According to the Stanford Research Institute, “without the support of stakeholders, an organisation will cease to exist”. This is also true of large-scale software and development projects. In many projects of this type the focus is on managing technical complexity and, while this is undoubtedly important, in order to truly safeguard project success effective stakeholder management is also crucial.
This blog post looks at some of the areas both clients and suppliers should invest in to achieve the high levels of buy-in, communication and understanding needed throughout a project to ensure it runs smoothly, and supports business goals.
(In the context of this post, stakeholders are defined as any person or group that has a vested interest in the project.)
It may sound obvious, but it’s important to know exactly who your key project stakeholders are before you begin. If stakeholders are not identified or given a fair share of voice at the outset, there may be adverse consequences further down the line. This process must also be approached from client, supplier and end-user angles, as each of these parties will have slightly varying perspectives on the project.
Once key stakeholders have been identified, you need to ensure that there is a shared understanding across the entire stakeholder group of what success looks like – otherwise you won’t be able to define what ‘done’ is. This can be achieved in a number of ways but what we would typically do is undertake a discovery phase at the beginning of the project to flesh out its high-level goals, and produce a vision statement that’s agreed upon by all stakeholders (an approach we took when supporting the digital transformation of the Royal College of Nursing, for example).
These outputs can be referred back to when making key decisions throughout the course of the project, and are particularly important in helping to align opinions among the group and navigating any in-project disputes.
Formalising a clear governance structure and communications plan is critically important, particularly when working on highly collaborative software projects. When done well, your plan will provide a smooth path to decision-making, defining clear reporting lines as well as escalation routes should they be needed. It also provides stakeholders with an understanding of what’s expected of them for the duration of the project, and can help break down any political barriers that may exist.
In major projects, it’s useful for the client to appoint a senior project board, consisting of the project sponsor and executive-level decision-makers. Supporting this, there may be a wider project board featuring representatives from those departments across the organisation that are impacted by the project, to provide feedback at various points.
From the supplier-side, having a clear internal communications schedule that shows how the project will be managed is vital. This will likely include key contacts, methods of communication (including any project tools), and frequency and format of the communications. A project escalation process, and named contacts that will be involved in this, will help further streamline the process of issue resolution.
In order to secure project buy-in and minimise uncertainty, a level of coaching may be required at the start, as well as at timely points throughout project such as when new stakeholders become involved. This may include educating stakeholders about the project management approach being taken, to help them understand how it affects their involvement in the project.
At Box UK, for example, most of our software development projects follow Agile methodologies, with software developed in iterative cycles known as ‘sprints’. The success of this approach is highly reliant on effective client collaboration, including co-ordinating user feedback and ensuring timely input on work-in-progress software presented at the end of each sprint, which will inform the direction of further iterations.
We take care to communicate these requirements at the outset, as it helps manage expectations and avoid any surprises further down the road. We’ve also delivered more formal training where clients were not as familiar with Agile’s core principles and processes, such as the British Horseracing Authority and Jaguar Land Rover.
It goes without saying that end-users should be involved in all modern software projects, especially if you’re following Agile methodologies centred on iterative development, feedback and refinement. Although your software should of course be designed according to user experience best practices and with input from organisational stakeholders, unless it’s tested with the people who will ultimately be using it, its true effectiveness will not be known.
Involving these key stakeholders at the start and at important milestones can be vital to a project’s success. For example, if you’re building a large-scale website or business application it’s important to identify end-user stakeholders who can stress-test user interface and information architecture decisions early on, feeding back on these before they’re iterated further, when it’s more difficult to make changes. In doing this you’ll also help make your end-users feel part of the process; supporting greater buy-in and, ultimately, higher adoption rates.
To summarise, investing in stakeholder management, communication and education at the outset of a software project, and sustaining this commitment throughout, can significantly improve the value delivered both to your business and your end-users. Not only does this mitigate risk, it can also save valuable time and budget in the long-term, as you’ll have everybody pulling in the same direction and working towards the same goals.
If you think your development initiatives might be suffering from a lack of stakeholder unity, you might want to take a look at our white paper which looks in more detail at the indicators of potential issues along with possible solutions.