A persuasion primer
When communicating what needs to happen on a project, targeting your argument can make all the difference.
BY EMMA HAK
You've done the research, run the numbers and mapped out the project milestones. So when the project hits a snag, you're prepared to get all stakeholders on board with what needs to change, right? Not so fast.
Persuasion is an art, and not everyone responds well to the same style. By tweaking your tactics to suit your audience, you can put yourself—and your project—on the path to success.
YOU WANT TO PERSUADE…
“At this level, you have to be adept at listening more than talking so you can begin to piece together the picture that all these priorities create.”
—G. Richard Shell, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
THEY CARE ABOUT: How your project will impact the organization. The executive stakeholder may want to highlight the project's on-time completion in the company's annual report or may be relying on the project to provide jobs in the new year.
“At this level, you have to be adept at listening more than talking so you can begin to piece together the picture that all these priorities create,” says G. Richard Shell, chairperson of the legal studies and business ethics department at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and author of The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas.
“I‘ll often reach out in advance and ask for any additional pressing issues or topics they would like to cover,” says Stephanie Perkins, PMP, vice president of program management at inVentiv Health Inc., Columbus, Ohio, USA. Knowing executive stakeholders are generally pressed for time, she always prepares an agenda and shares it in advance of meetings.
PERSUASION POWER: Use executive stakeholders’ time wisely. “Be straight and to the point,” says Martin Kontressowitz, PMI-ACP, PMP, senior project manager at IT consultancy Force Install GmbH, Leipzig, Germany. “Explain the benefits and values of your project and any proposed changes in a way that links with their overall business strategy.”
YOU WANT TO PERSUADE…
If you can help them visualize the project's success, even better, says Jorge Valdés Garciatorres, PMP, managing director of business consulting and education company TenStep Latinoamérica, Mexico City, Mexico. “Describe the organization as it would be if they implemented your proposal, paying attention to the goals that are most important to them.”
To hold the audience's attention, Ms. Perkins suggests keeping the meeting short. Streamlined visuals—such as bulleted information and simple charts with descriptive headers—can also help keep the stakeholders focused and the meeting on track. Save the detailed background information for the appendix of the presentation, which attendees can review on their own time, Ms. Perkins suggests.
COURSE CORRECTION: If you have to present a major change in project plans, remember that executive stakeholders are most focused on time and cost, says Mr. Kontressowitz. If the change won't delay the schedule or impact the budget, put that information up front.
It may be comforting in a high-pressure moment to dive deep into the project management metrics, but one must carefully match the message to the audience, says Joseph Griffin, PMP, a graduate professor of project management at the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. “I was talking to an executive stakeholder early in my career about a concern, and right around the time ‘agile’ and ‘critical chain’ left my mouth, he stopped me to say, ‘I don't speak your language; you need to speak mine.”
THEY CARE ABOUT: Progress toward the end goal. “Charged with the ultimate responsibility for the project, sponsors want to know that you're on schedule and making the best use of the resources,” says Mr. Kontressowitz.
PERSUASION POWER: Present problems but focus on the fixes. If you need a project sponsor's help, come prepared to brief them on all of the information he or she needs to make the decision, says Mr. Griffin. “You need to know your sponsor and when in the process he or she wants to be involved,” he says. “For instance, I had a sponsor once who had a plaque on his desk: ‘Bad news is welcome here.’ He wanted to deal with issues immediately. But no matter when you involve the sponsor, always come with solutions.”
Ms. Perkins recommends following up every meeting with an email, as verbally communicated information can be difficult to retain in the long term without detailed notes. Even a short email summarizing action items and key decisions can go a long way toward keeping project managers and sponsors on the same page.
COURSE CORRECTION: Project sponsors may be more in tune with internal politics across the organization, says Mr. Kontressowitz. So if you're planning to present a significant project change, don't hesitate to ask the project sponsor for input on who should or shouldn't be included in the meeting. “Consulting with sponsors on communication issues is something they'll be grateful you did because otherwise, you'll make mistakes they have to clean up,” says Mr. Shell.
“Charged with the ultimate responsibility for the project, sponsors want to know that you're on schedule and making the best use of the resources.”
—Martin Kontressowitz, PMI-ACP, PMP, Force Install GmbH, Leipzig, Germany
YOU WANT TO PERSUADE…
THEY CARE ABOUT: The interests they represent. A supplier, for instance, will be focused on product delivery and payment, while local governments will be most concerned with the needs of citizens, such as job creation or the impact construction may have on surrounding communities.
PERSUASION POWER: Recognize that this interaction may be as much about negotiation as persuasion, with the project manager matching the external stakeholder's list of needs against what the project team can actually deliver, says Mr. Shell. To avoid over-promising, start by asking for the stakeholder's top three priorities. “You can't solve all of their problems, but you can work with them on the things that are most important to them,” he says.
Face time can be an effective tool when building rapport with external stakeholders, says Mr. Valdés. “Trust is the greatest weapon in persuasion, and to build that trust you have to be a very good face-to-face communicator.” To drive home that you're invested in the conversation, he suggests practicing active listening, in which you paraphrase the stakeholder's concerns before you respond.
COURSE CORRECTION: News of a significant shift in project plans should be delivered succinctly, says Mr. Griffin. “One of the biggest mistakes most project managers make is saying too much. Know when to stop talking,” he says. Silence gives people time to gather their thoughts, offer objections and digest how this news will affect them. “When a project manager is asking someone to alter a viewpoint or make a decision he or she may be uncertain of, time can be a great ally.”
“One of the biggest mistakes most project managers make is saying too much. Know when to stop talking.”
—Joseph Griffin, PMP, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
YOU WANT TO PERSUADE…
THEY CARE ABOUT: How the changes will impact their project perspectives and priorities. “Someone from finance may have a more bottom line-focused, ‘cut-to-the-chase,’ analytic mindset. But a team member from marketing or real estate might think more strategically,” says Mr. Shell.
PERSUASION POWER: Emphasizing how important their contributions are to the project's success can be a powerful persuasion tool, says Mr. Valdés. “Explain what you need them to do and end the conversation by asserting that they're not obligated to help. It works like magic,” he says.
“Making sure all team members believe they bring very specific value to the project both engages and builds investment in the project's outcome,” agrees Ms. Perkins. “I‘ve also found that aligning team members on the strategic imperatives up front is crucial to nimbly switching directions. When team members feel invested early on, an adjustment to the project plan is less devastating and disruptive—as long as the change stays true to those original goals.”
COURSE CORRECTION: Resist the urge to spread news of a project change by email. In a February survey of office workers by TrackVia, 88 percent of respondents preferred face-to-face communication rather than email or instant messaging. Working through a major adjustment together also reminds team members that you're all striving toward a common goal. PM
“Making sure all team members believe they bring very specific value to the project both engages and builds investment in the project's outcome.”
—Stephanie Perkins, PMP, inVentiv Health Inc., Columbus, Ohio, USA
PM NETWORK JULY 2013 WWW.PMI.ORG