivator for getting decisions or approvals. The effort involved with having to find other people and get them briefed on the project is often more work than making the decision in the first place.
Of course, this approach might not always work. If you find yourself with no decision and no route forward, make sure you have a documented trail of evidence asking for what you need. You should be mentioning the outstanding decision in your formal project reporting. Then escalate. Tell the PMO that the project is on hold. Email the sponsor (so you have it in writing) and tell them that you’ve told the PMO the project is on hold. Make the brave decision and stop working. Help your team find other things to do.
You may quickly find that the exec stakeholders pull together and get the project back on track. Or, you may find that it never kicks off again. Sometimes that happens. If a project isn’t important enough for the sponsor to care about it, you should look to spend your time and the company’s money on something that is important enough.
Learn as much as you can about communication skills and put what you know into practice. Think about how your messages come across and how you can give a clear request to the stakeholders when you need a decision.
Have a plan for what happens when a decision is not forthcoming. Work out how long you can go without a decision and make that clear. Present recommendations. Make it easy for people to make a decision—preferably the right one. Document and record the fact that the project is going to suffer a delay (or whatever the consequence would be) should the decision not happen or be late.
If that doesn’t work, don’t sit around waiting for something that might not happen. You’ve chased, you’ve reported, and you’ve done everything you can to get the answer (make sure you really have). The next step is to stop work and do something else more valuable with your time. If the project is significant enough, it will start up again, hopefully with a sponsor who now understands the importance of making timely decisions.