You finally did it. You figured out the real business problem your project is meant to solve, and identified a solution that is far superior than the originally proposed. Now you just need to get buy-in from the project sponsor so the delivery team can alter their plans and set out to build the higher-value solution you devised. But there is one problem: the project sponsor was deeply involved in identifying the original solution and nurturing it. It’s his baby… and if you say it needs to be overhauled, you are basically saying his baby is ugly. Now what? How do you make sure your news aren’t received as an insult, and dismissed with defensiveness by the decision-maker?
The keyword here is preparation. The worst thing you can do is have this conversation unprepared. Here are five things to do before and during your conversation:
1. Do your homework
Before you take any action, make an inventory of everything that you know about the project, the business case behind it, and the stakeholders involved. Then, build a list of all the facts you have accumulated to support your idea. Be honest with yourself about the confidence level and certainty with which you hold this knowledge. If necessary, build a “don’t know” list (for example, does your alternative meet the company’s regulatory compliance requirements?), and block some time to complete your research.
As part of this process, make a best effort to understand where your project sponsor and other main stakeholders are coming from. It’s possible that they are busy executives who didn’t have a chance to investigate the problem, and are basing their decisions on unfounded opinions and guesswork. Or they narrowed down their choices too soon and failed to explore better alternatives. But it is also possible that there are hidden business needs and management concerns that can give you additional context as to why some choices were made. And you may even find some commonality between your alternative and the original solution that you can highlight to soften the blow when you bring the bad news to the project sponsor.
Be diligent and through on your research. Your goal during step 1 is to make sure your recommendation is based on solid facts, not speculation.
2. Prepare your talking points
The next step is to identify the talking points you will use to present your case. Depending on the circumstances, you may end up with something like the following:
- Quick overview of the project objectives and additional information you accumulated about the project (stated needs, solution constraints, stakeholder requirements, etc.)
- Summary of the investigation you performed to go beyond the stated needs (e.g., observation of how end users execute their tasks, interviews with the technical team, market research, competitive analysis, etc.)
- Your conclusions based on the facts and figures you’ve put together to support your case.
- Your proposed course of action.
3. Schedule a one-on-one with the project sponsor
Even when a larger meeting is required to reach a final decision about your recommendation, it’s always best to start with an one-on-one with the project sponsor. If you can’t get time on his or her calendar, try to identify another key player and have an individual conversation with this person instead. If you do a great job in this one-on-one, and get buy-in for your idea from the project sponsor or a key decision-maker, this person will become an important ally as you go through any additional steps required to affect the necessary changes.
4. Go over your talking points
Use your talking points as prompts to help you walk the project sponsor through your thinking process and hopefully lead him or her to reach the same conclusion you had even before you spell it out. Here’s an example of how to get your message across in a diplomatic way:
“I know that there was a lot of thought put into this project to implement an online training portal for our company. The project undoubtedly has huge merit, helping the organization implement training programs at scale as the number of employees grow. However, as you can see from these survey results, the large majority of our employees don’t find self-guided online courses to be very effective. The survey responses provide overwhelming evidence that instruction-led online courses are considered more successful and motivating by 85% of our workforce. I thought you’d be interested in reviewing these figures before we move ahead with the existing requirements for a self-guided training portal. As you can see in this chart, if we don’t change the requirements now, the cost to incorporate capabilities for instruction-led courses is going to grow substantially after development starts.”
Make your best case and then stop talking, to give the other party some time to reflect and formulate any questions he or she may have.
5. Define the next steps
After presenting your proposal, if not immediately convinced by your solid arguments, hopefully your project sponsor will be at least open to taking some measures to reassess the situation or reevaluate the plans. Don’t leave the meeting without defining the next steps. Come prepared with a short document summarizing your talking points to leave behind, and with some suggestions as to what to do next (e.g., have a larger meeting with business and technical stakeholders to get their opinion). Be open as well to next steps the project sponsor may bring up: he or she may have a suggestion that you never assumed could happen and might help steer the project in the right direction.
So many good ideas never take root in organizations, causing time to be lost and money and energy to be wasted building the wrong solution.
As described in 3 Lessons Business Analysts can Learn from Product Managers, understanding the intent behind projects, clarifying the jobs to be done by the solution, and learning how to sell your ideas are key elements of success for both BAs and PMs. Being a great salesperson for your ideas is critical when you need to get buy-in from project sponsors and other key stakeholders.
Selling ideas is hard, especially when they challenge deeply held beliefs, or require people to abandon work they’ve done (the more effort your stakeholders have put in defining the wrong solution, the more reluctant they will be to let it go ). But it’s also very rewarding and feasible, if you have the right mindset and are willing to put the effort. My own career is full of examples of situations where I was successful getting executives to change their decision regarding which vendor to use, or whether to tackle a project, or what software capabilities to build. It also has instances where I failed to build the case for change, and the project moved ahead unchanged, with negative consequences for the organization. When the latter happened, it was almost always because I had neglected to create a compelling story and develop a solid and concise pitch for my idea.
As part of my education, I was trained to be thorough, meticulous, and detailed in my presentations. But you can’t expect a busy stakeholder to go through a 50-page proposal -- it’s unlikely he will take the time to digest an exhaustive recommendation and make a decision. To increase your rate of success as an agent of change, learn how to distill the essence of your idea in a few paragraphs that a business person can read, digest, and act on immediately. Then, follow the 5 steps described in this article, and you should start seeing a much higher success rate for your proposals. Good luck!
Adriana Beal, Product Manager & Business Analyst
Adriana Beal has developed a successful career in business analysis and product management, having lead the investigation of business problems, defined winning solutions, and written requirements documents for a large number complex software projects. She is also the coach of Crafting Better Requirements, a program that has helped hundreds of business analysts improve their requirements documentation and communication skills, and the author of the ebook Measuring the Performance of Business Analysts, which has been adopted by dozens of BA managers interested in improving the performance measurement systems in their organizations. Her most recent ebook, designed to help BAs struggling with getting the right information to analyze and use to specify their solutions, is called Tested Stakeholder Interviewing Methods for Business Analysts.
- People’s valuation of their own work is directly tied to the effort they’ve expended - see “the harder a project is, the prouder we feel of it”, item 3 of What Motivates Us at Work.