Project Management Institute

Perception vs. reality


Stakeholders and project managers don't always find themselves on the same page. In fact, sometimes it seems as if they're not even reading the same book.

From unrealistic schedules to changing requirements, project managers have to find ways to deal with stakeholder expectations that don't align with the situation on the ground. Here are some of the most common misperceptions and how project professionals can bring stakeholders back to reality.

“It's just a little tweak.” Sound familiar? Here's some advice on breaching the disconnect between a stakeholder's perception and how things really stand.


Mistrust vs. Lack of Engagement


Perception: We haven't been briefed on the status of the project for a while; the project manager must be keeping something a secret.

Reality: The project manager failed to conduct a stakeholder analysis to engage them throughout the effort.

Solution: To maintain open lines of communication with external stakeholders, conduct a hybrid stakeholder analysis, suggests John Turner, an independent project manager and developer working for Mace, a program and project management consultancy and construction company in London, England.

Early on, come up with a list of all of the individuals involved in and touched by the project. Then identify a select group of 10 or so key stakeholders who are representative of the larger group based on their work experience, proximity to the final user base and buy-in to the project concept.

“For example, if you need to include someone to represent the financial people in the organization, the representative should have a strong financial background,” Mr. Turner says. “If you are working on an IT project, stakeholder representatives should have some concept of what you are producing and the likely techniques for achieving it.”

Ask members of the select group for their top three or four priorities for the project. From there, you can build a list of project requirements that encompasses the group's input, thus creating the project's scope.

“Once you have blended stakeholders' success factors and have a list of requirements that stakeholders helped create, they are far more likely to support the project as you will have created an inclusive endeavor from the outset,” Mr. Turner says.

If some priorities cannot be included in the list of project requirements, transfer them to a backlog so they are not forgotten and then communicate this to the group. Explain the reasons why—it's too expensive, say, or you don't have enough team members available. The project team can focus on certain aspects and perhaps complete the other tasks at a later time, he suggests.

Mr. Turner recently led a project in which he used Scrum methodology and brought together the core stakeholder group every three weeks to gather feedback on which priorities should form the focus of the next sprint.

“Everyone felt like they knew what was going on with the project,” he says. “Half the job of a project manager is doing the job well; the other half is letting stakeholders know what is going on, even if it is something that they may not want to hear.”


Project Failure vs. Unrealistic Expectations


Perception: The team isn't hitting every milestone on the dates specified, so the project is obviously a failure.

Reality: Those very specific project milestones are created months ahead of time, and not all requirements can be known when an initiative launches. The project may still produce good results.

Solution: Project managers must be clear and transparent when managing stakeholder expectations, Mr. Turner says.

“Explain to stakeholders that a ‘project plan’ is merely a ‘projection’ of what you expect to happen in the future. Say, ‘I can tell you with some confidence what will happen over the next six to eight weeks, but beyond that it is just not possible to know,’” he suggests.

Technology may change, for instance, or team members could come and go, forcing the original project plan to be tweaked.

And that's a good thing, Mr. Turner adds. “Following an outdated project plan will merely result in a death-march project that will fail.”

Instead of setting delivery dates in stone months out, project managers should communicate to stakeholders what they can expect in the first few deliveries, he says.

For distant milestones, tell stakeholders what they can expect, not when, Mr. Turner adds.

If stakeholders insist upon setting far-off delivery dates, it is imperative to make it clear that you are proceeding on a best-case scenario. Then, as soon as a milestone seems to be in jeopardy, this fact must be communicated immediately.

Tell them, “Although I aimed to give you this particular piece of functionality in the sixth month, it's unlikely now.” Then, explain the reasons and communicate the new plan based on updated priorities set by the business owner.

“If you wait until the end to communicate major issues and then don't deliver, you will lose your stakeholders' buy-in,” Mr. Turner says. “If stakeholders have supplier choice and you fail to deliver, you won't get chosen again and will lose their business in the future. If you are the only choice, this will still have an impact in terms of reduced expectations and a terminal lack of involvement in your next project.”

Minor Addition vs. Scope Creep


Perception: All we're asking is for some new little requirements. There's no reason to bother going through any formal process to gain approval.

Reality: Those “little” requirements add up: The project experiences scope creep as resources work on undocumented requirements, which translates into time and money lost.

Solution: The confusion often occurs when project scope management isn't as strict as it should be and when team members work closely with stakeholders, says Neda Akbarzadeh, CAPM, PMP, senior program manager for audit, compliance and deployment at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in Washington, D.C., USA.

To avoid these situations, communicate to external stakeholders as well as team members that no changes will be accepted without the appropriate approval process.

Ms. Akbarzadeh even suggests including this in team members' performance evaluations—and penalizing them if they work on undocumented requirements.

Encourage team members to communicate scope creep immediately so you can ask stakeholders if a change request is necessary.

“Have constant communication, or visits if necessary, with team members or team leads beyond the typical status meetings,” she says. “It is important for project managers to understand what the team is working on or stay informed about every task being worked on.”

A project management office can also help. An organization must provide tools, such as processes and an automated system, for project managers to use as a knowledge center, register the project streamlines, and document the phases and deliverables, Ms. Akbarzadeh says.


Fast, Cheap and High-Quality vs. You Can't Have It All


Perception: Projects can be done quickly, inexpensively and at a high quality—without sacrificing any constraints.

Reality: In many cases, something has to give. If a project is completed quickly and inexpensively, quality could suffer. A project team can conduct high-quality work in a short amount of time, but stakeholders should expect increased costs as a result of added resources.

Solution: The dissension often occurs as a result of executives or other divisions making promises to their stakeholders without involving the project manager—and it manifests during project kickoff, when stakeholders bring their unrealistic expectations to the table, Ms. Akbarzadeh attests.

“It helps to get other departments, including distant stakeholders or policy/procedure owners, engaged to have a common understanding of how the work will be done and not make promises that are not achievable,” she says.

To keep stakeholders up to date throughout the project life cycle, initiate conversations outside of formal status or technical meetings. “At times, status meetings can get too technical for most stakeholders,” Ms. Akbarzadeh says.

Project managers should shift their focus instead to providing details on what exactly is required to reach each milestone.

“When it comes to accomplishing projects, stakeholders often don't understand the level of effort involved with each task,” she says.

That disconnect arose on a recent time and attendance system implementation project at Airports Company South Africa, an airport operator in Johannesburg, South Africa. The initiative not only involved integrating the new solution with an existing financial system but also process changes for employees.

“The client stakeholders assumed both the process changes and the automation could be done concurrently and quickly,” says Dorcas Mbali Nkomo, senior project manager at the company.

In reality, a slew of unaccounted-for stakeholders—unions, human resources, IT and legal—had to be involved. For example, the client stakeholder failed to realize the impact of the new solution's legacy.

“Changes in processes resulted in changes in staff requirements to perform a task. This subsequently would lead to changes in employee contracts, warranting extensive negotiations with labor unions,” Ms. Nkomo says.

To overcome the challenge, the project team conducted workshops with key stakeholders from the various groups to uncover solutions. In addition, Ms. Nkomo appointed change agents within the organization to educate colleagues on the project's benefits and impact.

“If project teams are to produce quality deliverables, stakeholders need to be educated on the risk of ‘quick and dirty’ projects vs. well-planned projects,” Ms. Nkomo says. PM

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