During a recent call with an end user/client, I heard the all too common phone response, “IT screwed up in the past and I’m really anxious.” And, just like that, as a project manager, I was lumped in with a rich and sordid history of every failed IT project that ever existed in all of time – everywhere. Except, I was not responsible for EVERY screw up. But that didn’t matter to the VP on the other end of the line. In shock, I was taken aback and immediately placed on the defensive. I wanted to react.
First, take a closer look at the client’s reaction. It’s actually quite telling and one can learn a lot from what might appear to be a combative personality. “I’m … anxious,” tells a story. The client might not actually be upset with you, but was enough done on the front end to allay and prevent their fears from creeping up?
Next, think before reacting. Your reaction, which will frame the balance of your relationship with your client, should be to empathize with them. A great way to empathize is to echo back what you heard — in your own words — and specifically call out what you believe the other person values. While it may seem clumsy at first, it’s a great way to reflect that you listened and that you are both on the same page with what really matters.
This reminds me of a large scale SharePoint platform migration I participated in. The central SharePoint infrastructure IT team was working feverishly on developing plans, stylistic emails and lots of lists to manage the migration.
They passed along some access to their lists and involved some of the team in their due diligence, but withheld a lot of their planning and framework from the balance of the organization – including the developers and managers executing the migration work. That can leave a project manager very concerned and a bit off balance.
Learning the plan while managing the execution is not the best way to go about it. When developing any IT plan, it’s important to have a good communication plan in place. Understand that plan failure is not always IT’s or the business’s fault. But without working together on a plan, you’re working in a vacuum and things will inevitably fly upside down.
It’s also important to recognize that not all clients are the same. Some clients don’t need a lot of hand holding by the project manager and want you to operate silently, while others want to be super informed. Manage your business relationships like you manage your personal relationships. Give each and everyone what THEY need and want. Make an ally out of your business partner. Treat them as an integral part of the process. Let them know you will keep them informed and then follow through.
Creating an air of transparency into your plan, with contingencies, will afford your clients comfort in knowing that you care more about their needs, and not just getting the job done. The best effort means that you strive to make the process as seamless and hiccup free as possible.
How to Start
So, how does a project manager start?
- Outline the steps of your plan.
- Conduct a simulation of your plan and incorporate the findings.
- Review the outline with several business partners.
- If possible, get some feedback from the business in the field. (Often the top level managers only have partial insight into the daily dealings at a lower level. You need the top level buy in, but the cooperation of the lower level operators.)
- Incorporate the feedback into the plan.
- Create a communication plan and review it with your business partners. Make certain to include check-in points with the client.
- Involve the business in disseminating information. Delegate ownership for communicating with their staff.
My next meeting with the same client was much smoother. I did my homework and learned about their previous experiences and concerns for this project. We modified the plan to incorporate their feedback and findings. We also revised processes and established contingencies. And then, during one of the latter process reviews, I heard the best piece of feedback one can hear, “Thank you, Elliot. I really appreciate your diligence in looking out for my business.”