Research by Standish, Gartner and others underlines the importance of getting the right people actively involved in a major business or technology change. It is the key factor for successful delivery. So, who needs to be involved and how much choice do you have over their selection?
Let’s look at the four roles in the Project Pre-Check practice that make up the stakeholder group (sponsor, change agent, target and champion) and see what the choices are.
Typically, a Sponsor is the manager who launches the change and has the economic, logistical and political power to make the change happen. Sponsorship can’t be delegated because the power and authority vested in an individual relative to a particular project flows from the person’s position in the organization.
So, what choices do you have as a stakeholder if the sponsor is simply not interested in being involved, or is making the wrong decisions, or is, in others ways, jeopardizing project success. This is one of the toughest stakeholder performance problems to deal with. Very often, sponsor performance issues aren’t dealt with until after the project has failed, not a terribly useful outcome for the other stakeholders involved.
In some cases, a new sponsor can be assigned by going up or down within the same organization. For example, if the change is a new product launch and the current sponsor is the product development manager, that manager’s boss could be the replacement sponsor. The other option is to move another manager into the organization to take on the functional responsibility and, as a result, pick up the sponsor mantle.
Obviously, in most cases of sponsorship change, someone has to go over the sponsor’s head to make the change happen. That usually requires a very committed and cohesive stakeholder group. The upside for that effort is the potential for a new, committed and involved sponsor. The downside is the time, effort and energy devoted to sponsor replacement, usually at the expense of the project.
I know of one small organization that took on a multi-million dollar refurbishment of their administrative systems and appointed the VP, Administration the sponsor. He was overly aggressive, abusive to anyone who opposed him and ill equipped to guide the change to a successful completion. He approached the Board of Directors on multiple occasions for incremental funding in his usual aggressive and adversarial style. The Board directed the CEO to rein the sponsor in but nevertheless granted his funding requests. The sponsor was never replaced. The project ultimately cost over four times the original budget. A strong, committed stakeholder group may have been able to nip this problem in the bud.
A change agent (Project Manager or Project Executive) is responsible to the sponsor for implementing the change. Authority is focused on determining how to deliver according to the sponsors’ mandate. Change agents typically do not have responsibilities beyond project completion.
The change agent role is the only one of the stakeholder roles that has no limitations on selection. Perhaps that’s why the project manager is so often the “fall guy” for project failure. The change agent can be an internal staff member, an external resource, a vendor resource, a business resource, an IT staff member or any other reasonable source of expertise. Often, projects have more than one change agent to address the breadth of the skill needs.
The best insurance a change agent can have for a successful project outcome is a committed, actively engaged stakeholder group. And, of course, if there is an effective stakeholder group in place, there’s less chance a change agent, and the project, will get into trouble
Like the sponsor role, an individual is required to fill a target role because of his or her position in the organization, directing individuals or groups who must actually change the way they operate and behave for a change to be successful. Targets include managers of departments within the initiating organization, such as marketing, sales, operations, manufacturing, information technology, finance, human resources and others. Targets can also include managers who are external to the organization initiating the change, such as customers, partners and distributors.
Failure of one or more targets to be fully involved and engaged in a change effort can have disastrous effects on a project yet the options available to the other stakeholder to remedy the situation are limited in the same way as sponsor replacement.
I recall one project, a new product launch, sponsored by the Marketing VP, that ran into significant challenges because of a recalcitrant target. The VP Administration, whose staff would need to develop and operate new processes to support the product, didn’t agree that the product was necessary and didn’t commit managers and staff to work on the initiative. The result was a stalemate that delayed the project by more than six months. The stalemate was resolved by escalating to the CEO, a strong supporter of the planned new product, who offered the reluctant target a choice – get on board or get out! The target capitulated.
A champion is a manager or senior staff member who enthusiastically supports the change and has the power, influence and respect necessary to help bring about the necessary behavioural changes in the managers and staff that are affected by the change.
For example, using a highly respected and highly successful sales person in the champion role to promote the introduction of a new product can help other sales staff overcome concerns they may have over the affect the new product will have on their clients, performance and income.
Although they are a powerful force for change, champions can be problematic to replace. Because of the respect champions are given by managers and staff who are affected by the change – the very reason they were given the champion role in the first place – removing someone from a champion role because they’re not doing their jobs or delivering the wrong message can have a very negative affect on the project. It’s best to work on their methods and their message. Once again, the presence of a strong stakeholder group can be the catalyst for turning a negative into a positive.
So, there you have it. Stakeholders in any role can be tough to replace. The time and effort that’s usually required to manage the replacement will distract everyone from the job that matters, delivering a project successfully. It’s best to assess stakeholder capability right up front and address any apparent gaps. And to keep the stakeholders engaged, make use of the Project Pre-Check processes to monitor stakeholders’ level of agreement on the decision areas critical to project success.
Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check – The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath – The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success.