Managing projects is no easy task. When you add a layer of very busy and less-than-engaged stakeholders, it can make meeting deadlines and getting approvals even harder.
One of the challenges I remember early on as a project manager was having the confidence to ask for what I needed from senior stakeholders. Why would these people listen to me or meet the deadlines I was giving them? They were, after all, well above my seniority level, not to mention they belonged to the companies who were paying for my company’s consultative services: our clients.
It felt defeating being constantly ignored. Most importantly, the lack of engagement was throwing my project deliverables into a tailspin—moving my beautifully curated project plan, once predominantly green, into a menagerie of glaring red squares.
Often this would lead to panic. I would sometimes try the peer pressure angle. Perhaps replying all to unanswered feedback request emails would shame them into completing their tasks? Or maybe someone in charge would notice and tell them to “get it together and complete your assigned tasks.”
To my dismay this didn’t inspire engagement, and in some instances it felt like they would ignore my pleas even longer, probably because of my piteous attempts at outing them to their fellow stakeholders.
Whatever the reason was, I had to set my pride aside. Eventually I understood that these folks were not dodging me on purpose— they were prioritizing their daily responsibilities and their deliverables on my project plan were just not at the top of their to-do lists.
Many times this is the very reason a PM is assigned to a project in the first place —no one has the bandwidth to own the initiative because they’re too busy running the business.
So, how does one successfully accomplish the task of “managing up”? The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all resolution guaranteed to fix this type of common delay, which can stop an otherwise healthy project in its tracks.
There are, however, several approaches that have moved the needle for me over the years:
- Set clear expectations from the beginning. Make sure all your stakeholders are present when you’re kicking off a project. Try to keep them engaged when it’s time to cover their responsibilities and confirm with each person that the allotted time you’ve built into the project plan works for their deliverables. Stress the importance of why their timeliness matters. Will late deliverables cost their company more money? Is there a huge company initiative that is dependent on the success of this project? What’s in it for them to complete their pieces on time?
- Build a personal connection. Data suggests that 70% of corporate errors are caused by poor communication. Building relationships in the workplace increases productivity, promotes collaboration, and even increases overall morale. Try building rapport with your stakeholders and find some common ground. We are less likely to ignore or avoid someone when we have a mutual respect and general interest in them.
- Reach out 1:1. Instead of making people feel like you are calling them out, reply to only them if they are behind on their project deliverables, or pick up the phone and call them directly. Nobody likes to feel shame or embarrassment, and while it may light the proverbial fire for some folks, it can backfire with others and make them dig their heels in deeper.
- Transparency and visibility. However you plan to keep your project team updated on status, make sure it’s accessible, always current, and easy for stakeholders to see and understand. You’d be surprised how many times a ball is dropped simply because a person didn’t know they had deliverables due. Don’t just rely on emails—we know those get lost easily. Give your folks 24/7 access to a project plan/dashboard during kick-off and suggest that they set weekly reminders to check it.
- Check in with people. PMs are not the only ones at the bottom of priority lists. We are almost non-existent to people who are battling things outside of work. Check with your stakeholders to make sure that they are still available to complete their deliverables, offer alternative solutions where you can, and offer to hand deliverables over to another stakeholder if necessary.
- Build time in for delays. I know this is not always possible, but you should anticipate that there will be delays to your project no matter what. If you can, build in some flexibility when it comes to your extremely busy stakeholders. You can either share this with them during the kick-off or maybe keep it in your back pocket. This way they still aim for the original due dates.
When managing people and projects—whether they belong to your organization, or reside in your client space—it can be frustrating when your goals are not their goals. It can feel like you’re stuck in a perpetual loop of group project assignments and you’re the only one that cares about getting an A.
Lead the charge! Get them excited about your project and gain buy-in, make it as seamless and accessible as possible, and most importantly, nurture the human connection with your important stakeholders, whatever that may look like.