Is everybody on board?

We talk about how to align stakeholders in complex organisations around digital strategy and roadmap.
Written by
Sean Riordan
Published on
March 2, 2023
Is everybody on board?

As every product owner and project manager muses at one time or another, all projects would run smoothly if you could just take humans out of the equation.

But since that’s not possible, just how do you make sure stakeholders are aligned, especially in large and often fragmented organisations?

Managing projects across any industry and domain involves anticipating and overcoming many challenges. From trying to keep on budget and to the agreed timeline, managing the scope and navigating the endless attempts to include just that ‘extra little request, which I’m sure won’t take long’. The role of a project manager is certainly a tough one, and that’s before you add people into the mix in the form of numerous internal and external stakeholders, when the challenge multiplies tenfold.

Aligning project stakeholders can be one of the hardest obstacles that you’ll have to overcome in any project. They come in various forms, be it members of the internal project team, key decision makers from across departments, senior members of the same organisation that commissioned the project, and the board of shareholders (who may ultimately hold the purse strings). You can also encounter external stakeholders that are involved or have a ‘stake’ in the project. These might be third party suppliers or even the end users themselves. Each stakeholder will have different reasons for being involved in the project and will have potentially vastly different drivers and outcomes that they want or need to achieve from it.

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Being a good ‘middleperson’

It has been said before that ‘the art of good business, is learning to be a good middleperson’ and when managing project stakeholders, it could not be truer. The project manager is the person who needs to make sure they’re the central ‘go-to’ person that has a firm grasp of what must be accomplished for the project to be deemed a success. This will typically involve working with all the different stakeholders (or project customers) to elicit and document requirements both functional/technical and non-functional/non-technical in nature. They’ll also need to ensure that all the project objectives, goals and KPIs are established and shared across all the stakeholders so that it’s clear why the project is being undertaken and what each individual or group’s role is within it to ensure success.

Defining the project goal

Gathering requirements across what can often be a very diverse range of people and organisations can be tricky, as each stakeholder group will typically believe that their objectives and needs are the most important and critical to the overall success of the initiative. The first step is to define the overall project goals and objectives at a high-level – this might take place via a scoping or project kick-off meeting. At this stage we’re not interested about what each constituent part is needed to contribute to satisfying these goals, it is setting the scene so the project goal will be born from the organisation’s overall business goals.

Stakeholder analysis

Once high-level goals for the project have been established and agreed, it’s time to run a set of project discovery sessions and begin to involve representatives from across the different stakeholder groups that will ultimately be involved in meeting the project’s goals and end user outcomes. It is critical to establish at this stage who the key stakeholders are. Who makes the ultimate decisions and how – is it down to one individual or a board-level vote? Who is influential in the business but might not be a key decision maker? And, possibly most importantly of all, who controls the budget and which department is incurring the project spend? Discovering how the organisation operates from the project outset means you gain understanding and clarity of all parties that need to be involved and give their input. Failure to undertake stakeholder analysis can potentially derail a project and lead to delays.

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Mapping user journeys and key processes

Having defined the project goal and undertaking stakeholder analysis, it’s time to focus on identifying the user journeys or mapping out the key processes that currently exist across each of the different teams and organisations that are applicable to the project. Start to question if any processes could change to better suit the project outcomes. Do this within each stakeholder group and ensure that user needs are documented (this would typically be done in user journey maps and then defined further to become user stories). It’s important that you map out each of these processes to be able to see how the picture fits together overall. For example, you might have an internal marketing and communications team which admins the company’s website and intranet. How does the marketing team interact with the organisations’s IT and infrastructure team where there is a clear cross-over in digital and technical processes?

Case in point

We recently undertook a large digital transformation project with a membership organisation that has ~35,000 members, from a largely national base, but across multiple medical disciplines. We started the project by running initial scoping sessions and then follow-on discovery workshops with each team that represented the main areas of the organisation, e.g., education, practitioner, the membership team itself, marketing, and events. Each one brought their own needs to each session and we documented and mapped out the existing processes for how users currently interact and flow through various stages in each organisational department and how they interact with individuals from those departments too.

For example, someone wishing to join might have a mixture of interaction points, from entering in their professional registration details online, to then dealing with someone, to confirming payment details. Mapping out each one of these sometimes-complex processes took a lot of time, but time well spent to get the full picture from the outset. We then had to understand what third party data sources were also used to underpin the process now and what data sources could be used in the future to deliver a vastly improved user experience.

One key observation and learning from undertaking this project however was that stakeholders often struggled to take themselves out of their own area of expertise and understand the bigger picture and the end user’s journey across the site. With so many different disciplines and areas that they might want to access, you need to be able to take a step back and look at what the user needs, rather than what you need the user to do.

Every project needs a member journey manager

This outside-in approach leads to a role that’s often missing from project teams, but that can actually prove to be pivotal in overcoming some of these barriers, is through the assignment of a member or user journey manager. From their outside-in perspective, journey managers are tasked with working and seeing across the different departments, teams, and stakeholder groups to be able to offer a more holistic view of the entire user journey and experience. After all, you can’t read the label from inside the bottle. They are the user’s champion, if you will, with no subjective bias and so help to bridge the gap between what the user needs and what the internal teams need the user to do.

Particularly relevant to membership organisations, it’s essential to keep asking the question ‘What is their reason to keep coming back?’. Just because something has always been done in a certain way or a specific service provided, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that members will keep coming back for the same, especially if they find better elsewhere. Consistently questioning what we do and why we do it will give the member a reason to want to come back. A prime example being to surprise and delight them by offering them something they might not be expecting. There are also opportunities, particularly with membership organisations, to look at efficiencies in how things are done. After all, according to Memberwise,

“The cost of acquiring and retaining a member is greater than the membership fee.”

Keep asking ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’ to not only improve the immediate value of member acquisition and retention but increase value over the long term too.

Joining up a fragmented leadership team

Another challenge that we experienced was due to the structure of the overall organisation – a leadership team made up from two individual organisations, each wanting to have their own distinct identity. So getting feedback and ensuring that there was equal representation within the design and user journey was challenging. It also meant that each iteration of the design needed to go through multiple stakeholders and therefore meant that the entire design process from start-to-finish took much longer than even we had anticipated. But in the end, we had a joined up leadership team with a clear vision and a project outcome that helped towards their business goal of full digital transformation.

The project was ultimately a success and the end solution created is one that will add value to the existing membership base and help to attract a new one. As part of the membership organisation’s full digital transformation, members can now find new and existing content easily and pull together many different resources critical to their jobs into one central place.

Managing stakeholders is not easy and is one of the hardest problems to overcome on any project, so tackling this from the outset is key to ensuring overall success. But if you adopt an outside-in, user-first approach your stakeholders will get on board more readily.

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