The 3 E’s for Building Support for Critical Projects in Difficult Circumstances

by Gretchen Nadasky

Stakeholder investment is the driving force of any successful enterprise undertaking. One of the most important indicators that a corporate project will be initiated is Executive Sponsorship. Taking time to secure a mandate is an excellent investment because it establishes commitment and sets the stage for resource allocation.  Similarly, support from a broad range of stakeholders is a good predictor that a project will be successfully executed.  Unfortunately, many project managers wait until an initiative’s “Change Management” phase to address stakeholders. Rather than wait, it is better to assess the circumstances in which the project arises and build support as early as possible.

Observing that many projects are sabotaged by lack of buy-in before they even get off the ground, we developed The E3 Methodology to build momentum at the very early stages of initiation. The E3 Methodology is predicated on identifying the scenario surrounding the project, choosing an approach to mitigate potential resistance, applying tactics for success and taking decisive actions that will empower stakeholders and build broad cooperation. Interpreting a situation and choosing the right approach are key to gaining traction for an initiative very early in the planning stages—before it is socialized and established. 

Identify the Current Scenario

Corporate projects can come to fruition under a variety of circumstances.  When a plan of action comes from the top down, adoption is likely—people feel they have no choice!  However, when an objective or initiative comes from an individual or group it is more likely to hit resistance.  We have defined three common scenarios illustrating the range of circumstances in which projects may emerge: The Pain Principle Scenario, The Barn Door Scenario and the Elements of Fire Scenario.

The Pain Principle Scenario:  In this situation there is general recognition of a problem, but there is no sponsorship for a solution and the subject is avoided.  Some examples of The Pain Principle Scenario include:  a change in the regulatory or litigation environment that increases risk, employee frustration about a process that causes inefficiency, or the emergence of a competing product that is beginning to gain market share.  If an individual steps up to address the issue on their own they will need to adopt an engagement strategy to build awareness and recruit supporters.

The Barn Door Scenario:  The image evoked in this situation is of a farmer realizing too late that a cow got out of the barn – the problem has occurred and it is necessary for someone to take ownership and address it.  Remediating a disaster that has already happened can be tricky because fingers will be pointed, blame will be assigned and tensions may be high.  In this situation, it is important for the person or team who are addressing the issue to quantify the current state and expected remediation outcomes. Examples of The Barn Door Scenario may be a lawsuit or regulatory fine, a security breach or profit shortfall.

The Elements of Fire Scenario:  Imagine a situation where you can sense impending doom but others see only beautiful nature. It can be very difficult to gain a critical mass of support for a project with the goal of prevention. There may be only one person or group uniquely positioned with the facts and perspective to see the significance of the issue, and it is their job to communicate and convince stakeholders of its importance. The Elements of Fire Scenario is sometimes present when there are complex financial, regulatory or technological issues that require specialized knowledge to solve. The facts of the situation must be approached with enthusiasm instead of doom to garner support of an otherwise ambivalent group.

Choose an Approach and Take Decisive Action

Each scenario addressed in the E3 Methodology should be approached differently. The Pain Principle scenario may be addressed by engaging stakeholders, the Barn Door scenario depends on setting expectations and the Elements of Fire situation is most effectively attacked with enthusiasm.  In addition, a project may emerge in a combination of these circumstances and would then be addressed with multiple approaches.  It is crucial to understand the environment so that the approach matches the situation and informs the tactics employed to gain support. Once the scenario has been defined we suggest choosing the approach that will deliver optimum results.

The Engagement approach addresses the lethargy that is associated with the Pain Principle Scenario. Unlike the Barn Door scenario, there may not be a high-level of urgency felt by stakeholders, but there is a recognition that a problem exists that isn’t present in the Elements of Fire Scenario. Increasing engagement requires communication and cooperation building. Start by studying and understanding the key values of the organization or the group and whose participation is required. Next, introduce or connect those values with the initiative. To gain broad engagement, the message must stay positive and focus on the future state gains of the project. As soon as possible, share small wins to increase a sense of ownership of achievement that will increase participation and power the project forward. Engagement happens when people feel they have a personal stake in outcomes.

Setting and managing expectations is crucial when a problem has already occurred and must be remediated, as in the Barn Door Scenario.  In this case, there is acknowledgement of the problem and urgency is high, but the pressure to succeed can discourage direct participation. The project owner may find herself carrying most of the responsibility. To manage expectations, first identify metrics that will illustrate progress and can be accurately measured.  Keep stakeholders informed by scheduling and presenting these measurable deliverables. Communicate both results and the efforts required to achieve short-term and long-term goals. Setting expectations with quantifiable metrics and milestones at the outset helps define realistic goals and keeps players focused in a volatile situation.

The most difficult and sometimes frustrating scenario for a potential project is The Elements of Fire situation. In today’s world of specialized skills and highly trained knowledge workers, there are many instances where only a handful of people are aware of an emerging situation that could have devastating widespread consequences in the future. Those who can identify a potential future problem must be very passionate and persistent to gain the help and resources for a project where there is no immediate obvious need. Approaching the Elements of Fire with enthusiasm means crafting a message that highlights the positive outcomes rather than fear or threats. The trick to this approach is clearly articulating the problem repeatedly until some people can see it themselves, starting with supporters who may have a stake in averting the probable crisis.

Building support for a project is strategic demanding and takes time, effort and thought but is well worth the investment. Without support, projects can meander, languish or fail completely. Use the E3 Methodology to identify the existing circumstance, choose the correct approach and implement the tactics that will engage stakeholders, set their expectations and build enthusiasm for the initiative. It is never too early to bring more people to the table who will help or at least not resist the change that is inevitably required for any project’s success. 

E3 Methodology in Brief

Gretchen Nadasky is a Manager at Optimity Advisors.  She advises clients on initiating, executing and sustaining projects in Information and Knowledge Management and has operationalized the E3 Methodology to achieve success.