As a project manager or business analyst, you have an important role outside the scope of customer projects. Your work outside the context of projects helps to identify and resolve issues and concerns, and build positive relationships between IT and customer stakeholders.

While stakeholders may have relied on your good leadership in the last project, they may still harbor ill feelings about your IT department in general. The customer may have longstanding and unresolved technical issues that will have to be overcome. Middle management may want IT to improve its support process and upper management may worry that recent cost overruns predict the outcome of future projects. All of these issues and concerns can be resolved when a project manager steps outside the scope of the project.

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Expand your knowledge about the customer’s business

You can begin your outside-the-project work by improving your level of understanding about the customer’s business. The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) in their Body of Knowledge defines this understanding as “capturing the necessary view of the business to provide context to requirements and functional design work for a given initiative and/or for long term planning”.

If you are a business analyst, a working knowledge of your customer’s business is critical to the success of future projects. For example, you should know the industry jargon, the customer’s operational practices, and their organizational vision and goals. You should also understand the motivations and interests of your customer’s clients.

There are many ways to gain this knowledge. If you are new to the industry, convince your boss to let you spend time observing your customer’s operations. Read representative samples of your customer’s process documentation. Read industry-specific journals. Attend conferences and talk with vendors and your customer’s peer organizations. Your customer’s marketing staff may be a good resource for broad information about their clients’ interests.

Capture stakeholders’ perspectives

Sustain and broaden your customer focus by building a positive, long-term relationship with stakeholders. Between projects, invite a stakeholder to lunch, or out for a cup of coffee. Most people welcome a chance to get out of the office and chat.

Come to each meeting well prepared. Check with your help desk and familiarize yourself with significant issues the customer has with IT systems. If you need clarification on an issue, talk with those technologists who routinely work with the customer. Also, draft a set of open-ended questions to ask the stakeholder when you meet.

Where I live, in the Midwest United States, we often start conversations with small talk, which is a good way to help you and your guest to settle into a good conversation. I might ask about his or her children, or query about a recent bike or sailing trip. Eventually, I’ll ask about their current systems. Are they working properly? Is everyone trained? Is the new system fully adopted? Is support from the help desk working well?

Listen carefully for an issue. Make sure you understand it, take ownership of it, and promise to follow up with the stakeholder. If there is time in your meeting, ask about concerns the stakeholder may have about operations. Are there processes that seem inefficient? How is the customer working to reduce costs and increase profits? Ask about new initiatives they may be considering.

Try to meet periodically with the same person. Over time, such meetings build mutual trust, and the stakeholder begins to see you as valued advisor. You benefit by expanding your knowledge of the customer’s business, and by understanding the stakeholder’s perspectives and interests. You also “bank” goodwill. When a crisis eventually arises, you both have a relationship from which you may reach a mutual understanding and quickly resolve the issue.

After the meeting, follow up with the stakeholder regarding any identified issues. A phone call works well. After thanking him or her for their time at lunch or coffee, communicate the issue resolution. Also, indicate the progress made in resolving any remaining issues and specify when you or someone from your department will follow up with new information.

Support the stakeholder

I find it helpful to take a view of systems beyond the narrow framework of IT. If you remember that technology is just a tool, you can transform yourself from thinking “software solution” into thinking “customer system” — a perspective that includes users, business processes, physical infrastructure, and organizational culture. By doing so, you reframe your perspective from “IT-centric” into the more valuable “customer-centric” view.

This new perspective has the effect of helping you improve customer support. For example, as you write an e-mail response to an angry stakeholder’s question, you are better prepared to consider how your message will be received. If your response angry as well, set the e-mail aside and pick it up later. Always be mindful of the larger goals you hope to achieve. Would it be more effective to talk with the stakeholder by phone or meet with them in person?

Even with this new perspective, it is natural to feel defensive when a stakeholder calls you to complain about a serious bug in the new production system. It wasn’t your fault the customer failed to test adequately before implementing the new system. Try to step outside of your emotions for a moment. How would an objective observer view this conversation? This third person might remind you that IT signed-off on testing as well. How would this observer encourage you respond?

(A valuable resource for understanding this approach is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, et al.)

Set aside your emotions. Listen to the stakeholder and empathize, then consider possible solutions, make a recommendation, and help the stakeholder understand what you propose. If the he or she agrees to the approach, implement the solution and follow up. This approach often defuses the stakeholder’s emotions. Remember to manage the issue until it is resolved — even if someone else corrects the problem.

Educate stakeholders

A fourth strategy involves taking some responsibility for educating your customer’s stakeholders. Many IT-oriented magazines, journals, and on-line media periodically focus on a specific industry (e.g., a government, manufacturing, or service sector). Since a stakeholder is unlikely to encounter these IT resources on their own, be sure to pass along articles that may be of interest. The stakeholder may appreciate knowing about industry peers, and learning how a challenging problem was solved.

Initially, it may feel strange to take this step with a stakeholder. If so, give them a phone call and indicate you recently read an article that might interest them. Ask if they would like to get the Web link, or would like to review the pages you tore out of the magazine. Whether they are interested or not, you have probably left them with a positive feeling about your interest in them.

Advocate for stakeholders

As a final suggestion, become an advocate. As you build a positive relationship with a stakeholder, you may eventually find him or her soliciting your opinion about a new technology your IT department may be adopting.

To help stakeholders understand the impact on their business, consider developing an exploratory user group. Invite stakeholders to attend the meetings, while being mindful of their backgrounds and interests. Create opportunities for them to understand the new technology from the perspective of their business. Explain how it might improve their operations, increase their profit margin, or reduce their costs. Help them appreciate the technology’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the opportunities and threats associated with using it. While stakeholders may welcome the learning opportunity, they will also value having a forum in which voice their interests and concerns.

As an advocate, you also have the role of ambassador on behalf of your customer to your own IT department. Try to represent your customer’s viewpoints when you feel that IT may be ignoring or misinterpreting them. Explain to technologists the customer’s perspective. If necessary, facilitate a meeting between the stakeholders and technologist to clarify and resolve the misunderstanding.

Next Steps

Without strong relationships with stakeholders, it is too easy for us to fail in serving our customers. Valued technology is built on the foundation of valued relationships. By sustaining and broadening a customer focus outside of projects, you and your IT department become your customer’s most valued technology advisor.