In the world of project management, there is an age-old idiom that stands out: “people love sausages, but nobody wants to know how they are made.” The sausage-making process can be an apt metaphor for the process of working on a project and managing stakeholder expectations. It’s all about knowing when to provide insights into your work and what aspects of it to reveal, to ensure that the end product is well-received and your stakeholders’ perceptions align with your vision.
There’s wisdom to be found in this metaphor–just hear me out. Imagine you’re a master chef preparing the finest sausages. You know that the preparation process involves various stages, some of which might not be palatable to the lay observer. If you invite a guest into your kitchen during the early stages of sausage creation—when there is raw, chopped meat and a host of unfamiliar ingredients—they might balk at the sight and question the eventual outcome. However, their reaction would be very different if you presented them with a beautifully cooked, seasoned, and garnished sausage.
The same principle applies to managing projects and stakeholder expectations. Delivering a project is a bit like making sausages—there are many steps involved, and not all of them are pretty. If you share every detail of your work in progress without careful thought, you may inadvertently give stakeholders the wrong impression about the final result. In essence, showing your stakeholders the raw materials and the chopping process might leave them disconcerted rather than engaged.
So, how can you as a project manager ensure that stakeholders’ perceptions are consistent with the final deliverable? It’s all about timing and providing the right level of transparency at the right time.
1. Establish Regular Check-ins
When it comes to managing the expectations of certain (but not tall) stakeholders, regular check-ins are crucial. However, it’s not about showing them all the ‘raw materials.’ Instead, these meetings should focus on progress, roadblocks, and key decisions. The frequency of these check-ins can vary depending on the project’s complexity, but they should be scheduled to allow enough time for tangible progress to be made.
2. Time Your Deliverables
The timing of your deliverables is also essential. If you present your stakeholders with a partially completed deliverable, they may make hasty judgments or question the project’s direction. To avoid this, ensure you’re showing polished, complete sections of work, even if it’s only a component of the final product.
3. Manage the Narrative
Be the master storyteller of your project. Highlight achievements and explain challenges. While it’s important to be honest about setbacks, frame them as opportunities for learning and growth, not insurmountable problems. By taking control of the narrative, you can manage stakeholders’ perceptions effectively.
4. Use Visuals to Aid Understanding
Visuals can play a crucial role in ensuring stakeholders understand your work. Use charts, graphs, or mock-ups to illustrate your progress. This can help stakeholders understand the journey from raw materials to finished sausage, so to speak, without being overwhelmed by the minutiae.
Ultimately, managing stakeholder expectations is a delicate balancing act between transparency and discretion. It’s essential to remember that while stakeholders want to be involved, they don’t need to see every part of the process. Just like our sausage connoisseur friends, they are most interested in the final product, the sumptuous and perfectly cooked sausage, rather than the process it took to get there.
By establishing regular check-ins, timing your deliverables correctly, managing the project narrative, and employing visuals to aid understanding, you can ensure stakeholders are reacting to the right thing at the right time, maintaining their confidence and trust in the project and your abilities as a project manager.
Implications for Innovation Projects
Indeed, when it comes to innovation projects, especially those employing principles of design thinking and lean startup methodologies, the stakes get even higher. Given the iterative and experimental nature of these projects, they are prone to drastic shifts in direction. Consequently, weekly snapshots of such projects may appear wildly inconsistent, a phenomenon that can trigger unnecessary anxiety among stakeholders.
As you deal with senior managers or business unit leaders, remember that while they may appreciate the need for innovation, they may not have the time or depth of expertise to fully understand the intricacies of your process. They see the project in terms of risk, cost, potential return on investment, and its alignment with the company’s strategic direction. They are less concerned with, for example, the customer interviews or ideation sessions that are integral to your project’s success.
Therefore, it becomes crucial to plan your check-ins and deliverables in line with the significant milestones or pivot points in your project. For example, a check-in could coincide with the conclusion of a specific phase in a Design Thinking process depending on the audience and what is most likely to resonate with them. A senior marketing leader may be impressed with your research and your ability to empathize with end users, but the CFO may be more interested in a full-fledged business model or meticulously planned pro forma that comes much later in the process. Or, if using a Lean Startup process you could schedule a quick check-in after a significant ‘build-measure-learn’ loop. By timing your communications to coincide with these critical stages, you provide a clear and understandable narrative for your stakeholders, catering to their level of interest and understanding.
In essence, managing stakeholder expectations in innovation projects is similar to serving a meticulously prepared meal to your guests. They don’t need to know about every ingredient, every stir, and every taste test that went into it. (In fact, sometimes my wife loses her appetite even when I’m describing seemingly innocuous ingredients and steps.) They are simply there to savor the final dish, appreciate the culinary skill, and applaud the creativity behind it. Your job as a project manager is to ensure they do just that, by presenting your work at the right time and in the right way, showcasing the fruits of your hard work and innovation without burdening them with the complexities of the process. I certainly know from experience that presenting your project without proper framing can make a would-be meeting of the minds devolve into a minding of the meats where specific ingredients in the work-sausage are scrutinized–and the vision for the end product is lost. In these cases you end up wasting a lot of people’s time talking about the wrong things. In other words, if you can properly manage the narrative properly, you can more effectively manage the results when stakeholder perception often plays an outsized role.