The link between stakeholder relationships and project planning – Nik Gebhard 0

Posted on 23, May 2011

in Category practitioner experience

During the past few days my curiosity-muscle has been tickled by the dormant value that resides in understanding stakeholder backgrounds early on in a project. Of particular interest is how this relates back to project timeline estimations and planning. “How?” you ask. Allow me to explain…

I wouldn’t expect much “umming and ahhing” if I alleged that there was considerable value to be gained in building strong relationships with stakeholders. It seems almost logical that building robust connections brings with it not only commercial benefit, but also project benefit. It instills a sense of teamwork as opposed to the typical “us and them” scenario. Strengthening relationships inadvertently means building an understanding of a person’s background.

Some facets of a person’s background can be researched, interpreted and assumed. I’m not attempting to create a foundation for über-prejudice, but it’s fair to say that when working with team members from other countries, a simple Google search or picking up a decent guidebook / travel book affords you valuable pointers on general customs and beliefs of a population. I appreciate that some of these facts may not apply, and that members working in a particular country are not necessarily originally from that country. However, having this information at hand does not hurt.

Researched characteristics can equip you for better planning

With the rise of global organisations, it is becoming more and more common to be part of a cross-border, and specifically cross-timezone, team. To give one example of cultural difference, I worked with a team where members from one country believed that working long hours in order to get the job done made you a better employee. Members from another country argued that having a good work-life balance enhanced productivity and reduced long-term fatigue.

In my experience, this often becomes a point of contention when things don’t go according to plan. This isn’t a debate about which is correct or more effective, but rather a discussion around understanding, appreciating and embracing cultural differences and using this to the advantage of project planning. Having an understanding of these working habits early on, means that better resource allocation can take place. Tasks assigned to employees who work a stringent 7 hour day may take longer than tasks assigned to employees working an 8 hour day.

Some characteristics – similar to the example on cultural difference above – can be researched. I recently read a guidebook on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was intrigued to learn that this type of information was readily available. I believe that, as far as possible, such characteristics should be taken into account during project planning. How and to what extent they are taken into account is up to the planner.

Going beyond skin-deep takes time, but enables you to fully leverage team member skills

Building rapport with stakeholders is about occasionally flaring from regular project tête-à-tête to associated personal experiences and stories. This opens the door for understanding similarities or dissimilarities between ourselves and others. It gives us an opportunity to learn about those attributes which cannot be researched, such as previous experiences, personal skillsets or even individual strengths and weaknesses.

I have been privileged to work with teams that have not only been culturally diverse, but also experientially diverse. An individual’s experience is clearly something that cannot be researched, but can be learned through the building of a strong relationship.

The benefit of having greater insight into an individual’s experience or skills is that these factors can be considered during project planning. Knowing that an individual is familiar with a specific aspect of a project means that their experience and skill can be leveraged. This does not only allow for better resource allocation, but also means that the individual can be consulted to provide recommendations on timeline estimations.

Something to consider here is the time ‘cost’ of getting to know an individual, versus the benefit of improved project planning.

Characteristics of newly promoted leaders may require additional schedule buffers

On one project, during a scoping and planning session, I was informed who my stakeholders were and covered the pertinent bases around level of seniority and experience. Regrettably, something that wasn’t as widely covered was the duration that some of them had spent in their current roles as leaders. While I realise there are numerous other areas that may be explored, this is a particular one that struck me.

It quickly became apparent that some of the members had recently been promoted to their current positions and had no previous leadership experience. This meant that behavioural attributes, such as slow rate of decision making, inability to delegate and difficulty in managing underperforming employees came to the fore. While this is not an exhaustive list, these characteristics noticeably impacted our project delivery timeline.

Identifying that stakeholders are new to a leadership role means that ‘typical’ characteristics of newly promoted leaders can be taken into account during project planning. Obviously an understanding of what these characteristics are needs to be obtained first.

Relationship building informs planning, but how much is enough?

It seems somewhat intuitive to perform a certain level of research on stakeholders or team members prior to project engagement. My experience has shown me that doing more homework on stakeholders can help with timeline estimations. In addition, there is considerable value to be gained in building relationships with stakeholders to understand their backgrounds and skill sets.

There are some questions though:

  • To what extent can this research be performed?
  • How much time do we realistically have to get to know stakeholders before the business demands estimated project timelines?
  • Do you believe there is a link between getting to know stakeholders and project planning?

This article originally appeared on Bridging the Gap on 23 May 2011. Click here to view the original article.