How to communicate with your senior stakeholders in a project

This blog post is also available as a podcast if you’d rather listen than read.

In this post we’re covering stakeholder communications, and in particular senior stakeholders. In the normal project that will mean your project sponsor but possibly somebody like the CIO if you’re doing a tech project or maybe somebody even at VP or even chief exec level. You might have some dotted line reporting or have to report via a programme board.

Let’s talk about the key attributes of these types of people – your sponsor and particularly people working at C-level – they are really busy! They will have multiple competing demands on their time – spending half their life in meetings and getting constant email & text updates.

So you really need to provide them information in a concise format that they can take in and digest straightaway without having to do much work. The questions they are going to be asking themselves are:
• is this project ok? and,
• if it isn’t ok do I need to do anything? and,
• do we understand what the problem is?

That’s really the crux of it – so we need look at what information we need to provide to them and in what format. So how do we find this out? Well it’s pretty easy to be honest! Every time I’m given a new project or brought into do a project that is in-flight, the first thing I do is go to the sponsor, sit down with them and say what information do you need, how frequently do you want it and in what format?

If they don’t know what they want – which will happen – some people don’t have a clear idea of what information they might need – then you need to bring them a reporting proposal.

The fundamentals are it’s got to be pretty concise, easy for them to take in and have enough information for them to make some decisions or provide a steer if that’s needed.

As a matter of course in every project you should be delivering a weekly status report. My recommendation is that is a one-pager – no longer than that – containing a quick summary what happened last week & what’s happening this week and a RAG status of each of your items, plus some other highlight commentary, particularly if you are flagging items as Red.

If there’s something exceptional you might be wanting to provide a highlight report but if something is shown as Red and needs a follow-up for a decision you’re probably going to be dealing with that as a separate paper/proposal.

It’s the same with the plan/schedule. You’ll have your own detailed plan, but for consumption by the senior people a one-pager is all it needs.
• separate workstreams
• key milestones
• progress (% complete or similar)
• highlight where something has gone off-track
• highlight actions you’re going to take to resolve

I’ve seen new PMs who think they need to be seen to be across all the detail – so they write this all down in a long email and send it out. I have had sponsors come to me and say “I’m getting this detail from the PM that I don’t want, I don’t really know what it’s all about, I can’t take in the key points and I don’t know whether I need to do anything!” In summary they just feel a bit swamped!

If you’re a sponsor, if that’s what you feel, you should be talking to your PM or program manager and saying “give me the information that I need, in the right format”.

Sponsors will vary in their styles. I worked for one person who was very hands off – they pretty much said “only contact me if there’s a problem and if you need me to do something – otherwise I’ll assume everything is green” It’s great to have that level of trust – but you still should be producing your reports & sending those in. That’s fine if you’re comfortable in working that way and your sponsor is comfortable with that – but you may end up working for people who are very hands-on, maybe less confident where they really want to get into the level of detail. Perhaps to the point where they want to be micro-managing the project. I really don’t advise that as an approach – so in this scenario you’ve really got to find a balance that works for you and the sponsor. (I hope to cover micro-management in a future blog/podcast).

I can hear some of you thinking “well that’s all very simple – go and ask them what they want and do a simple report” and yes that’s the whole point of this – it is very simple! I feel a lot of project management is is more complicated than it really needs to be, so cut through a lot of that unnecessary stuff and get to what’s needed. If people want more detail they will ask for it – trust me! So don’t be worrying about that – go for the “less is more” approach, work with your sponsor and stakeholders build the trust and build the confidence.

Obviously what you report it has to be correct, so don’t gloss it up or gloss it down, tell it how it is – that’s always my recommendation – but fundamentally the approach I’ve described is quite simple. I hope that’s useful and see you in the next episode.

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