by Ivan Overton.
We often use the metaphor of stakeholders “being on board”. However, how communication is managed on large projects may not always lead to this outcome.
If you want all of your stakeholders to come on board, your train must depart from where the stakeholders are. This seems so obvious, yet it is one of the most common mistakes made in change projects. We all approach life from within our own perspective – each of us have a unique set of knowledge, assumptions, beliefs, values, habits, norms, personality traits, perceptions, fears, hopes, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Perspectives can differ so greatly that it can be extremely difficult (or even sometimes virtually impossible) for us to understand the perspectives that others have.
When a project team works together, there are strong influences at play that serve to at least partially align perspectives. Team members often spend significant amounts of time together, sometimes under rather difficult conditions. They usually come to realise that they have to depend on each other and that their destinies are linked. Because they are so intimately involved in the process, they usually “buy in” to the project very strongly and at an early stage. A project team therefore tends to develop overlapping areas of shared perspective, and also advances quite rapidly ahead of where the bulk of stakeholders are, creating a large gap in relative understanding and relative acceptance with regard to the project.
This might make it very difficult for the project team to effectively engage with stakeholders:
- Project teams tend to be passionate (and therefore to communicate) about what is important to them (the business case, project phases and key milestones, the composition of the project team, the importance of buy in and support from stakeholders) instead of what is important to stakeholders (how will this affect me, when will I need to do what, how does this relate to everything else happening in the company).
- Most project teams rapidly develop a specialised “language” which is different to what most stakeholders are used to. Acromyms and specialised terminology present a significant barrier to stakeholders who are not part of the project team and therefore have not learnt to the new “language”.
- The attitudes of project team members toward the project are usually very different to the attitudes that most stakeholders have. Project team members may overestimate the extent to which stakeholders will support the project, and may feel resentful when stakeholders assign a low priority to the project, show poor support and commitment or even resist the project. From the stakeholder point of view, project team members might appear to be unrealistically optimistic, to act in their own self-interest or as if they have a hidden agenda, and be regarded as being manipulative.
- The project world is very different to the “business as usual” world. In the project world there is greater urgency: Plans change often and with little notice, it is taken for granted that people will go to extraordinary effort to get things done in time, and it is acceptable to schedule meetings after hours and at the last minute. This same behaviour in the “business as usual” world is regarded as being inconsiderate and disruptive. This may result in a situation where project members see business resources as being lazy, uncaring and uncooperative, and business resources see project members as being arrogant, pushy, rude and self-important.
- The challenge is not only that there tends to be a large gap between the point of departure of the project team and the point of departure of stakeholders who are not part of the project team – a further complication is that perspectives will change over time, and what might be an entirely appropriate strategy for stakeholder engagement at one point in time may not be appropriate two months later. As stakeholders progress with regard to their understanding of the project and its consequences, their information needs will change and they will require increasing amounts of personal interaction.
In a classic psychology experiment, Elizabeth Newton asked college students to participate in an experiment in one of two roles: “tappers” and “listeners.” Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs and were asked to tap out the rhythm of one song. Listeners had to try to guess the song from the taps. Each tapper reported that he/she could clearly discern which song they were tapping. When they were asked to predict how many songs listeners would correctly identify, they predicted 50 percent. However, listeners had a much harder time than predicted – to them what was being tapped was not at all obvious. Of all the songs tapped out, listeners correctly guessed only 3 percent. Communicators tend to grossly overestimate the clarity of their message – because they already “got it”, it makes the task of “getting it” seem easier than it really is.
The obstacles listed here can be partially overcome by addressing them directly – for example, by reminding the project team not to use acronyms and unknown terminology when dealing with stakeholders, or by ensuring that more time is spent in understanding the perspective of the recipients of project communication. However, this is like dealing with a leaking roof by placing buckets under the leak rather than simply fixing the leak. A more effective primary approach is to ensure that there is truly effective dialogue between the project and its stakeholders, and then to assist the project team in responding appropriately to the feedback they receive. If listeners in the experiment related above were allowed to provide feedback to the tappers as they were tapping, it is likely that the number of listeners who “got it” would have been much higher, provided that the tappers were willing and able to modify how they were communicating (by also humming or whistling, for example).