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Project Narrative: What are people saying about your initiative?

Leaders need to be a tuned to and shape what people are saying, especially key stakeholders, customers and those at the front line. After all, there is no point setting out daring plans or doing great work if people don’t know about it.

Why does the narrative matter?

The narrative surrounding a strategy or initiative needs to be managed, just like any other aspect such as risk or resources.

Levels of support, cross-functional collaboration and access to resources are likely to be shaped by the dominant sentiment or narrative around your initiative.  Similarly, the ability of your initiative to engage the best talent.

Failure to manage the narrative around a strategy or initiative can have serious implications. With this in mind there are 3 questions to consider:

  • Are people talking about your initiative?
  • What are people saying about your initiative?
  • What do you want people to be saying?

Let’s explore the narrative around your strategy or initiative, addressing each of these questions in turn.

Are people talking about your initiative?

Strategies and initiatives have different profiles within the organization. Some are in the spotlight and others are happening in the shadows.  

Sometimes it makes sense to shield projects from attention, giving them a chance to get up and running and to demonstrate their potential before they are subject to prying eyes. This is particularly true for initiatives that are tentative, experimental or commercially sensitive. The term ‘skunk work’ is apt here1 

In the Shadows?
Some strategies and initiatives may struggle if they are deprived of attention. They may be at a disadvantage when accessing power and resources, as well as in attracting the best talent. Importantly, they run the risk of becoming insulated from what is going on in the rest of the organization and outside world. When this happens a project team can quickly lose touch with business needs and market reality. It can start to ‘believe its own PR’ becoming slave to groupthink and impervious to external ideas or divergent thinking. It also can fail to see the connections with other strategies and initiatives and how it fits within the bigger picture.

Initiatives can enter the spotlight at any time, when attention is drawn to an initiative either deliberately (e.g. a publicity drive) or accidentally (e.g. something happens that gets people talking). Ideally, how much attention an initiative gets and when it gets that attention, should be determined by those leading a strategy or initiative. They must aim to keep pace with and indeed stay ahead of the narrative regarding their strategies and initiatives.

‘This initiative was talked about at the Board last week’ the VP told the Product Development Team. The response was a mixture of pride and anxiety. Pride that the initiative was getting the attention that it deserved, but anxiety that this new-found attention would add to the pressure on the team.

‘More eyes on the project is both a positive and a negative’ explained the team leader. ‘It should mean greater access to power and resources, but it is probably going to add to the level of scrutiny we are under and the pressure to deliver results’ she added.

There is only one thing worse than being talked about, it is not being talked about2. Pause for a moment to consider: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is in the shadows and 10 is in the spotlight, where is your initiative today? Where do you want it to be in 3 or 6 months time?

Q.2: What are people saying about your initiative?

As leaders, we need to be aware of the narrative around our strategies & initiatives. So, what is the ‘word on the street’ regarding your strategy or initiative? 

Ask different people on your team to share their perspectives on what is being said about the strategy or initiative. Then combine the answers to provide an insight to the project narrative at this time. Explore the narrative using the following questions:

Is the Narrative True or False?

You have uncovered the narrative around your strategy or initiative.  Next, reflect on whether that narrative is:

(a) True or not. For example: How would you rate it on a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 is absolutely true, and 1 is absolutely false?

(b) Positive or negative.  For example: How would you rate it on a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 is very positive, and 1 is very false?

Too many leaders or sponsors only want to hear good news and positivity. They quickly get frustrated with anybody who isn’t as ‘gun-ho’ as they are. The result is that people only tell them what they want to hear. For this reason you may need to work hard at finding out what people are really thinking.

Negative or fear-based messages tend to spread faster. Moreover, they tend to have a more powerful impact, with the fear of loss may be a more powerful motivator than the prospect of gain. Don’t run or get defensive about a negative narrative, engage with it openly and fully. You don’t want them whispering in the hallways, so engage with the cynics and the weary, seeking to understand their concerns. 

Here are some tips for listening to a narrative you may not want to hear:

  • Don’t react. Don’t take it personally. Be curious – go deeper and seek a fuller understanding. Keep an open mind! 
  • Treat them equally – rumors, misunderstandings, genuine anxieties, idle gossip, internal politics and hidden agendas. Engage openly with them all.

Is it Sentiment or Reality?

Remember the narrative surrounding a strategy or initiative is about sentiment as much as reality. So, don’t get caught up in whether what is being said is true or not true. You need to attend to the dominant narrative regardless of whether you perceive it to be – true or false, fair or unfair.

In a world driven by numbers and facts, you may be thinking there is little room for sentiment. Take care, however. Sentiment is as important as reality, moreover sentiment can shape reality or at least perceptions of reality.

Strategies and initiatives are a matter of both the head and the heart. There is the logic or the rationale behind a strategy or initiative, as well as all the facts, and then there are the hopes, fears and other emotions that arise. The latter is where sentiment comes in.

Is the Narrative Muddled or Clear?

The first assumption we often make is that people know or care about our initiative. This is the first issue to explore. So, ask people how much they care and why. For example, is it one of the top 3 or 5 priorities? To what extent do they see the initiative as impacting on them.

Next, explore how much people know about the initiative. It sounds obvious but with so many initiatives going on people may have a muddled view of what the initiative is.

With a total of 57 projects underway within the business unit and up to a dozen more in the pipeline, the picture was a confused one. It may not be clear to many people where one initiative ends and another begins. Conversations about an initiative often strayed into talking about initiatives that were separate and distinct. As one executive warned: ‘When you ask them about your initiative you want to make sure that they are talking about the right thing’.

Esoteric project names can add to the confusion.  For example, when people say names such as ‘Project Mercury’ or ‘the digital transformation initiative’ what do people think?  A project’s clever name may make lots of sense to the project team but mean little to others.  So, it is a good idea to check how people refer to the initiative, what they use as it’s name and what its vision and scope is.

How confident are you in knowing the narrative?

Based on this exercise, how confident are you that you know what people are really saying? Imagine your answer on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not confident at all and 10 being super confident.

Let’s explore how well you know the narrative regarding your strategy or initiative in more detail. How well do you feel you can answer the following questions:

  • How much do people know or care about the initiative?
  • What do people see as the goal of the initiative?
  • What is it that generates the most attention?
  • How do people feel it will impact them (e.g. positively or negatively)?
  • What is the sentiment regarding the strategy or initiative? What emotions does it give rise to?
  • What are people’s hopes or expectations regarding the initiative?
  • What questions are people asking? 
  • Are there any fears or concerns being raised?
  • What level of understanding do people have of the initiative?

The above is a useful list to use in exploring the narrative regarding your strategy or initiative. For example, as a checklist of questions for a focus group with stakeholders and others.3

Q3: What do you want people to be saying?

Is the narrative what you need or want it to be? Does the narrative reflect the importance of your strategy or initiative and its goals. Here take a page and write what you want people to be saying.

An obvious starting point is to identify any gap between narrative and reality. So, are there any areas where the narrative around your initiative diverges from reality? Answering this question will point to gaps in understanding as well as any factual inaccuracies that need to be corrected.

What are the Implications?

Pause for a moment to consider your strategy or initiative in the context of the 3 questions:

  • Are people talking about your initiative?
  • What are people saying about your initiative?
  • What do you want people to be saying?

Having answered these questions what are the implications? In particular, how will you ensure that you stay ahead of the narrative for your strategy or initiative? With this in mind, here are some factors to consider:

Allocating Responsibility

  • Who is responsible for shaping the narrative? Like any other KSF or risk, tracking and managing the narrative needs an owner and a plan of activity. Ideally, there should be a sub-group of the project team who focuses on this issue. This is likely important enough to require the leader stays close.
  • The full project team should be enlisted in listening to and shaping the narrative. In particular, the project team should be on the one pagewith all members communicating a clear and consistent message regarding the project.

The Objective

  • Remember the challenge is to engage, not just to communicate. Conversations and listening are a key part of the process.
  • Ongoing communication regarding your initiative is key. Communicating when there is a problem is often too late.

Communication Methods

  • The best results are typically achieved by combining a number of different modes of communication (e.g. email updates, project web page/forum, short TikTok style videos of team members and stakeholders talking about aspects of the project, etc.).
  • It is not just about communicating facts. Telling stories is one of the most powerful ways to share information. For example, people sharing their hopes for the initiative, their fears too.

The Audience

  • For every initiative there will be winners and losers. Then there will be those for whom the impact will be neutral. So, break your audience into these 3 groups and adapt your communications accordingly.
  • Pay particular attention to opinion leaders and senior executives engaging with them directly around their hopes and fears regarding the strategy or initiative.  It is there a voice that can we shape the narrative.
  • For every initiative there will be winners and losers. Then there will be those for whom the impact will be neutral.

The Message

  • Be open and honest about obstacles and challenges that are being faced. You don’t need to have all the answers – engage people in finding solutions. Tell the story of how the team is tackling challenges and some of its recent victories.
  • Actions speak louder than words and results speak the loudest of all. So, ensure you communicate any progress that has been made. Quick wins and early proof points can be particularly important.
  • While it is important to communicate business impact, it is also necessary to address the people impact of your strategy or initiative.
  • Keep people focused on the ambition or vision for the strategy or initiative of what it can achieve and the benefits that will arrive for the organization and it’s stakeholders.

The Blindspot

  • It is important to avoid over-hyping projects. Leaders in organizations have learned to be cautious and cynical regarding new strategies and initiatives and their promises.
  • Embrace the cynics. Once we saw cynicism as something negative, preferring to engage with those who dreamed big and saw few obstacles. Today, we value the corporate cynic, seeing cynicism as a potentially powerful input to the process of de risking strategic initiatives. 
  • Beware of confirmation bias – that is the tendency to hear only what we already believe to be true and to disregard the rest. Project teams can easily fall victim to group think. They start to believe their own PR.
  1. See Skunk Work defined here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skunk_Works. []
  2. That is, of course, is to paraphrase Oscar Wilde []
  3. A focus group is a group (typically 4-10 people) brought together in a relaxed environment to gather their views via a free flowing discussion facilitated using an ‘issues list’ or set of questions such as that shown here. []

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