Tech & Work

Managing uncooperative business drivers

Obtaining information from an uncooperative business driver can be like pulling teeth. Before you give up, find out how being a backseat driver can turn this situation around.

In every project, there are obstacles to overcome. As if shortened deadlines, scope creep, and acts of God aren’t enough to deal with, what do you do when your primary source of information seems to be working against you? Follow these three rules of the road to keep your efforts on track and moving forward, without leaving your project driver behind.

Be proactive
The key to successful project management is anticipation. When applied liberally, this concept can go a long way toward protecting your project from poor communication and decision-making disorders.

Chances are, your first indication that there’s a communication issue is during the critical deliverables definition phase. You’ve had the initial concept meetings and are trying to put together a picture of what your software actually needs to do. Unfortunately, this is where you depend most heavily on the input of the project driver, but that input may trickle in over time or not come at all.

To avoid that kind of situation, make the project driver’s participation in the project as painless as possible. Go after the information you need instead of waiting for it to be delivered to you. Initial project planning is critical to your success, and it shouldn’t be allowed to drag out.

Take the time to document all of the specific questions that exist and interview the project driver in one brief meeting. If you raise questions they can’t answer, make assumptions and document them in your project plan. Make it clear that this is the course of action you will follow until you hear otherwise. Merely putting assumptions in black and white presents the project driver with a definitive decision to make, and it creates a sense of urgency that may have been lacking.

This is also a great time to review the driver’s priorities for the project. Chances are, they haven’t even thought of the solution in that light, and defining priorities may reveal critical information that was previously unknown to you. For more information about this process, read "Pinpoint your client’s priorities to nail application deliverables."

Now that you’ve jump-started the planning process, the next goal is to understand where you need to go next.

Draw a map
While the project’s business driver may be behind the wheel, the project manager’s job is essentially to ride shotgun. The project driver’s job rarely has anything to do with his or her role in delivering a solution. It’s your responsibility to inform the driver of the safest, quickest route to your final destination and make sure he or she follows it, without being pushy.

Sometimes in trying to manage a project driver, you’ll run into power-trip issues. To bypass this, have a process for defining a solution and follow it. That way, your project becomes tangible, and your quest for information becomes less personal.

The more difficult a project driver is to work with, the more important it becomes to have a documented project plan. Even the outline of a plan will help you prevent a driver’s aloofness from being apparent in your solution.

If you absolutely can’t get the answers you need, make provisions for incorporating changes once development has begun, such as a change order form. This will help you document the real-world effects of poor communication, such as the time and money costs of incorporating changes after the decision-making juncture has passed.

If you inform the project driver up front that unconfirmed assumptions will have to be incorporated with a change-order process, he or she will at least understand that waffling will have a serious effect on the project. Later on, if changes stemming from a lack of decision making begin to affect your timeline, you have a paper trail to justify adjusting your delivery date or compromising functionality.

So far, my advice has offered a commonsense, logical solution to the issues created by an uncooperative project driver. But what if you’ve done all the hand-holding you can, and you’re still not getting the results you need? When it gets to that point, it’s time to take the wheel.

Become a backseat driver
Nobody likes to have his or her authority usurped. That’s why some project decisions never get made—the project manager refuses to assume the responsibilities that clearly belong to someone else. Ultimately, delivery of your solution is your primary goal. If the project driver is preventing this from happening, it’s time for more drastic measures. It is possible to take control of a project’s direction without offending the business driver.

First, serve up decisions that need to be made in small, clear doses and load the options in favor of the obvious correct choice. Always offer options in threes—the obvious right answer, an obvious wrong answer, and one that is viable, but less favorable. This may seem manipulative, and it is. However, the actual act of making the decision will come from the appropriate person, and he or she will never suspect you made the decision before you even spoke to him or her. For all intents and purposes, the driver is still in control.

Never, ever take an unplanned course of action without discussing it with the driver. Even if the driver doesn’t give you a definitive answer, you’ve set the stage for forgiveness if he or she doesn’t like the result. Remember, it’s easier to apologize than to get permission, unless the driver feels blindsided by your actions.

If a project driver has been uncooperative in making decisions, flood him or her with information. Be generous with updates and reports, even if they go unread. That way, when a problem comes up that needs an immediate decision, its importance is accentuated by the fact that you’ve brought it up in person. Additionally, the impact of the problem isn’t blown out of proportion, because it is now one piece of unfavorable information in a sea of positive results.

Be honest and diplomatic, and remember that your secondary goal in delivering a solution is to make everyone, including the ineffective business driver, look good. Be sure that every decision is in the project’s best interests and in the spirit of the project’s priorities.

Inform the project driver of every decision you make if you can’t get him or her to participate in making it. To make the driver feel as if he or she is still in control, take the stance that you are confirming that you did the right thing. Even if you wind up directing the project at every turn, remember that it is the business driver that will determine the success or failure of the project and of your effectiveness as a project manager.

These three rules of the road should help your project succeed without having to rely too heavily on unsavory tactics. If your business driver isn’t taking the wheel, you can still prevent your project from getting off track. By taking initiative, being organized and process-oriented, and assuming responsibilities that you’d rather not have, you are earnestly ensuring your project’s success. Even if you have to bring your project driver along kicking and screaming, he or she will benefit from the rewards of a job well done, despite his or her inability to communicate effectively. The result: Both you and your project will benefit from your good intentions.

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