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Struggle with difficult stakeholders? Here's how to turn the project around.



This article might be helpful for you if, like me, have...

  • Ever felt completely stuck leading a project with difficult stakeholders

  • Worked on a project that constantly changes scope

  • Felt like you are taking 2 steps forward and 3 steps back in a project

  • Felt derailed during a presentation

  • Worked with challenging stakeholders or peers

Here are a few tips that have helped me get succeed in the most difficult projects:


1. Major disagreements and gridlock: If team members cannot agree, ask questions to understand the assumptions held and try to find something that the team DOES agree on. In other words, keep peeling back the layers of the onion. For example, say the marketing department pitches a new product idea to the product team, who does not want to entertain the idea of this product because there state that there is "no market for the product" and that "this is too much work given existing priorities". Well, that is good news! Now you have 2 very specific assumptions to work through; namely that:

  • there is no market for the product

  • it is too much work

Pose the following question to the Product Team, if the team demonstrated a market and provided resource support, what are their additional hesitations?


With that, you’ve successfully peeled back one layer and embarked on the path towards resolution.


The conversation now has the opportunity to shift out of gridlock and into demonstrating a market and working through a resources issue, which can be typically completed in separate meetings with the appropriate set of stakeholders.


2. Roles and responsibilities: Do you have the right people in the room and what are their roles? It’s important to identify who are “the reviewers”, who are “the informed”, and who are “the approvers” early on in the project life-cycle. It should be clear that only the approvers have the authority to drive the project forward. During critical milestones, progress will not be made if the approver is not in the room. Period. If the approver delegates their authority to another member of the team, then that member can stand-in.


3. Trust: Is there trust in the leadership of the group? One thing that quickly derails a meeting may be that the stakeholders don’t believe that the leader of the meeting has the appropriate expertise, or has consulted with persons of the appropriate expertise. Thus, they do not trust the guidance provided. This is a much more difficult issue - and must be addressed separately with the project manager’s direct boss or in other small groups. Is this a perception of a lack of expertise or a real issue? It’s worth digging into and the stakeholders should be able to articulate what is missing in order to bring on the appropriate skill set.


While there is no magic formula for shifting out of gridlocked stakeholders, I've found that when digging into the 3 topics above, I've usually been able to pinpoint the root cause of the issue. Once that is understood, I've engaged with members of my team and my boss for support to regain momentum and lead the project to success.

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