6 Ways to Get Key Stakeholders Aligned So They Don’t Derail Your Project

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

You’re making great progress on your project when an executive steps in and says, “Wait, why are we doing this? You can’t proceed until I approve everything.” Screeeech. And there goes your momentum.

While you can’t predict all the things that could slow down or even stop your project, you can avoid a lot of surprises if you’re transparent and proactive in getting the right people aligned from the beginning.

1. Cast a wide net to identify the people who have a direct influence on the success of your project (your key stakeholders).

Say your boss hands you a project, and you talk through what needs to happen and by when. You may feel ready to start. But don’t underestimate the number of other people with strong views about — and influence over — your project. For example, if you’re coordinating a customer appreciation event, your project might impact the top priorities of leaders in the sales, marketing, customer support, finance, and operations departments.

To determine the key stakeholders for your project, list all of the people who could:

  • Stop your project. These stakeholders provide or withhold approval and budget. Your project cannot happen without their say-so.
  • Significantly speed up or slow down your project. Some stakeholders may provide assistance because your project benefits them. Others might delay or withhold resources because your project could cause challenges for them. You’ll need both groups on your side.

Review your list to make sure each person is truly key to the success of your project. While you don’t want to leave important people out, you also don’t want to involve so many that you get bogged down trying to wrangle them.

2. Ask each key stakeholder about their expectations for your project.

You have an image in your mind of what your project is supposed to achieve and how it’s supposed to go — but what about the image in your key stakeholders’ minds? If you ask six leaders about their expectations for a major project, you could get six different answers. So, it’s up to you to clarify up front what matters to people to avoid painful missed expectations later.

Key stakeholders are often high-level leaders who are working fast and may not have thought through exactly what they want. Guide them to the information you need by using a “question funnel” — starting with open-ended general questions; followed by detailed questions to get specifics; and then yes-or-no confirming questions to ensure you understand. For example:

a) Open-ended questions:

  • “From your perspective, what’s the main objective of the customer appreciation event?”
  • “What do you want this event to accomplish?”
  • “In your mind, what does success look like?”

b) Detailed follow-ups:

  • “You said that you want the event to be ‘better than last year’ — specifically what would that look like?”
  • “How well are we doing the event now — and how much improvement would you like to see as a result of this project?”
  • “What should be excluded from this project?”

c) Confirming questions:

  • “So, you’d like this event to increase repeat-customer revenue by 15 percent — do I have that right?”
  • “You’d like to limit the invite list to local customers only?”
  • “You want this event to earn enough to justify what we spend on it. Is that correct?”

If you have high-level stakeholders you are nervous to approach, start with one stakeholder you know supports your project to boost your confidence. Clarify when you ask for their time that you’re focused on their interests (e.g., “I’m coordinating this year’s client appreciation event. I want to be sure I understand what matters most to you, so we can make the event the best it can be”).

3. Address misalignment among key stakeholders on what your project should achieve.

Your head of sales wants to invite only local customers to your appreciation event, while the head of marketing thinks only top-spending customers should attend. Meanwhile, the finance lead thinks the event is too expensive and wants to cut it altogether. Now what?

While you probably can’t change people’s agendas, you can be clear about misalignments — so the project or people’s expectations can adjust. Depending on your situation, you could:

  • Let leaders know where they disagree and ask them to sort it out. For example, you could approach sales with, “You and Shaylene in marketing have different ideas about who should attend the event. She’d like to focus on top-spending customers. Could you two connect and let me know your decisions?”
  • Discuss with the person who assigned the project how to adjust it to address important concerns. For example, since the finance lead could withhold budget, you might say, “Cedric in finance is not convinced that the event is worth the money. Could we talk through some ideas for how to change the project scope so we can justify the full cost or find ways to reduce the cost?”
  • Clarify with the person who assigned the project and relevant stakeholders what your project will not do. For example, maybe the customer support lead wants to invest in fancy gifts for attendees. But you and other decision-makers decide not to, since it’s important for the event to show return on investment. Instead, you choose to give attendees a discount if they buy a new product. To close the loop, you would need to go back to the customer support lead and explain the decision.

4. Write out your project scope and ask key stakeholders to approve it.

After you’ve addressed misalignment among key stakeholders, you’ll hopefully feel more confident that you understand what your project needs to accomplish. To be sure that everyone else is confident, too — especially if project details shifted due to your stakeholder conversations — have key stakeholders review your project scope and sign off on it.

When writing your scope, include:

  • The refined purpose of your project
  • How you will measure the project’s success
  • What’s outside the scope of the project — specifically what you won’t do
  • Resources and constraints like time, materials, and budget
  • How you will communicate about the project and how often

Share your written scope with key stakeholders and ask them to respond with comments and/or approval. Not only does this record give you a green light on your project but also a paper trail to refer to and use to remind key stakeholders what they agreed to if they raise issues down the road.

5. Stick to a regular cadence of project updates.

You might think, I have stakeholder approvals — so I don’t need to bother them again. But communicating at regular intervals will keep your project top of mind for key stakeholders, reinforcing their initial commitment, reminding them of the project’s scope, and showing that you know their continued support and involvement are important.

Include in your updates:

  • A reminder of the project’s purpose and value
  • Progress on the project
  • What should happen next
  • An opportunity for them to give input (in case needs or priorities have changed for them)

And consider inviting key stakeholders to celebrate major project milestones with the project team. Involving them in your successes could turn an indifferent stakeholder into an enthusiastic fan.

6. Be prepared to realign with stakeholders when your project changes.

Even if you’ve done all the work to get and keep stakeholders aligned, guess what? Life happens — like global events, a market shift, a change in company strategy, or new information that means your original project plan won’t work like you had hoped. Your project will need to change in response. When this happens, it’s just as important to realign with key stakeholders as it was to get them on board at the start of your project.

Depending on the situation, reach out to stakeholders individually, call a meeting, or use a regular project update to:

  • Explain why the change is happening.
  • Describe what they can expect that’s new.
  • Ask for their feedback and/or approval.

Be ready to negotiate details — timeline, budget, or additional scope changes — to regain alignment. If the change causes significant new disagreements among stakeholders, see the options in No. 3 to address them.