Do You Carry All the Responsibility With None of the Power?

Paul Boag

It is appalling how many are responsible for digital projects without the power or tools to do the job. If that is you, do not despair. There is hope!

I work with a lot of organisations, and I come across the same scenario again and again. I see digital leads and project managers asked to deliver projects without support.

Take for example one of the digital team leads I am currently mentoring. He has to deliver a new website for his organisation and yet has none of the following:

  • Control over his own budget.
  • The ability to determine delivery dates.
  • The authority to make strategic decisions.
  • A clear direction from management over what success will look like.
  • Support from a senior executive in making decisions and determining priorities.

In essence, management expect him to deliver a new site with no authority, people or money. All to a schedule he did not agree.

He is in a seemingly impossible situation, and he is far from alone. I see different versions of this scenario played out in many organisations. What then should he do? What can I suggest?

Well, one option is to refuse to play the game. To explain that the rules are unfair and refuse to proceed until management change them.

Of course, that is easy for me to say as an outside consultant. Effectively telling your employer that they are being unreasonable is much harder.

Presenting the facts to management does not guarantee some kind of revelation. Digital is complicated and often well outside their comfort zone. Instead of admitting that and listening to advice, many managers bury their heads in the sand. They try to push on regardless through force of will.

That leaves the approach I am taking with my mentee. It consists of three actions.

Action 1: Take Control

If management is unwilling or unable to define the project and its deliverables, then it falls to you to do that. What is more, you cannot suggest an approach and then wait for permission. The chances are that will never come.

If management is being vague on details, it means they are out of their depth and scared of things going wrong. They are trying to distance themselves from the project on at least some level.

That being the case, you need to take control. You need to make the decisions that need making without waiting for approval. You need to presume support unless told otherwise.

Action 2: Communicate Often

The danger of making decisions is that management will blame you if they are unhappy. That is where clear and regular communication becomes critical.

By attempting to communicate with stakeholders you protect yourself against later criticism. You also have a chance to engage with people and provide them an opportunity to express their opinions.

When communicating with stakeholders, it is important to document three things:

  • Intended Actions. Always let stakeholders know what you are intending to do next before you do it. Don’t wait for their approval, but do give them a small window to speak up if they are unhappy.
  • Decisions. Make sure stakeholders understand any decisions you have taken and why you took them. If they disagree with those decisions, they can respond. Otherwise you should presume their support.
  • Assumptions. Every project has assumptions about audiences, business priorities and many other factors. Instead of asking stakeholders to decide, present the assumptions you are working under. They can always correct you if they are unhappy.

By communicating with stakeholders in this way, you create momentum. That prevents decision making slowing the process down. You are saying “this is what I am going to do, stop me if you disagree”. It then puts the burden on the stakeholders to speak up and stop you. That is easier to manage than having to extract decisions from people.

But, as you communicate with stakeholders, communicate any potential risks often and early.

Action 3: Document Risks

Sometimes there are constraints in place on a project that make failure likely. For example, my client is being asked to create a website without any internal staff to write content. He also has no budget to outsource the job (even if it was possible to do so).

He cannot change that constraint and neither can he work around it. All he can do is continue with other parts of the project and communicate that risk often to management.

When the project stalls for lack of content he can reference his earlier feedback. He will get to say he told them so!

It is important to note that documenting risk isn’t only about flagging a problem. You also need to show the consequences of that risk. You must also propose a pragmatic solution that gives stakeholders real options.

For example, my client has pointed out that without more content editors he will have to use the in-house team. But they will only be able to work on the site once they have dealt with business as usual.

He estimates that to create a 500-page new site that way would take months. Their current site has tens of thousands of pages. That means the website will either take years, or large swathes of content will have to go.

We then go on to suggest four possible solutions. That makes management feels they have a choice and that we are not forcing anything on them. Either they can:

  • Accept that the delivery of the new website will take a long time.
  • Reduce the size of the website to something more manageable.
  • Find more funding to hire content editors.
  • Suspend business as usual work to allow the in-house team to focus on the new website.

That kind of approach makes the risk clear. But it also gives management options about how they can choose to handle that risk.

Don’t Turn Management Into the Enemy

Without a doubt the position many people find themselves in is unacceptable. Yet, it is important to note that it isn’t usually done maliciously.

In most cases, management does not understand how to run a digital project. They don't even know what a project of that nature should deliver and cost. They are out of their depth.

At the same time, they are also expected to keep costs low and push for efficiencies. They are not going to blindly accept every request for more resources, time and authority. It falls to us to prove that we need it which can feel like a tiring battle.

But, please do not give up. You don’t need to let your project grind to a halt, crushed by organisational resistance. You can make things happen if you take control and communicate as you go.

Stock Photos from Mascha Tace/Shutterstock

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