A project manager overwhelmed by feedback from multiple stakeholders
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Your company is implementing a new system for an internal process — say it is a CMS or a CRM system — and part of the process is soliciting the input of the project’s stakeholders, including the users, of which typically there are a lot. This can be thankless task according to Kat Leffler, an IT consultant who has been involved in numerous projects for large corporate enterprises focusing on operational readiness, process normalization and incident tracking. To get a sense of how ugly managing the internal requests among the stakeholders can get, Leffler said this: Try not to give in and automatically accept the recommendations of the people who carry the most clout in the company  — unless, of course, those recommendations meet the requirements of the project. Her advice, should you feel pressure from these people, is to make sure you know your higher-ups are aware of your concerns about the requests and who the players are. “Hopefully they will be ready to back you up,” she said. 

Gathering input among stakeholders, in short, is not an easy task — even when no one throws their weight around during the process. Some of the challenges can be too many stakeholders with genuinely competing needs, a poor communication culture within the company in general, a hazy understanding among the stakeholders about what exactly the system is meant to do and balancing the need for regular updates about a project against the danger that too many messages about the project’s process turns into white background noise.

Managing the feeling of the stakeholders, though, will be perhaps top among all of these challenges, especially after they’ve been invited to provide input into the project and that input is not used. “Some people will feel they are not important enough,” Leffler said. “All you can do is show all the reasons why certain decisions were made.” At the end of the day, she added, your responsibility is to deliver the project. To keep bruised feelings to a minimum, though, and to get the most out of the input that will be received there are certain best practices that can be put into place.

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Be Transparent

Communications are, to state the obvious, key to a seamless process. This includes communicating what is happening in the process to the general audience — as well as to the stakeholders in the project. “I find it helpful to review their initial request and tailor all communication to speak to their needs, especially if they are not getting what they want,” said Ernesto Gabriel Ponce Jr., founder of Correct Development. In that scenario, you definitely want to highlight the things that they are getting, he said. It is also best not to shy away from discussing obvious conflicts in the requirements, Mario Peshev, CEO of DevriX said. “Identifying conflicting outcomes for problematic suggestions may require some creativity but can facilitate a healthy discussion in the long run,” he said. 

The communication process goes both ways and it is important to make sure that stakeholders feel their requests are being heard. Leffler advised using a SharePoint project site for this purpose as it allows the requests to be added by the stakeholders and requests are visible to all. There is the added benefit of this visibility serving as a moderating force to the requests, she adds. “If you are putting your name on it and putting it out in front of the group, people are more likely to allow their 'wants' to be tempered by group norms,” she said.

There Will Be Trade Offs

It is also important to communicate that stakeholders need to be prepared to make informed trade-offs, Jeff Cole, senior director of Experience Design at Skuid. It needs to be made clear to people that no one will get everything they want, he said.

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Setting Priorities

With the ground rules for communication established, the project manager then should focus on the best way to gather input from everybody. In her SharePoint project site Leffler keeps the sort order according to Priority-Importance-Size-Date Added. She then asks stakeholders to rate their requests on priority on a scale from 1 to 3. No 1 is the highest priority, fixing a current problem they have. No 2 is a mid-level issue that can wait for a little while but not indefinitely and No 3. falling into the category of love to have if it can be squeezed in.

Next, she said, she asks people to rate their requests on importance on a scale of A-B-C. A is the big feature that must be part of the project. B is what follows after that big feature and C is designated for features that are wanted but can’t be justified as a priority item. “Now comes the hard part, which is limiting the ABCs, 123s they can put on the list. You need to make clear that all groups need to evaluate their items clearly. If you have any group with 17 requirements listed as 1A let them know their requests will not be considered until they get that straightened out.”

Perhaps your project does not require such complexity. Even so, all projects require some sort of prioritization exercise with stakeholders to determine the most important tasks that will achieve MVP (minimum variable product), Trish Chan, senior manager, E-Commerce, at Rodan + Fields, said. What doesn’t make it into the first round “will either be in future phases with specific delivery dates or put in a parking lot to revisit,” she said.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that managing input and feedback from multiple stakeholders successfully has many facets. From keeping the project on track, managing requests and feedback and stakeholder's emotions, there is lot to be considered, sorted and prioritized. Ensure you have the right plan in place and be transparent as possible to ensure the best outcome possible.