We’ve all been in kickoff meetings for large-scale web projects. People show up bright-eyed and well-intentioned, ready to take part in a brainstorm led by someone with fashionable glasses. Colorful sticky notes and Sharpie fumes create an atmosphere of endless possibility. And by and large, that’s a good thing—kickoffs are a reasonable way to assemble a team and get everyone aligned. But once people leave the headiness of the room, I’ve seen many projects become far more complex and less orderly. How does that happen?
Years of experience on the client side give me some ideas of where enterprise projects can stumble—here are two of the most common:
- Losing track of the problem to be solved. Ever try to do your taxes and find yourself looking for receipts—which reminds you that you never built that file cabinet for storing them? At the end of the weekend you can end up with a new file cabinet and an unfinished tax return. It’s easy for web projects to unearth myriad business process or communications gaps. If you don’t have a complete view of the landscape going in, you will end up fixating on something valuable, but tangential—a worthy problem to solve, but a distraction from your current mission.
- Inadequate or ineffective project management. Client or vendor side, the PM is the linchpin—and not just for tracking dates and passing along deliverables. The project team needs to devote their time and expertise to meet deliverables, but the PM must be all in, with attention to concrete technical and business milestones and the dependencies among them. An effective project manager plays a substantial role, carrying an understanding of stakeholder goals and communicating project health and needs.
The good news is you can avoid these problems and extend that early kickoff harmony throughout the life of the project. By understanding your client’s organizational drivers and key players before the sticky note sessions even begin, you can establish the project momentum needed to keep the extended team focused on goals and prevent some of that complexity.
Understand the landscape going in#section2
Over a decade ago, I headed up user experience for an online arm of a major publisher embarking on a content management system project. Ideally, our group would have served as an informed single point of contact for a CMS servicing the needs of around 12 different publishing business units. But that’s not how it played out. We didn’t work with the agency to go deep enough into the local business unit requirements—for example, we developed a taxonomy that conflicted with one already shared among several units. Worse, we shielded the agency from understanding those requirements by acting as an intermediary.
As a result, the agency didn’t know about a number of cousin projects designed to solve these problems locally. Rather than aligning with these projects, we were orthogonal—and our project failed.
You can prevent scenarios like these by developing a view of the broader landscape first. The following questions are a good place to start:
- Where does this project sit in the hierarchy of all digital projects?
- What are the sibling and cousin projects going on in parallel? (These can either present competition for attention and resources, or become a leverage point.)
- How closely is this project aligned with the organization’s overall strategic goals for this quarter and this year?
These questions tease out important details about the landscape you’re operating in—giving you the context needed to develop a shared vision.
Define project impact in that landscape#section3
Agencies often push a client on what will make the project at hand successful: “The business partner portal should be elegant and functional,” they’ll say. Take this up a level: what would this portal’s success mean for the organization? Shifting this discussion one step up will help your client to surface assumptions and organizational drivers.
This is not an easy question to pose. You have to get comfortable getting uncomfortable with your client. You’re essentially asking, “Why the hell are you doing this, anyway?” Don’t let them up from the table or off the call until they have an answer.
Easier said than done, I know—most clients will sensibly resist diving deeper because there’s pressure, and it’s safer, to focus on practical project details. A colleague taught me to frame this questioning as, “What will be different in the world if…” The first few times, the question drove me mad—can’t we just solve the problem at hand? But the construct, followed by a number of “and thens” as prompts, is remarkably effective.
So, “What will be different in the world if we built a functional business partner portal?” might be answered with: “The increased collaboration would mean we’d rely less on the annual conferences to train partners/resellers,” or, “We’d need to create more digital video assets to share more sales training online.” Helping the client to articulate the project’s ultimate effect on the landscape will surface implicit expectations and potential success metrics.
Pre-work: set stakeholders up for success#section4
Now that you’ve determined the landscape and the impact, turn your focus to setting up that initial kickoff meeting. In a large organization, this can be a foray into Outlook calendar that few would envy. Despite the logistics, working with your client to make sure all the right players are present will pay off.
Some approaches that I’ve seen be successful:
- Use a stakeholder map. Some show basic fourfold tables charting power and interest. I prefer a view of stakeholders as concentric circles so we can define who is critical, key, and peripheral to the project’s decision-making. Be sure to define each level to understand stakeholders’ engagement with the project.
- Identify the business leader(s) upon whose performance review this project will feature prominently. This could be your client, or there may be a senior stakeholder who will take the credit or the blame. Find out who that is.
- Ask which stakeholders’ opinions resonate loudest internally. Is it a HPPO culture, where the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion will overrule all others? In that case, how do you reach that person with enough frequency, or to whom does that person turn for data or validation? Is there a quiet consigliere who wields soft power to be aware of? Whose needs must be addressed, and is that person best served by a series of one-on-one conversations, a memorandum, or a seat up front at the table?
- This project may be led by marketing or a specific line of business, but which technical stakeholders should be there? Very few digital agencies are or want to be in a support business. Make sure the family that will raise the baby is present as you plan the conception.
All these things are important, but here’s the kicker: your client may not recognize just how important they are. You have to be the advocate and force the examination to get assumptions surfaced and stakeholders engaged at the right level.
Ongoing: part communications, part therapy#section5
So the stakeholders are on board—how do you keep them engaged in a way that shows concrete progress and addresses underlying concerns, yet avoids being dragged into 10 different directions at each juncture?
In large organizations, there are tribal cultures and shared histories. Everyone brings baggage to a new project. Maybe their last similar project failed, and there’s some lingering professional PTSD. Maybe they had a transformative win, and want to replicate some of the behaviors that they believe secured that win.
The key is to surface these histories to understand any hidden expectations, which can create both communications opportunities and land mines. Work with your client to understand the top stakeholders’ perspectives, and to develop the communications practices tailored to these needs. A few common client stakeholder types:
The worrier: it seems like no amount of status meetings or project plans can assuage this person’s concerns. Approach: more frequent updates and in-person check-ins. Consider inviting this person to milestone checkpoints to underscore progress made.
The parachutist: this person will miss a meeting, or all the meetings, and weigh in late and heavy. Approach: double-check dates and deadlines well in advance. Identify and enlist a trusted envoy, like a deputy or assistant, who may be able to spot calendar breaks for quick input sessions.
The Eeyore: maybe it’s the professional PTSD alluded to above, or simple worldview. Approach: apply customer satisfaction wisdom here—which says that if you sink all your time trying to get your least-satisfied ones and twos to become nines and tens, you’re not getting very far. Unless this is your most critical sponsor (check your influence map above), provide what you provide to everyone else and don’t let naysayers distract you or your client from the job at hand.
The champion: there are stakeholders who are as eager for the project to succeed as you are, and a common mistake is not paying enough attention to these potential advocates. Approach: offer up quick and positive updates they can share, such as wireframes completed! Thorny search problem resolved! Product purchase workflow simplified! This person can amplify that message across and up in a way that’s tremendously beneficial.
All this communication/therapy may seem like a lot of work to bake into a project plan. Shouldn’t the client manage this for you? But an experienced agency PM will insist on it, because they’ve seen what I’ve seen time and again: without this client prep, you’ll sink the same number of hours in, but late in the game as crisis mitigation tactics. Getting these stakeholder communications right can help your team clarify deeper client priorities—and save you considerable time and effort in the long run.
Reap the benefits#section6
Imagine you’ve gotten through kickoff and countless project milestones and meetings, and are near the finish line wrapping up user acceptance testing and QA phases. How do you work with your client to ensure a successful launch, and build upon that success to strengthen the relationship?
Remember all those tough questions about impact you asked a few months back? This is your opportunity to show why you asked them and provide your client with the information to tell the story of their project. Here are a few ideas for smoothing the launch process:
- Provide the project team with fast facts about the launch, in formats suitable for resources and stakeholders. This might include language describing each project milestone, or an infographic showing success by the numbers: number of steps to users’ critical tasks reduced, videos created, mobile devices supported.
- Consider a screencast demo that shows internal and external audiences what was done, and why.
- Create an analytics template for measuring success at the three- and six-month intervals post-launch. The client can collect the data, but this provides a good opportunity to both quantify results and touch base to verify.
The intended result is to make your client feel empowered with the materials to tell the story, and to feel that the agency “gets” their business.
Enterprise clients can pose communications challenges, even for deeply-embedded agencies. Your job is not to refute or dismiss the complexities your clients face, but to collectively come to an understanding.
It’s easy in fast-moving agency mode to fall into the mentality of telling tough client war stories, because a dynamic of “us versus them” is easy to relate to. The strongest digital agencies know that they have to be part of getting to the right answer, not pointing it out and shrugging their shoulders in despair. We’re all in this together; using the tactics above will illuminate the path to a successful outcome—and a follow-on engagement.
12 Reader Comments
An article on project management that doesn’t reduce it all to methodologies and technical terms, thanks. Very useful.
Great article! Pm could also standfor Proactive Marathoners, cause its steady, deliberate, and for the long haul. Thanks for the tips and reminders!
Thanks — it feels like more upfront work on the agency end to tackle some of these issues, but it almost always saves effort and improves odds for success. I’m grateful to vendors who push us in this way, because it’s can be tempting to fall into “project completion” mentality rather than align with the bigger picture.
Thank you for the article, Perry. We experience these same digital project frustrations in the higher ed world. Would love to hear how schools are implementing these ideas for better internal experiences.
Great article and a fantastic summary of problems we’ve encountered before, particularly with stakeholder management (or lack thereof). Knowing these types of strategies *before* you knuckle down for 3-6 months can help avoid getting railroaded by an ‘HPPO parachutist’ at the 11th hour, dramatically reducing project strain, scope creep and overall pain!
Thanks for your insight, Perry.
Very good peer support to a project manager, thank you 🙂
Thanks for sharing your insights. I run a firm in Minnesota called Plaudit Design. We have done a number of the things you outlined for years and it makes a huge difference. We are currently pushing this portion of our process further and your ideas in this article are helpful. Thanks!
It is awesome how you identified the different personality types and how to adjust for them!
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Loved this part: “Why the hell are you doing this, anyway?” This simple question could solve a lot of future problems.
Great article, thanks!
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