Understanding and then Targeting Tailored Communication is the Key

Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Your Program Manager job includes understanding each stakeholder, how to approach them, how frequently to interact with them, and what information they need.  And, even more importantly, the information and perspectives they have that you need to hear. I just glanced through pmi.org and a few other sites to see their wisdom on stakeholder communications.  Without exception, these articles focused on a "communication plan" for information you push to your stakeholders.  While useful, this guidance is woefully incomplete and will not serve you sufficiently. Here are some suggestions and reminders on your executive stakeholder interactions.

You’ve heard the advice: “Over-communicate. You can’t communicate too much.“  That’s just plain wrong. Or, at least easily misinterpreted.  And, more often than not, taken as advice to send an overabundance of repeating and overlapping messages to your stakeholders and the program team.

More is not always better.

As a program manager, you communicate with a lot of stakeholders.  Some just want "the bottom line."  Some want details.  Some have disengaged. Some don't want to be bothered unless there's a problem.

Your job is understanding each stakeholder, how to approach them, how frequently to interact with them, and what information they need.  And, even more importantly, the information and perspectives they have that you need to hear.  Treating all stakeholders identically might "sort of" work, but this may not be good enough for your program.

RB (a program manager colleague of mine) is a top tier program manager who I've seen consistently model excellent executive stakeholder engagement practices.  She operates from a perspective of collaboration.  And she consistently delivers terrific program results.

What sets her apart from the other program managers I know? 

  • Value. She regularly provides an update on achieved value delivered to date (which surprisingly isn't something the standard templates require!). 
  • Tailoring communications. She recognizes the different communication styles and information needs of each stakeholder and tailors communication channels. 
  • Connects. She connects with each stakeholder 1:1, ensuring she understands their perspectives on the program while listening for any additional expectations of her or the program. 
  • Continuous Maintenance. She leverages the strong trusting relationships she has with some of the stakeholders, often connecting briefly for a few minutes each day. 
  • Trust. While it has never been needed, and will likely never be needed, she knows that her stakeholders "have her back" because of the continuous investment she makes in the stakeholder relationships.

In other words, she nurtures her executive stakeholder relationships.  She treats them with importance - something you could confirm by viewing her calendar and call logs.  (This doesn't mean she subjects stakeholders with deluge of instant messages, email, and calls; rather, she connects as needed, ensuring that no relationship is neglected).

I just glanced through pmi.org and a few other sites to see their wisdom on stakeholder communications.  Without exception, these articles focused on a "communication plan" for information you push to your stakeholders.  While useful, this guidance is woefully incomplete and will not serve you sufficiently.

Here are some suggestions and reminders on your executive stakeholder interactions:

  • Every stakeholder interaction is an important opportunity to confirm their perspective on the program importance and expected value delivery.  I cannot possibly overstate the importance of touching on this topic regularly.  I recently watched a monumental disconnect between a multi-year mega-program and its executive stakeholders - the program declared success and simultaneously the executive stakeholders expressed their dissatisfaction with the value delivered.  This trust breaking (between a business unit and IT) result was avoidable - less time spent micromanaging program delivery details and more thorough regular discussions on expected value delivery would have given a quite different outcome.

 

  • Create Opportunities for Stakeholder Feedback. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development places an importance on frequent deliveries and welcoming changing requirements.  Think outside the box to structure your program to avoid a "big bang" delivery; rather, deliver more frequently and use this as an opportunity to solicit direct feedback from your executive stakeholders.  This feedback may be the essential factor for you in leading a program that delivers meaningful business value.  I've seen "big bang" deliver successfully.  What stands out in my mind, however, are the tens and hundreds of millions expended on such programs with negligible delivered value; apply your considerable program management experience in creating an approach of frequent delivery to avoid being in this category.

 

  • Avoid enabling micromanagement.  Your executive stakeholders likely want a frequent reaffirmation that the program is on track - indicated by schedule, cost, and scope summaries, accompanied by risk and issue briefings that demonstrate adequate attention to these areas.  Don’t allow this to be the entire focus of your discussions, as these topics all can serve as giving executive stakeholders permission to do your job in managing the program.  Ensure you have other topics to cover with executive stakeholders - highlight team successes, note any significant contributions by partnering projects or programs, describe shadowing of business operations (users of the program output), review business unit & IT collaboration activities and more.

 

  • Plan A for handling an escalation.  Seemingly insurmountable program issues will almost certain arise.  The experts, quite rightly, say to raise the issue early, have a clear description (issue, cause, impact, resolution options, an actionable request).   As part of your escalation planning, recognize that some stakeholders legitimately "own" the resolution actions, others will participate, and still others have no role but need to be informed.  Create your escalation with a narrow target to the executive stakeholder(s) that must act; ensure that your proposed action is reasonable and viable (e.g., probably doesn't make sense to request an immediate budget increase of many millions).  And, before escalation ensure that action by an executive is truly needed.  Take stock of the authority you have as program manager - if you can address the issue, then don't make it an action for an executive stakeholder.

 

  • Plan B for handling an escalation.  You've made an escalation alert, but the executive owner isn't acting.  This could be for valid reasons (e.g., other more pressing urgencies are consuming their time) or maybe other reasons (e.g., they consider your program lower priority and don't want to allocate time).  For these instances, have a Plan B.  This might involve working with direct report of that executive stakeholder.  Perhaps you prepare the communique that is needed for resolution and merely ask for their endorsement.  Or any one of another dozen options that get to resolution with a minimal time commitment by the essential executive stakeholder.  Don't let the absence of a needed stakeholder block the resolution your program needs.

 

  • Recognize warning signs of non-engagement.  Be attuned to the responses and involvement you observe of your executive stakeholders and assess the risk that introduces.  Key executive stakeholders that regularly skip steering committee reviews, that attend but don't participate, that rarely provide feedback, or that are non-responsive to requests are flags of potential problems in the future.  While there may be entirely reasonable causes of this behavior, it is incumbent upon you to take action to address this risk to the program.

 

  • Identify and resolve any strategic misalignment.  My programs sometimes encounter situations where our program priorities are incompatible with a dependent program's priorities - the participation we need from the other program is not available because of their priorities.  Both programs are aligned with their respective divisional strategies, but those strategies are not in support of one another.  This is a case where executive stakeholder engagement is essential in creating a resolution.  As program manager, ensure your sensors are fully activated to detect this misalignment, address this as a strategic misalignment and not a tactical disagreement, engage with the owning executives to agree on the misalignment, and facilitate actions that lead to a resolution.

 

Stakeholder engagement is often cited as a top enabler for program success, and the lack of this engagement is one of the top reasons for program failure.  As a program manager, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day details of schedules and issues but recognize that engaging with your executive stakeholders could be the key factor in your program's success.

What approaches and techniques do you employ in engaging with your executive stakeholders?