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Background – We are a small group (three PMs reporting to a director) doing business improvement projects for a large company. Problems with our processes have been identified, in particular going from vision to solution while starting up projects, and our director has brought myself and a consultant in to try to resolve these.

Issue – I am trying to engage the other two PMs in the group to get them to contribute to the solution. I figured that step one should be sitting down with them to figure out what their vision is for a “happy future”. Unfortunately they see this as a waste of time and refuse to participate, their logic being that (a) they have learned enough on their own to circumvent the problems and (b) their visions will be trumped by the director in any case so why bother. Ultimately they just don’t seem to care enough to go through the process to want to bother (but maybe I'm just interpreting their response that way out of frustration). I see this as a huge issue as they are key stakeholders and not bringing them in to the solution early and often is not going to be conducive to project success.

Question – Is it possible to get stakeholders who don’t care engaged with a project? Or in this particular case where I can get a director to dictate a solution is it worth the effort to get the stakeholders to get engaged?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Disengaged stakeholders will threaten your success, as you know. They will remain a threat until either they are turned around or removed, literally. Now, I typically segment stakeholders into two groups (I know, oversimplified): participating with seemingly no issues, stakeholders that are in a constant state of opposition. On the surface, it would seem that those in a constant state of opposition are stakeholders that threaten your success while the first segment is good to go. I actually think the opposite is true. The first segment will contain those that either are simply not engaged and are going through the motions, who will also cause a lot of grief down the line; or those who are purposely passive and underground and are actively sabotaging your every action.

The second group is engaged.

I write this because your (a) and (b) did not place them in either category, really, at least for me, so I am not completely sure you have as big a risk as you think you do. Your first description sort of sounds like that, but your second description implies a frustration, an objection, that you can grab and run with in a very positive way.

I held a kick-off meeting once where all my client stakeholders were positive, smiling, agreeing with everything, asking rather benign questions, and said to me, "we're glad you're aboard!" My boss, who happened to be there, congratulated me and said you were able to get everyone to eat out of your hand, to which I responded, "Project's already in trouble!"

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1  
Thanks David. Excellent insight. I think the problem for me is that the team will be "engaged/enraged" only if they perceive extra work for themselves. If someone else has to do the heavy mental lifting they are going to fall into your first segment with a lot of yessir-nossir-threebagsfullsir but no real commitment. –  Doug B Sep 24 '12 at 14:59

You have to GET them engaged. And you can only do that by getting them to have a stake in the outcome.

Here's where part of the problem lies - the three PM's (you being one of them) have a problem; of that group only you were tasked to solve it. So you've started off down a point in their eyes. Regardless of the reality, to them it looks like you're now the "Lead PM'. so you need to find a way to convince them that will actually be a part of the solution, that they will be heard, and that it's not just you. AS you said, one of there reasons is that the solution will be rejected, they're already feeling like it (their voice) will go nowhere.

Second, you need to get them involved in identifying the causes. You said that the problems with the processes have already been identified. By whom? Were the other 2 PM's involved? Do they agree with those problems, or are they being told these are the problems?

The best bet to get them engaged is to start over - bring them all together and say "here's how our dept is perceived, and this is why. Now, let's talk about why that might be, and what we can together as a group to change that."

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+1 on my starting down a point, totally agree. What is worse is I'm new to the company but have more experience as a PM so maybe I'm down several points. We are part-way through a "start over", I sat down with the other PMs to ID their problems and possible solutions. The main problem they identified was identical to what our director identified, but there was a disconnect on solutions. Hence the attempt to align everyone's vision of where we wanted to be as a start point for buy-in on a shared solution. –  Doug B Sep 25 '12 at 12:46

If The Disengaged feel like they have already learned enough to avoid the problems in the future, then maybe you can start with that. Start a process with them where you are working to codify what everyone feels will work. Maybe as part of that process they will start to become more engaged and the process can start to move forward.

I've been in a situation like you describe where there are concerns that anything they suggest will just be swept aside by your boss. It's a difficult situation and highly DEmotivating. But a lot of times these situations occur because you need to engage more with your boss. Don't approach this problem so that the 4 of you (PM's and consultant) are going to work in isolation and come up with a solution that you will then dump on your boss. No one should be surprised if there are some surprises at the end of that process.

Stay engaged with your boss on a weekly basis so that you are telling him what you've identified/what you're working on with respect to this problem. At the same time you are getting information from him on how he would like to see things go. At the end of the process, he can't really toss your work because he has been approving/suggesting it all along. You're aligning your project with his idea of a successful end point along the way.

You can't force you compatriots to do work. But if you are having a meeting with your boss in two weeks, and he knows (and your fellow PM's know he knows) that one of your fellow PM's is responsible for a particular piece of information, then they aren't doing it for you, they're doing it for the boss.

Work on more engagement vertically and you should see more engagement horizontally.

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Thanks Ken. The boss is highly engaged. Only Visioning was to be done independently, I thought it would help everyone get heard - and know they were heard. Part of the problem (in my mind) is that The Disengaged would rather defer all decisions to the boss. –  Doug B Sep 24 '12 at 19:04

Is it possible to get stakeholders who don’t care engaged with a project?

Yes ... unfortunately it is not uncommon to have several stakeholders on a project who appear to be disengaged or apathetic towards a project. There are far too many reasons to go through in this post as to why stakeholders are disengaged (Some have been listed here by other people, but I strongly encourage you to do your own investigation here so that you don't fall into the trap of having a pre-conceived notion of the problem before you've spoken with the stakeholders in question). The key to solving this problem is to find out the specific reasons why these stakeholders are disengaged (it appears that you've started doing this based upon your identification of (a)). Talk to them ... uncover the mystery.
Based upon the responses, you may or may not be able to address their concerns. This will depend upon the constraints the Director has imposed on you when he communicated the parameters of the project/engagement and his expectations. But the information is still valuable as you will now have a better idea of the risks to the project.

Or in this particular case where I can get a director to dictate a solution is it worth the effort to get the stakeholders to get engaged?

This is very difficult to answer without more information here, but I will say that in general, yes ... it is worth the effort. Relying on an authoritative position held by someone else to get other stakeholders to participate in a project that you manage is a dangerous position.
Consider the possible outcomes if you use this trump card too often:

  1. The Director views you as incompetent (why can't this person solve these problems without involving me all the time?).
  2. Other stakeholders lose respect for you and may attempt to undermine you and your project every step of the way.
  3. You suddenly realize that you need the support of the other stakeholders midway through the project in persuading the Director to take another course of action. Likelihood of getting that support is the same as me becoming elected for President.

Strong-arm tactics are best avoided as a repetitive technique for getting things done. That's not to say they don't have their place, but use them sparingly and acknowledge the follow-up work that you will need to do to regain the lost trust afterwards.

The key here is relationship management. You need to work on managing the relationship with these stakeholders to increase the probability of project success.

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Hi KirMasAna. Welcome to PMSE. The points about stakeholders losing respect and needing support are things that I think we overlook all too often in problems like this. Well said! +1 –  jmort253 Sep 26 '12 at 3:13

Human being naturally oppose change. Resistance to change is natural (a natural force of disruption); you can't solve it, you can't fight it and you can't overcome it, but you can manage it.

It is not a sign of disloyalty, there's nothing personal, it's not linked with bad performance, it's just a sign change is not managed, it's out of control.

Your colleagues are acting within their frame of references (emotions + experience + values + knowledge), aka company culture, and they oppose change, they show the typical symptoms of resistance... Immobilization, denial, bargaining, anger...

  • You first need to listen to them, talk no more than 30% and listen for at least 70%.
  • You need sponsorship (your director), and sponsorship must be expressed clearly, must be reinforced multiple times and it must be modeled over them.
  • You need to define reachable targets and establish expectations.
  • Learn their frame of references and explain yourself in their frame of references.
  • Analyze their frame of references (emotions + experience + values + knowledge) and find the source of resistance there.
  • Use the energy of the target you defined to help manage the situation.

Use team meetings, interviews, question and answers to let their frame of references surface.

Forget about money (in case it's an option in your case), check the Maslow pyramid once again, people are better motivated with

  1. stuff they are interested in
  2. appreciation
  3. making them feel part of it

Read what I wrote above twice, you can not fight it, you can not fight their frame of references, you can not fight the company culture, you can not fight a point of view... But you can manage it, and you can lead it through change.

When you define the target keep in mind target=success, what's success in their frame of references? Who attain success become a leader, he/she is seen as a leader, and leaders define what culture is in place.

Use it, identify the frame of references, identify the leaders, change them.

Read these two books:

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The feeling that your colleagues have is quite common and difficult to change. When in the past the voices of the workers have not been heard, have been ignored rudely or any similar similar it is difficult to collaborate in this kind of initiatives. By this kind of initiatives I refer to improvement of work methodologies and processes that usually suffer due to rush and daily pressure (if I understand correctly your problem description ).

Said this, you should bring forward the WIIFM formula (What's In It For Me), how your colleagues will benefit from joining the initiative. Make sure you don't promise anything beyond your scope of responsibility. For this to happen you should have a clear idea from your director what is the scope of the solution you must define (new tools, new hires to reduce workload, new gadgets, ... ).

If you apply the same formula at company level you will have the arguments to convince your colleagues why this time their voice is important and will be heard.

Another important point your boss should have clarified is that even when you are the liaison/coordinator/collaborator with the consultant everybody must collaborate. A percentage of their time even if small (8 hours in the first month) should be approved and enough for a kick-off meeting, them to write down the techniques they mention that have already come out with and a wrap-up session to share the results of the first round before presenting them to your boss, a session that they should also attend as your group is small enough to require that (1 misaligned person is a 33% of your group) and afford that ( a meeting of 5 can still be productive).

Of course, share the credit, even if you have done the most work (in putting together the ideas, ...) everybody will be giving feedback and it is always difficult in a process improvement initiative which tweak made the difference. Your boss will know your role so don't be afraid, you have been probably chosen for a variety of reasons (less busy, more organized, more enthusiast or open to change, not necessarily for being the most creative or process expert, sorry! I hope you take it the right way).

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If I've understood your question properly you have two issues:

  1. The problem the company wants to address is improving your effectiveness at 'going from vision to solution while starting up projects'

  2. Your efforts to address the first problem is impeded by a lack of interest from your peers, i.e. the other two PMs, based on their feeling disempowered; 'their visions will be trumped by the director' as you put it and their not seeing there being a problem that needs solving in the first place; 'they have learned enough on their own to circumvent the problems'

One approach might be to use Impact Mapping. This technique starts by calling out why you are doing the project, in your case it sounds like this would be a specific improvement you want to make to the business and then maps this to who can help or hinder it's success.

It then asks how these people can help achieve the goal or how they might obstruct it and finally ends with what the project is going to do to bring about the desired outcome.

You could set up a workshop where you, the consultant, the director and the other two PMs produce an Impact Map for an upcoming project.

This would allow you to assess the effectiveness of this technique for your business and should engender some useful conversations between you all as stakeholders.

It would provide an opportunity for your peers to share their past learnings and demonstrate how applicable they are to upcoming work.

By working together to articulate the 'vision' of the project and producing a public, shared artefact; i.e. the Impact Map, this should go some way to mitigating your peers fear that their visions will be trumped by the director because you will all have an agreed, shared statement of the vision and how you propose to realise it.

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