Most projects start off with low levels of stress and lots of congeniality. Meetings are filled with give-and-take where people are amenable to differing views and approaches. How nice. But when the project gets underway and things don’t progress exactly as planned, stress levels start to increase and meeting become confrontational. Stakeholders become much less amenable and very protective of their interests.

Alex experienced this in spades. When his project encountered several jolts of misfortune he found himself attending one contentious meeting after another. It was now clear that Ed, who was representing the end-user group, had a different view of what was to be delivered. He wanted what he thought he signed off on and when it was promised. Ed didn’t care how much overtime or additional resources it required. Ginny was the line manager for a good portion of the resources that were matrixed into the project team. She had assigned some additional resources to the project to help it end on time, but was now stretched too thin. Ginny was counting on her staff to complete the projects by the scheduled date and didn’t care how it impacted the project’s deliverables. Pam, the project sponsor, had an approved budget and no reserves left as it was nearing the end of the company’s fiscal year. She also didn’t have much energy for negotiating with the other project stakeholders. Alex knew that if no one budged from their current position the project would end at some point and deliver something but please no one.

When stakeholders participate in building the project plan they are very aware of the project triangle and its need to be harmonized. As work on the project begins and things start going awry stakeholders often grab onto the side of the triangle that holds their interest and then begin to defend their position at the expense of the other stakeholders. From the above example you can see that end-users tend to care about scope and time, resource managers care about time and cost, sponsors care about scope and budget, and project managers are concerned with all three sides of the project triangle (of course).

When the interests of the stakeholders polarize and they ignore all sides of the project triangle then no one gets what they want. Communication deteriorates and is only present when there is overwhelmingly bad news. People confront each other, become offended, and establish grudges. In the end, the project ends abruptly, producing a crippled deliverable, and a failure in everyone’s eyes.

What is needed is a way of taking the behavior demonstrated by stakeholders in the beginning of a project and carrying it through to the end; a mechanism for keeping stakeholders in locked step with the project manager. What is needed is a set of project tenets that everyone understands, agrees to, and reflect on continuously throughout the life of the project. This practice has worked time and time again but has received little attention in the project management community.

For a project to have a chance at success stakeholders have to understand the following tenets:

  • Projects are complex and have many variables that can cause the project to go off plan; change is going to happen.
  • The project triangle is real and has to be continuously harmonized.
  • Scope is precious, the purpose of the project, and what will bring value to the company.
  • Scope always has ambiguity and it is the responsibility of everyone to collectively resolve and eliminate it.
  • Project team resources are finite and extremely valuable to other projects in the organization.
  • Costs are finite with defined limits.
  • Time can be manipulated but, not radically reduced.

Project managers who use these tenets include them in their project plan. Some also have them laminated and ask stakeholders to pin them on their walls. But the most important action project managers can take is reviewing them monthly in status meetings and identifying circumstances and behaviors that were consistent and not consistent with them.

Not all stakeholders will like the above tenets though. A few will think they are goofy. Others will think too much emphasis is being put on securing future excuses rather than working hard to deliver on what was promised. But, most will appreciate them. In the end the tenets will be remembered and kept in mind when things get tough.

A word of caution: project tenets are not fool proof. Projects still involve people and their uncontrollable behavior. However, tenets do provide a better shot of seeing more of Dr. Jekyll and less of Mr. Hyde.