Stakeholder alignment is a vital part of any program. So important that failing to properly bring your stakeholders together in a shared vision can have detrimental effects on your project. This fact becomes truer the larger your organization is, as that often means more people involved and more people with decision-making power. Our goal in this whitepaper is to build on your understanding of what stakeholder alignment is and to better understand its key benefits. From there, we’ll look at how to best begin the process of alignment in your own organization and projects.
You can think of it as an initiative within an initiative. A way to ensure that the program moves toward a clear and agreed-upon objective.
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What is Stakeholder Alignment and Why It’s Important
At a high level, stakeholder alignment and management brings together a group of stakeholders to reach an agreed conclusion. More strategically, it’s the process of committing to the alignment of the goals that the business finds valuable—be it value to the end-customer or an internal stakeholder audience. You can think of it as an initiative within an initiative—a way to ensure that the program moves toward a clear and agreed-upon objective. Many methods can and should be considered to achieve success. Still, the first step is to understand the value of a thorough alignment so that you can easily articulate how it benefits the organization.
Why It’s Important
As we mentioned above, getting all the involved parties on the same page is vital for the success of a project. In practice, the benefits of stakeholder alignment look like:
Reduced churn: Move from what ‘could be’ to what ‘will be’ due to an anchoring effect during the alignment process.
Increased collaboration: Create more informed decisions, plans, and outcomes by formalizing the process of bringing stakeholders together and, in turn, raising expectations since others are involved.
Recalibrated misalignments: Expose gaps in alignment, expectations, or other stakeholder needs through a formal process that can be re-used, iterated, and reported on.
Accelerated momentum: Get teams moving in the same direction faster by reducing or preventing false starts that arise from siloes at all levels.
When is the Best Time for an Alignment Exercise?
In short, anytime is the best time. While some projects can advance reasonably well without a dedicated alignment exercise, every project will benefit from it. That being said, there are several situations where taking a dedicated look at your team and goals is more valuable. Early recognition of these situations is necessary for a successful alignment and to prevent unproductive work.
Below are some of the more common situations that highlight the need for better stakeholder alignment. The goal of these is to increase your ability to immediately recognize a situation and propose an immediate solution to the very tricky problem that is stakeholder alignment.
Only some stakeholders have clarity
A facilitated exchange is necessary for this situation because details aren’t transferred or don’t exist. An introductory workshop or series of working sessions to share information are often all that’s needed to bring along a critical audience or team.
Example: One stakeholder spent valuable time thinking through the plan for a specific team while the team was working on something else.
Stakeholders are both confident and ambiguous
This paradox runs rampant in situations that are low on reliable information or detail. Defining what confidence in a plan, work, or topic looks like in detail is critical to clarifying the ambiguity gap.
Example: A stakeholder says, “we have already planned that,” but never reveals the plan, and upon later inspection, the plan doesn’t have the necessary detail to be executed as planned.
Arbitrary rules that lead to anti-collaboration patterns
When rules are created by groups not directly involved in the work, those directly affected are left out and not empowered to collaborate due to these rules. This can happen at the department, capability, team, or most frequently, individual level. The most significant impact here is that a business removes effective, proven tools and methods to deliver value.
Example: Instructing employees to only participate in meetings that are thirty minutes or less regardless of the goal, approach, or need.
Conflicting directions for what’s ahead
This situation is quite common. It signals that there may be too many leaders creating a plan without anyone to help the plan remain realistic. Without realizing it, a faraway stakeholder could potentially determine the project’s path from their silo to the detriment of the team’s goals.
Example: Multiple stakeholders each decide their priorities but do not come together on a single conclusion or priority.
Repeat failures of the same initiative
Sometimes a program or initiative will fail repeatedly. An alignment process with past, current, and future stakeholders can reset the initiative on the right footing. Often the failures are attributed to breakdowns in communication from one owner and their team to the next. Alignment methods can curb this or prevent it with the proper involvement.
Example: A technology initiative never gets to the delivery phase because it’s halted by the business for misaligned goals, although the company isn’t participating in goal-setting exercises at the outset of the initiative because ownership has changed.
Change outpaces the possibility of progress
That’s probably worth reading a few times to grasp fully. Often the pace of change (ex. directional churn, strategic spinning, and endless plan revisions) removes a team’s ability to make meaningful progress before an adverse conclusion is made and the change cycle happens all over again. Alignment methods and processes should be used as a preventative treatment. Focus on those responsible for the change and bring in those affected before committing to the next, potentially endless, change.
Example: Roadmaps are changed at a faster pace than the ability to get on the technology specialist’s calendar, so you stop inviting them, putting the roadmap further at risk.
Stakeholder Alignment Blueprint
From stakeholder management to facilitation skills, consider these ingredients each time an alignment process is needed and use them to plan accordingly.
- Recruit a team representative across relevant functions
- Secure the proper forum for the duration of the effort
- Pre-plan individual and group work time
- Outline and communicate expectations (roles, input)
- Tailor the approach to the specific challenge
- Give participants a tour of the process
- Invite and prepare to weather criticism—plan for a retro
- Implement a rigorous plan for communicating progress and expectations
- Involve and outline the sponsor’s role (support)
- Schedule more time than you think you need
- Constantly ground stakeholders in reality
- Get a third party to facilitate so you can participate
- Smaller is better when coming together—break it up when you can
- Facilitate, but don’t dictate
- Balance being firm, flexible, and inquisitive
- Prepare to pivot—it happens in each session
- Implement a regular cadence of reporting on alignment—quarterly is most common
A Case Study in Success
Recent success with a Mobile App capability team at a large west coast bank provides a shining example of how we accomplished stakeholder alignment. Before this alignment, teams reported conflicting direction, competing priorities, and lack of agreement on the highest value priorities to deliver to customers. Once we completed the effort, the entire team, from directors to the delivery squad, walked away with a clear understanding of their future work.
With this success, the organization benefitted from the following: reduction in churn due to competing strategies, broken down silos, reduction in risk from opinion-based decisions, and an agreed-upon single list of priorities based on the shared agreement of what value customers needed most and could be delivered based on current constraints. Ultimately these benefits combined to create more significant momentum towards doing work the right way and clearing repeated blockers before they took root again.
In short, once the right individuals and teams were engaged correctly and set up for success, we could get everyone on the same page in a relatively short time and productive manner. To help future teams benefit from this success, projekt202 created a process template that can be reused. For example, this template aided the same bank’s HR team in prioritizing and aligning on their roadmaps, repeating the success we had on the mobile app effort.