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Your Initiative: What Conversation is NOT being had?

Do People Need to ‘Get the finger out’?

‘Another conversation!’ said the project leader with raised eyebrows.  ‘We are having conversations every day about this project – we talk about nothing else!’ he added. 

‘What this initiative needs…’ continued the project leader ‘…is for those people who have been assigned to the project to get their finger out and commit time to actually doing the work’.  Without pausing to take a breath the committed project leader continued: ‘The project also needs senior management to put its shoulder to the wheel, demonstrating its commitment to the project and backing that up with the allocation of time and resources’.

Is there anybody ‘Sitting on the fence’?

‘I don’t think another conversation is going to help’ concluded the leader in a tone of frustration.

‘I understand’ said the experienced coach in an empathetic tone.  ‘But, I am not recommending another conversation, but rather a strategic conversation’. 

‘Let me explain…’ continued the coach.  ‘I suspect that there is a conversation that is not being had in respect of this project – a strategic conversation. In the absence of such a conversation people are sitting on the fence, not quite ready or able to commit’ she explained.

A Different Type of Conversation

‘Yes, I’m sure there are lots of conversations happening every day about the project – lots of emails and instant messages too, but I bet you that most of that focuses on the day to day (action items, schedules and so on). I bet these conversations are dominated by what is urgent and what needs to be done, while the big questions and the bigger picture don’t get addressed.

How do you know if there is a conversation that is not being had?

  • People are standing on the sidelines unwilling or unable to commit
  • Words and deeds are not matching, and a particular resources are not following commitments
  • People nod in agreement, but nothing seems to be happening
  • There is a lack of alignment, people are pulling in different directions
  • More and more time has been spent on managing internal noise & interference
  • There is a cosy consensus that conversation is too polite- nobody appears to be willing to speak up or speak out
  • A few people do all the talking
  • You feel the people are saying what you want to hear.

 Pause for a moment: How many, if any, of these factors apply to your project or initiative.

Why Strategic Conversations Don’t Happen

Most conversations focus on the ‘How’ of the project – it is assumed that the ‘Why’ is clear to everybody concerned.  This is a very dangerous assumption, and it proves to be wrong time and time again. Yet, it is so prevalent that it has its own name – Project Myopia – where projects lose sight of business needs.

There are many reasons why strategic conversations don’t happen in respect of critical projects.

  • People are very busy, especially C-suite executives. Besides, senior management often devises the strategy and passes implementation to others.
  • Sometimes, it is easier (and safer) to leave things ‘loose’ – the conversation, if had, might not go the way that the project leader wants.
  • Forcing the issue in respect of these strategic topics – from business need to business impact – could backfire. This is particularly true where managing stakeholder expectations proves difficult.  For example, suddenly the projected results are deemed insufficient or the numbers unreliable.
  • Maybe it’s not safe for people to have the conversation – it is easier to just ‘go with the flow’.   Maybe those leading the project feel they need to have the answers and that asking questions which show weakness.
  • There is nobody to facilitate such ‘strategic’ conversations – without a committed executive sponsor, the project leader may not feel comfortable operating in this space.

Ready for a Strategic Conversation?

What do you need to have a strategic conversation?  Well, perhaps the topics or key questions is all your need. With this in mind, we have created a tool to help project leaders and sponsors to engage key stakeholders in a strategic conversation regarding their initiative. Called the Project Chassis it illuminates 9 strategic aspects of a project – those factors that make a project strategic and link it to the strategy or vision for the business. 

When people don’t ‘take their finger out’ or don’t ‘put their shoulder behind the wheel’ it is often because the link between the project and the needs or priorities of the business are not clear.  There is confusion or ambiguity regarding the business need, business impact, business urgency, business investment and so on. Any ambiguity or misalignment requires a conversation on these issues – that is a strategic conversation. 

Chassis conversations are strategic conversations they engage the C-suite and connect project success to business success, the project plan to the business strategy and the project team to the executive suite.

A Strategic Conversation is not a Presentation!

Note this is a conversation rather than a presentation, or a pitch.  Rather than starting with statements such as: ‘Here is the business need that this project addresses…’ or ‘Here is the business impact this project is likely to have…’ a strategic conversation starts by asking questions such as: ‘What do you see as the principal need addressed by this project/initiative?’ or ‘What impact do you believe this project can have on the business?’. 

Replacing statements with questions takes courage as well as curiosity.  However, it turns up the level of engagement as well as the level of challenge in the conversation.  The conversation then becomes a revealing test of the level of engagement, commitment, and vision of those involved. 

How do you know if there is anybody ‘sitting on the fence’. Well, it is by asking questions such as:

  • How clear and compelling are the goals of the project/initiative?
  • Is this initiative a top 3 priority for the organization at this time?
  • Specifically, what people and resources have been allocated and are going to be allocated to the project?
  • Whose budget will the resources come from? What trade-offs / sacrifices will be required? 
  • What (if anything) is preventing people from ‘going all-in’ with respect to this project?  
  • When are the people assigned to the project going able to commit wholeheartedly to it, putting it ahead of their other tasks and priorities? 
  • What is the minimum level of commitment time-wise likely to be?  How to ring-fence or protect this commitment?
  • What is the level of alignment in respect of this initiative?  What conflicts or tensions may arise in working on this project?
  • When are department heads going to free people up so that they can work on the project? Where necessary:
    • Taking them off other projects or initiatives to make it happen?
    • Putting the project ahead of operational priorities and short-term targets?

If you, your team or any of your stakeholders struggle to answer these questions, then there is a ‘strategic conversation’ that needs to be had.

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