Another kicking from stakeholders? Not when dispassionate and positive

“Well, we just got another kicking”. A group of us, representing technology, had just attended the regular programme board meeting with the business types. In the debrief afterwards the technology folk around me were despondent. In fact they were despondent every month after this meeting. They genuinely felt kicked. But I didn’t. I never did. It was almost like I experienced a completely different meeting to that experienced by my colleagues.

The context

Each month I got a big group (15 or so people) together to talk about issues related to the programme I was leading. The group more or less split along departmental lines:

  • Editorial: The executive sponsor, the editorial lead, and a sprinkling of representatives from other areas of News.
  • Technology: me (programme manager), the product manager, tech architect, head of the software development department, her boss, head of programme and project management within the department, chief technical architect.

These two groups were in different buildings and, for the meeting, I led the technology types over to the building where the editorial team were based.

The focus of the meeting was Risk and Issue Management and, being software development in an innovative space, there were lots of risks and issues. Gritty stuff on a programme with high visibility in the organisation and in the UK.

My technology colleagues genuinely felt kicked. It puzzled me then and it puzzles me now. From my perspective those meetings were a robust conversation about a programme we all cared about. I was leading the technology contingent in those meetings, so if anyone was getting kicked it would have been me. But I didn’t feel kicked. I didn’t even slightly rebuked. In fact I always came away quite positive. And I was right to be … the programme was a great success.

So what about me is different? What allowed me to walk away positive when my colleagues felt battered?

Remaining dispassionate

Because I obsess about Risk Management my programme boards focus on these things. We talked about risks and issues some of which were massive with huge implications – if they were to go wrong.

Some folk get het up about risks and issues. Just talking about them gets people agitated. Particularly business representatives who see their beloved product/service under threat. And in the context of this particular programme those representing the business were not shy and retiring types. They were mostly journalists. Senior journalists. Rough, tough, no nonsense types, impatient, accustomed to speaking their minds, and with a tendency to shout to get things done faster. Swearing was allowed – despite wearing suits.

In contrast the technology types were more mild mannered and measured. However, they also got het up about the risks and issues we were talking about. The difference from the journalists is that my technology colleagues felt to blame, in some way, for what was happening on the programme. They felt to blame for the risks and issues. So when the shouting started they took it to heart – took it personally.

Now I’m unafraid of risks and issues. I obsess about them – it is my job. But to me they are just data to talk about – it isn’t personal. Interesting, yes. Challenging, yes. Impossible, sometimes. Personal, no. The risks and issues are not my fault. They just are, and my job is to reduce their impact.

This view allows me to remain dispassionate. And being dispassionate enables me to stay calm. Despite the shouting around me.

Being positive

Now you might think that somebody who obsesses about Risks and Issues might be a glass half empty kind of guy. But in my case it isn’t true. I assume success. Some things – risks and issues – make it harder but I know I’m going to succeed despite them. This positive view helps at crunchy times.

So when I was looking at a crowd of folk getting agitated about the risks and issues on my programme, all I could think was “Wow, these people care. That’s great, we’re going to succeed.” I did see people shouting but I didn’t see people shouting at me. Shouting didn’t imply they thought my team were useless (the interpretation my technical colleagues made), or that I was useless. Shouting was they way they showed they cared. A lot. That observation was quite energising for me.

Mental outlook has a huge bearing on how you interact with the stakeholders. If you find yourself in a conflict situation with programme/project stakeholders, then I recommend you take a step back. You might find you’re having a shouting match with an ally. Make them an ally and you’ll succeed. Stay shouting and you’ll fail.