Author: Christine Petersen, PMP

When I ask participants in my workshops what the most important reason for failure or success in a project is, most people tell me that it’s all about their five constraints: time, budget, scope, resources and risks. 

Now once we started to analyze the root cause of the success or failure of their project, it was not directly how the five constraints were managed but how they managed their stakeholders’ – and most importantly, their KEY stakeholders’ expectations around these five constraints that made the difference. Project Managers did not identify or understand the key stakeholders in the first place, or the stakeholders did not take their responsibilities seriously.

So what is the difference? Can’t we just say that once we have defined our scope, time, costs, resources and risks, and made sure that these are then managed and kept under control, then the outcome will be a successful project?

Well, it is not that easy. Each of the five constraints need to be agreed upon by the key stakeholders at the start of the project. And once agreed upon – not easy to do – then they need to be managed throughout the project, in order to deliver what was expected.

And this is why I believe that rather than say that the critical success factor of a project is managing the five constraints, I prefer to say that the main route to project success is managing the expectations surrounding these constraints.

When we say we are managing projects, we are mainly managing people, in all their complexity. Their needs, wants, dreams, desires, pasts and futures. Their alliances, politics and goals. In summary: their expectations. And the goal is to find ways to manage our stakeholders’ expectations realistically.

So, how do we start? The first step is to analyse our stakeholders and manage the narrative. Decide who is a stakeholder, and most importantly, who is a KEY stakeholder – those people who can make or break the project. Understand these stakeholders, their concerns, constraints, requirements, expected benefits/disbenefits. Integrate their requirements, expectations and constraints in your plan, and make sure that the expectations that people have about the project can be realistically delivered. 

Start as early as possible by communicating out what the vision for the project is, what are the goals, and the realistic boundaries of what we can achieve. If we let others define these for us, then we are already too late. People already have their own ideas that are then harder to change.

Once we have decided on who will be involved as well as the main vision, goals and boundaries (our “Charter”), then the third step is to spend time with each of our key stakeholders, understanding their point of view, their needs, wants and goals, and making sure that these are aligned with the realities of our project. This takes time. Time well invested in building relationships; creating energy around the project; ensuring common goals and how to achieve these; and clarifying roles and responsibilities.

This builds the foundation for the rest of the project. It helps us create dialogue, remain in contact with all our stakeholders, keeps them aligned with the project as it unfurls, and ensures that the results of the project are accepted. You ensure that you can keep close to them as their expectations change or your plan changes.

Many Project Managers tell me that it takes too much time, that they are told to “just do it” and get the project done (which usually means skip the planning and get straight to the execution phase of the project). But can they really afford to skip the planning and ignore the people who can make or break the project? 

The last step is to keep communicating with your stakeholders throughout the project by continuously managing their expectations. I sometimes see projects fail because the stakeholders are not kept in the loop as the project progresses, they feel out of touch and sidelined, and feel that they are not heard. This will inevitably cause resistance and feelings of distrust, and finally, these stakeholders will stop cooperating, and start actively or passively sabotaging the results of the project. The Project Manager will wonder why the results of the project were not accepted and why they “failed” when the real reason was lack of communication and listening.

In summary, the five steps are: Define your stakeholders, manage the narrative, align the narrative to their expectations, create a dialogue and keep communicating. Each step is a brick in the road to success. So take the time you need, and keep communicating.