Culture eats strategy for breakfast. You can have the best idea in the world, if you can’t implement it, you are not going anywhere. That means that you’ll need to engage key people in your strategic thinking and implementation processes, so let’s talk about some ways to do that.
Identify your project sponsors and other key stakeholders
At the onset of projects, I like to fill out a project definition card or what card. I call it a what card because it succinctly shows what you want to do: what the project is and what it isn’t; who the main stakeholders are; what the time line is; and what resources, possible problems, and remedial actions there are.
What cards are useful because they help create a shared understanding of the project. Also, by putting in writing what the project is, they can help prevent scope creep. It is frequent that, as you advance in the project and uncover new evidence, your thinking evolves and you feel compelled to reframe the project, sometimes without even realizing it. By having a written description of the project, you help ensure that such evolutions are the result of concerted decisions.
An important part of the what card is the second row, about people. There are two major groups of people. The sponsors are the persons with the formal authority to decide the direction of the project, including killing it. They typically are your boss and/or your client. Other key stakeholders are persons who don’t have formal authority but can influence the scope and outcome of the project or will be impacted by it.
Engage your stakeholders
Actively engaging stakeholders is usually a good idea for various reasons. First, you get more ideas, leveraging the wisdom of the group. Second, you limit the potential for last-minute surprises as people know what is coming. Third, you may make some significant strides towards acceptance as people might be more inclined to accept new ideas and changes when it is theirs.
Atul Gawande, a surgeon, Harvard faculty, and New Yorker contributor, provides a vivid description of such reactions when he described how surgeons first reacted to being asked to follow a checklist designed to limit infections during operations. Even though the idea proved to be highly effective, effectiveness didn’t imply widespread acceptance. In his words: “This is all encouraging. Nonetheless, we doctors remain a long way from actually embracing the idea. The checklist has arrived in our operating rooms mostly from the outside in and from the top down. […] But it is regarded as an irritation, as interference on our terrain. This is my patient. This is my operating room. And the way I carry out an operation is my business and my responsibility.”
So you should proactively manage your stakeholders and help them realize that they (at least) partially own your ideas. One way to do this is to map out where they are, as a report published this week by the National Academies proposes. Their approach is to use a graphical tool to visualize where your different stakeholders are and how you should engage them.
No matter how technical your project is, its success depends on other people. Therefore, it is in your best interest to proactively manage your key stakeholders.
Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press. pp. 21–22.
Gawande, A. (2009). The checklist manifesto. New York, Picador. pp. 159–160.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Applying Risk Analysis, Value Engineering, and Other Innovative Solutions for Project Delivery. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24851.