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Finding Power Influencers

Amy Baugh

Editor's Note: This article is written for program managers, but its message is important for any type of manager. Knowing who yields power in an organization is important and useful.

To elevate your performance as a manager, you need to uncover and tap into all available resources. Every organization has a network of people who really know how things work and how to get things done. These are not necessarily the same people who are in charge. It is worth taking the time to understand who is whom and who knows what, and then use that information for the benefit of your program. There are a few formal and informal ways to identify this group. In this discussion, I start with the most informal approach and then move to a more structured approach. Each situation requires one or more of these tactics, depending on the complexity of the organization.

Tapping into the Organization—Coffee Chats

I know I have received a few looks from people who got the impression that I am always in the café drinking coffee. They are right. What they do not necessarily understand is that all of those trips to the café are an essential part of a program manager's job. (Our job is sounding pretty glorious right now.) The coffee chat is a powerful tool. People tend to relax and talk more freely outside of the four walls of their office or cubicle. Talks over coffee lead to vital information, for example, helping to understand relationships, historical influences, and other connections. Your role as a program manager is not unlike that of party host in a sense. You need to know who knows whom, who has common interests and might benefit from being introduced, and any history between guests so you can orchestrate a successful party.

You can use this technique through the course of the program, but I use it most heavily in the early stages. I usually start with those identified in my program house, beginning with key stakeholders. Rule number one, I always offer to buy their coffee—it is amazing how much people appreciate a free beverage or snack. I typically spend a little time beginning to form a business relationship if it is someone I am just meeting for the first time. I start the conversation by giving a high-level overview of my role and then asking them to describe their roles. Getting an idea of their history with the company may help make connections, both in gaining potential references for additional people to talk to as well as understanding their viewpoints and any biases they may have. If you are new to a company or coming in as a consultant, it is important to always be respectful of tenure and history. You should be assertive and want to come across as knowledgeable and as someone who has valuable input, but first you need to take the time to stop and listen. These early conversations provide you with invaluable information. I learned this lesson the hard way when meeting with a key stakeholder who had decades of tenure. He asked my opinion about something, and I gave it flat out without first gathering background information. The stakeholder got quite angry with me and started lecturing about commitments and assumptions. What I should have done was ask the appropriate questions to gather background information before blurting out an opinion based on partial information. Once I understood the background (commitments had previously been made between individuals who were in the organization I was brought in to manage), I was able to negotiate a solution that satisfied everyone.

With basic introductions made and background information obtained, it makes sense to move on to high-level program goals and scope to ensure a common starting point and base understanding. This information may be redundant for key stakeholders who have been involved since the beginning; if this is the case, tailor your approach to include as much or as little detail as appropriate. What you really want to get out of these particular conversations with key stakeholders is a list of people who you need to know to get your job done effectively. Therefore, focus on questions directed to stakeholders in these sessions. Some questions you can ask include the following:

  • Who have you worked with in the past on initiatives related to XYZ (e.g., business area or process area)?
  • How is this initiative related to other programs in the organization, and who is running those related programs?
  • When you have questions on XYZ, who do you go to when you need answers?
  • Who in the organization do you turn to for advice on XYZ?
  • Have there been similar initiatives to this one at this organization in the past? And in relation to similar initiatives:
    • Who were the key players in those initiatives?
    • Were there any individuals who put up roadblocks? What were those roadblocks? Do you think those same people will be supporters of this initiative, or do I need to work to gain their support?
    • In your opinion, were those initiatives successful? If not, to whom can I talk about lessons learned?
  • t Who else do you think it is important for me to talk to about this program? Can you think of anyone who may have concerns about this initiative?

By the end of each conversation, you should have a list of names of additional people to meet with to get even more insight as to the challenges you can expect and who best to work with to avoid or deal with those challenges.

At the end of these meetings, there are two things you should always do: First, let your stakeholder know that you intend to set up meetings with those identified, and confirm that it is OK for you to do so, using his or her name in your introduction. In some cases, it may make sense to have an in-person introduction to someone who was identified, with your key stakeholder doing the introduction (e.g., if it is suggested you meet with a high-level executive). If this is needed, confirm that your stakeholder is willing to do this and his or her preferences about how it should be handled. (Should you set up the meeting, or is this something your stakeholder handles?) Second, always thank the stakeholder for his or her time, and let your stakeholder know you appreciate the help and input.

More Coffee—Identifying the Next Layer of Stakeholders

Once you have completed meetings with the program team and have established a list of additional people to talk to, you should schedule more conversations. Some of the best information comes from those not on your program team but those who have worked on initiatives that are similar or related in some way. At this next level of coffee chats it is time to buy coffee again. This effort involves those who may not be as familiar with your program since they are not on the actual program team, at least not at this point. Again, it makes sense to begin with a high-level overview of your role and ask them to describe theirs, including their history with the company. Next, review highlevel program goals and scope, again using the one-page strategy picture as a starting point. Once a base understanding of the program is established, let them know you would like to get their perspectives, in particular gathering information about who is whom in the organization and any tips on who to go to in order to get things done. At this level, the questions should be a little more specific, for example:

  • For XYZ (e.g., business group, process area, or application), who are your "go to" people?
  • Have you worked on similar initiatives in the past? If not, do you know of others in the organization who have?
  • Given the scope of this project, who else should I talk to?
  • Can you think of anyone who may be concerned about this initiative? (This question should be asked at all levels, as the perspective definitely varies between management and the trenches, and all viewpoints have merit.)

Again, close the meeting by thanking them for their time and letting them know you appreciate and value their input. Ask them if they would be open to have further conversations as the program moves along, and determine their level of interest in receiving regular communications on the progress of the program. The focus of this initial meeting is to get a list of names, but there is a lot more useful information to be gained through a mutual, ongoing positive business relationship. Along those lines, it is important in this initial meeting to make a statement of reciprocation. Any good business relationship goes both directions. Let them know that you are happy to help them in the future if they need it (and then back those promises up with action—always make time to help those who have helped you).

You now have an even longer list of names, and you get the drill by now; it is time for more coffee. Continue this process until you feel you have hit all the major players and key subject matter experts. As you have these conversations, it is likely that you will begin to hear the same names provided over and over. You need to take the time to get to know those individuals; they know the history, the potential roadblocks, the politics, and how to get things done. In many organizations these individuals really make or break the success of major programs. This informal network is your "hidden" organization chart. Although they may not be directly on the program team and may not have boxes and lines on your program team organization chart, they do have influence and valuable input and are an essential part of your extended team. As such, it may be beneficial to keep a registry of these subject matter experts (SMEs) to use as a reference to know who to pull into conversations as issues arise.

For a program that is relatively centralized, my primary method of establishing and growing my business network and ensuring that I have the right people involved from the beginning is to have in-person meetings. Meeting in person is the best way to grow those relationships and witness the dynamic of the team members. Given today's global and virtual environment, this is not always possible. You cannot have coffee over the phone, but you can still have a good discussion. If you cannot meet in person, a videoconference is the next best, followed by a conference call. It is least desirable to send out requests for names of potential stakeholders via e-mail, and it is difficult to gain all of the additional information that comes with having an actual conversation. When possible try to have at least one in-person meeting with all key stakeholders. Establishing that base relationship makes a major difference, and people are generally more cooperative when they have a face to put with that voice they hear over the phone all of the time. It all comes back around to the same concept: to be successful you must get out of your cubicle.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

This article is an excerpt from:

Strong stakeholder engagement is perhaps the most critical factor for achieving successful program execution in our fast-paced world. Many program managers get stuck in the "science" of program management, spending vast amounts of effort on tasks, charts, and metrics. Program managers who emphasize activities around relationship building and stakeholder engagement usually have the best chance for program success. This book focuses on how to engage your stakeholders in the right way, and keep them engaged throughout the course of your program.

The first section of the book covers stakeholder engagement in the program definition phase, including how to identify key stakeholders, gain their trust, and build relationships through effective communication. The second section moves to the project execution phase. It explains how to drive stakeholder engagement through the use of performance metrics, effective meeting management, and informal program governance.

In the last section, the author explains how to keep stakeholders engaged through the program closure phase. This section covers the operational readiness review, including transition plans, new process documentation and training, new technology rollout, and cultural readiness assessment. It also provides best practices and tips for holding the post-launch review and lessons learned session. The book concludes with a case study of a fictitious company, followed by discussion questions that allow you to apply the knowledge you have gained in this book.


About the Author

Amy M. Baugh is the president and founder of Milestones Project Management, Inc., providing strategic consulting services across portfolio, program, and project management. With over 15 years of practical program and project management experience across multiple industries, sectors, and geographies, Amy is a sought-after mentor and has recently begun expanding into formal mentoring, training, and education services related to program and project management. It is hard to write a bio about Amy without acknowledging her life outside of work—raising four boys. Keeping her family "stakeholders" engaged and in line with family goals is a challenging program in itself.

Amy is a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), and is certified by PMI as a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Program Management Professional (PgMP). Additionally, she holds a master of business administration with a concentration in change management from DePaul University, and a bachelor of business administration degree from Illinois Wesleyan University. Previous to writing this book, Amy published a chapter entitled "Closing the Expectations Gap: Setting and Managing Expectations" in Dr. Ginger Levin’s Program Management: A Lifecycle Approach.


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