Your Stakeholders Will Have Many Questions Before Agreeing to a Change

Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

You’ve just determined that the program will not complete as agreed.  Your stakeholders will want to ensure that everything has been done to avoid changes to the agreed costs, schedule, scope and benefits.  This article reminds you about this mindset of stakeholders.  The included checklist will help you prepare for discussions with your stakeholders.


Oh No! The Program is in Trouble!

Maybe you are an exceptionally fortunate program manager whose programs will never experience a serious problem in achieving your program commitment.

The rest of us might not be so lucky and need to be ready for the day we determine that our program cannot satisfactorily complete as agreed – it could be an issue of schedule, scope, cost or ability to deliver the expected business value.  

The approaches noted here are applicable to just about any variance in anticipated program outcomes (e.g., scope, cost, benefits projections).  However, keep in mind that company and IT culture will override the "rational and reasonable" approach that I'm sharing in this article.  I've been in situations where raising a red flag is supported, in others where variances don't seem to matter to anyone, and still others where blame, criticism and career jeopardy result from alerting stakeholders of a program difficulty.  In short, understand your company culture and how significant variances are handled.

So, your program cannot complete as committed?  Something has happened during execution and now completion as committed is not in the cards.  You are off plan and tensions are rising.  Most times, this is particularly difficult because you have team members insisting upon changes (e.g., extending the schedule or decreasing scope) and you have stakeholders who are adamant that the program must be completed per the baseline.

As a program manager navigating your way through this situation, you’ve been on top of this emerging situation and have:

  1. Dug into issues that will impact completion of the program.
  2. Validated that the issues are a legitimate reason for altering the program commitment.
  3. Confirmed that no mitigation actions can be initiated to keep the program on track.
  4. Pre-Alerted stakeholders of the situation and scheduled a future meeting to seek approval on a proposed revision to the commitment.
  5. Evaluated options for proceeding and have selected a preferred path.
  6. Completed re-planning activities for the preferred path forward.  You’ve covered the traditional program accountabilities (scope, schedule, cost, business benefits).

Congratulations! You are now ready to seek concurrence from your program's stakeholders.  If you have been communicating with stakeholders during your replanning activities, building their confidence and seeking their guidance, then this final step may be easier.


Understanding Your Program's Stakeholders

As you prepare to gain the support of the program stakeholders on your proposed changes, your first inclination may be to rely solely upon the ‘fact’ that the program cannot be completed as planned.  From your perspective, a change is inevitable, and you feel that the stakeholders have no alternative but to agree with your revision.

That isn’t the starting point for your stakeholders, however.  If you are managing a program that is important to your stakeholders, then you will need to understand that changing the cost, schedule, scope or business benefit of the delivery is a serious decision for them.  Few stakeholders will accept such a change without an adequate understanding of the situation.

From their point of view, they have chartered and launched a program with an agreed set of parameters.  They, quite reasonably, expect the program to complete as agreed.  Your recent status reporting has probably indicated to them that the program is proceeding as planned.  If you now change the status of the program to show a jeopardy, you’ll need to consider that this is a sudden change for your stakeholders.  Particularly if you go from "green" status directly to "red" status.

Your inclination might be to announce the problem and immediately inform your stakeholders of the new commitment for their concurrence.  While it is laudable to come prepared with a proposed solution to the problem (and, indeed, this is a very good approach), it will not be effective to jump too quickly to “the solution” if your stakeholders have not agreed to the nature and details of the program's execution difficulty.  Before even thinking of approaching a discussion about a new plan, your stakeholders will need to have a sufficient understanding of the situation so they can convince themselves that: 

  • The proposed changes are unavoidable - there are no reasonable corrective or mitigation actions that can eliminate the need for a replan.
  • Your newly proposed commitment is the best approach for completing the program – it is credible.
  • Your newly proposed commitment solves the root problem – it addresses the newly discovered problems that caused the jeopardy.
  • You are capable of managing the program in their best interests – although the program has suffered a setback, you have the ability to continue leading the program to completion.
  • There are no other unknown surprises lurking that will disappoint them – part of your job is to identify and resolve issues before they impact the ability of the program to be successful.


Program Information You Must Know and Convey

There are several important aspects of the situation that your stakeholders will likely need to see and understand before they will be comfortable in changing the program plan.  The stakeholder's clear agenda will be to resist any unneeded significant change relative to the original commitment.

Some stakeholders will want visibility into more detail than others.  Sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish between a situation in which they have a legitimate need for information vs. a situation where confidence in your program management abilities is in doubt.  The best approach to either situation is to be well prepared to give a coherent explanation that communicates the essence of the situation.

Below are key areas that your investigation, replanning, and communication with stakeholders should cover.  Use this as a checklist of information you should be prepared to cover when seeking approval to change the program.  But, and this is experienced-based advice, don't start by pushing a lot of detail onto your stakeholders - you could overload them with detail and distract them from the key elements.  Share essential info and let them probe for the additional details that you have prepared.

During your discussions with stakeholders, if you miss any one of these then you’ll just need to go back and fill the gaps.  If you are unable to speak to two or three of these items, then recognize that you could be damaging your credibility as a capable program manager; you will then have some reputation rebuilding to do.  If you can’t cover any of these program areas, then that opens the possibility that your line management will look for opportunities to replace you or take actions (e.g., micromanaging) to improve the management of the program.

  1. The Headline: your summary of the problem and its impact
    • A high-level summary of the problem and its underlying cause
    • The projected variance to the delivery schedule, cost and scope
    • The impact to the value delivery from the program to the business or the company - I view this as the most important element of the summary
  2. Some details on the problem – helping everyone come to agreement that there is a problem and description of that problem
    • A concise description of the one or two problems impacting the program
    • Project completions that are projected to be impacted - if necessary, down to the task level (but only for tasks on the critical path)
    • Problems with any external dependencies that are impacting project activities
  3. Impact of the problem - so everyone has the same understanding of the problem's severity
    • Start with the impact on the planned business value of the program
    • Next, highlight schedule (since this is what most stakeholders will first ask about), then cost and scope
  4. Your proposed commitment revision - your team's best response to the problem
    • Summarize the overall changes to program schedule, cost, scope and delivered business benefit
    • Review of alternatives that were considered, and the rationale for the chosen approach
    • Mention that the proposed revision has gone through the appropriate planning steps, with agreement by program team members and business leaders - express the level of confidence you and your team have with this revision
    • Show how this program approach ensures that there are no other serious program situations (more ‘bad news”) that are concealed and awaiting discovery - if there are lingering risks, then raise them now
  5. Improvement actions
    • Identify enhancements to program monitoring and control activities that will enable earlier detection (and correction) of this class of problem
    • Explain the actions that will be taken to improve the performance of external dependencies


Tips for Program Managers

There's a skill in announcing a program's schedule slip, cost overrun, diminished business benefit or other serious jeopardy. A program manager with some bad news to report can best serve the program team and stakeholders by:

    • Be Prepared: Being well-prepared with information about the problem situation and possible recovery steps.
    • Be Accurate.  Present information you know to be true, avoiding assumptions and speculation.
    • Make Clear Requests: Making clear and specific requests for resources or other assistance.
    • Openly Share Information: Transparently share information with stakeholders.
    • Be Open to Help.  Consider and adopt suggestions that are offered to you.


Wrap Up

No program manager wants to disappoint stakeholders by delaying delivery, reducing scope, increasing costs or decreasing the anticipated delivery of business value, but sometimes situations arise where these changes are the possibility.  Your best bet for handling a serious program problem is to be aware of the various conversations (many of them unproductive) that can occur in your situation, and to steer the conversation so that stakeholder’s questions will be addressed by the results of your discovery and planning activities.

The discussions may provide you with new information that changes your understanding of the problem (or impact), or you may find your stakeholders receptive to a new commitment based on your thorough discovery and replanning of the program.

I hope you have good fortune in avoiding serious program issues and encourage you to use this article and own learnings elsewhere to have a solid method in place should your program go off track.