The program team are stakeholders in their own right. You want them focussed, motivated and doing the right work. This much is obvious. It is a normal part of the role of a project or program manager. You also need to think about them in terms of stakeholder engagement. Your program team can be an asset and create risk towards achieving your stakeholder engagement goals.
The reasons for this stem from the simple fact that you are not the only door between the program and external stakeholders. Program team members have their own relationships with stakeholders.
Let’s start with the positives from this.
When you engage stakeholders you are trying to understand their perspectives. You want to try and leverage the support of supportive stakeholders and mitigate the actions of anyone who is opposed to the program. If you have an experienced program team, they will already have relationships with some of the stakeholder community. You may be able to leverage these.
When you perform you first stakeholder identification and assessment activities, ask the team about who they know and who they have good relationships with. See if you can use existing relationships to support your stakeholder management goals.
There is also a risk.
The risk is simply that the team may use their existing stakeholder relationships to spread different messages about the program than you are. There is little point in you painting a picture of the program if the team paints a contrasting one. The credibility of your picture will be undermined. If you have experienced a key stakeholder being given different and conflicting information by a program team member than by you, you will understand the problems this can cause.
A classic example of this is the situation where a senior stakeholder allocates members to the program team. These team members naturally have a much longer and stronger relationship with this stakeholder than with you or the program. When the stakeholder wants to know about the program – rather than ask you, they will ask the person they know well.
Team members each have their own view of the rights and wrongs of the program, what’s going well and what’s going badly. Misalignment, between what they communicate and what you are communicating, can have a disproportionate effect on the program and your credibility. The point is it’s not just anyone saying something contrary to you, it’s someone in your own team. This never comes across well. At best stakeholders become confused as to the truth. At worst they believe your team member’s contrasting view and your ability to influence them is seriously weakened.
What to do?
What can you do about this? I think there are two areas you should focus on. The first is concerned with trying to get the team aligned with the change, so they are not just working on the program, but actually believe in it. They will then act as part of your network of supporters, or to use the language often used by change management professionals – as part of your supporting coalition.
This may or may not work and will depend on the context, the nature of the change and your ability to put forward compelling reasons for them to support it. Hence I come to my second area to focus on. That is concerned with agreeing the principles for working together as a team. All teams have norms of behaviour – in a program team you sometimes need to make these explicit.
Start by educating the team about stakeholder management. They may have heard it all before, but it is worth emphasising the importance of stakeholders to success, the criticality of consistent messages and their roles in transmitting these messages. Then agree dos and don’ts with the program team up front – including who can talk to whom about what. This is not about creating some form of dictatorship, just trying to bring a degree of alignment that may not otherwise happen. It will also remove unintended, innocent by unhelpful comments being made about the program by team members.
In reality, sometimes conversations will happen that you wish had not. There is little point getting angry about this. Some of your team members will have strong historic relationships with people outside the team. So keep your door open to the program team for regular conversations and alignment. You want, at least, to be told when someone has a conversation about the program with an important stakeholder. Watch and listen to team behaviour and team communications, and take appropriate interventions when you can.
You are unlikely to build a program team who operate as a perfect unit with completely consistent messages. But you can reduce the damage a team can end up doing to its own cause. If you are lucky you will find a team who will significantly reduce your stakeholder management burden and whose existing relationships will facilitate strong, positive stakeholder engagement.
This material is based on an excerpt from my new book to be published in autumn 2014. The working title is Brilliant Managing Your Team Through Change.