Stakeholder Alignment: The not-so-secret key to PMO success


stakeholder alignment-1Reading the PMO Squad’s excellent 2024 survey I was reminded of a simple truth that we, as sector, seem to be increasingly aligned upon – project execution focus can only take you so far, and that playing a role in strategic planning is a critical next step to becoming a purpose-driven PMO. In shifting PMO’s focus towards strategic delivery, stakeholder alignment becomes a critical competency.

I wholeheartedly buy into this ambition, but think it’s important to recognize that people are far harder to organize than projects. We love an idiom in the English language, and here at TransparentChoice we like to talk about this challenge as “herding cats”- the art of getting an individualistic ‘group’ to move in the same direction. 

Stakeholder alignment mapping

Stakeholders are, of course, a series of individuals who will respond positively to different mechanisms for engagement (I respond well to cake, for example). However, thinking more strategically it makes sense to identify the key groups of stakeholders who matter, and to work out how you, as the PMO, need to both support and challenge them with your governance process. For example:  

  • Executives
    • Challenge - Clear strategic goals are critical, as is alignment within the C-Suite
    • Support  - Drive ROI from allocated resources, without always asking for more funds
  • Project sponsors
    • Challenge - Beware over-stated business cases used to get resources for 'their' project
    • Support - Provide assurance that benefits will get delivered on-time, to brief
  • Project managers
    • Challenge - Beware optimism bias in building an achievable project plan
    • Support - Enable focus through clear prioritization of what matters most
  • Delivery teams

What should be startlingly clear at this point is that one size does not fit all, so to aligning to each group (as well as key individuals) is an important step in successful strategic delivery. However, before rushing off to get the doughnuts, first consider the underlying challenges that you might come up against, as successful stakeholder alignment is likely to require both improved communication and governance solutions.

Six stakeholder alignment challenges

Where people are involved things get complicated, but let’s think about common drivers of misalignment and how to resolve them:

  1. No clear strategy to align against: Without clear direction it’s impossible to align stakeholders, regardless of how many templates you create. But don’t despair. Almost every organization has a strategy, it’s probably just poorly communicated. At this point alignment means finding that strategy and putting into a relatable structure that can be cascaded to different stakeholders.
  2. Misalignment within leadership: “Team in Name Only” executives spell trouble for the PMO. In this context, stakeholder alignment may require the PMO to don the ‘brave pants’ and ask the group to commit to a shared high-level policy for prioritization. Pretending divisions are not there just stores up problems for later.
  3. Bad data: Data is the glue that sticks organizations together by providing rational reference points that are trusted as ‘fair’. It comes in many forms (pun intended) – from surveys to data models and a key PMO skill is developing the right collection mechanisms, while remaining aware of the risk of “analysis-paralysis” that comes from data proliferation.
  4. Culture of poor governance: It’s critical that alignment includes shared commitment to honest planning. Think of a business case. The ‘real’ effort is 10 days, but the resource manager puts in 20 to avoid a beating if things go wrong. The sponsor then doubles projected benefits to achieve payback, which finance turn into unachievable goals, that nobody buys into. Contrast to a system with agreed buffer to insulate delivery teams from “Murphy’s Law” while creating motivation to outperform estimates, linked to a bottom-up planning model that you can rely on as the basis for budgeting.
  5. Stakeholders' bias: To align stakeholders, the PMO must often play the role of “honest broker” who navigates an array of distorting biases in their organization. There are many to pick from but to name-check the top 3… (1) Strategic misrepresentation – gaming for political ends (2) Optimism bias – overstating benefits / under estimating costs (3) Uniqueness bias – seeing ‘your’ own pet project as more special than it really is.
    We could go on… but let’s focus on the solution: building stakeholder relationships that engender trust, evaluating projects rigorously, and putting in place benefits tracking that enables improvement over time.
  6. Everyone is really busy: Any new process is likely to be greeted with a degree of resistance based on this being another job to be done. To acknowledge this, consider two tactics. Firstly, find the “WIFM” – “What’s in it for me” that comes from better planning for different stakeholders. Mandating task does little to win hearts and minds. Secondly, make new planning steps ‘net effort neutral’ by cutting something else, such as a redundant reporting commitment. It’s a practical help and shows empathy for the mental strain of a crammed diary.

A purpose driven PMO will need to make a call on which of these factors are the most critical challenges, and identify solutions. In doing so, beware of your own uniqueness bias – there are solutions and experts out there who will save you “re-inventing the wheel” (I did say we like an idiom…)

Eight solutions to support stakeholder alignment

Since stakeholder alignment is a ‘people thing’ there’s a temptation to limit solutions to relationship building which pivot around the PMO as a person not a function. To create a more wholistic sustainable solution, also think about tooling & process (after all we’re told PMOs love these…) that enable better stakeholder alignment at the planning stage of a portfolio:

  1. Kanban boards bring together all your projects into one decision pipeline, so each proposal has a clear communicable status, making progress transparent and outcomes unambiguous.
  2. Custom criteria models. Leaders will not align around generic criteria. ‘Their’ model must reflect the business they run and re-enforce their strategy. Likewise flex the model between sub-portfolios to reflect different objectives as you cascade. Learn how to build criteria with our free best practice bundle.
  3. Collaborative voting. Single points of view are usually wrong, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not, and therefore often create ‘data’ that is not trusted. Far better to get 3-4 colleagues to compare opinions, therefore benefiting from pooled knowledge, and better buy-in.
  4. 'Value' as a metric not a buzzword. Using a measurement technique like AHP enables multiple drivers to be factored into one measurable score for each project, thus creating a rationale prioritization process which aligns stakeholders behind a chosen portfolio.
  5. Shareable dashboards. Making the right data visible to the right people is critical. Stale reporting and lack of personalization undermine engagement, as do mega-packs which hide tricky truths amongst a ton of “everything is fine” updates.
  6. AI-enabled portfolio scenarios. A great way to build alignment is to offer choice, with the ability to flex levers such as growth objectives, spending limits and risk tolerance. Use AI to generate multiple achievable plans that can form the basis of your portfolio.
  7. AI-enabled roadmaps. Stakeholders need to know when projects will happen, whether they're managing workload, customer expectations or any other time sensitive pressure. Feed prioritization into an AI-enabled scheduling solution to have the answer in seconds. Link this to a broader commitment to driving flow to see your portfolio ROI sky-rocket.
  8. Integrated business cases. Resource allocation, OKRs and benefits realization all need to be connected via a single business case. If they are not, then the potential for stakeholder misalignment grows while accountability diminishes.

While it’s plausible to craft a solution through PPM, excel and good supply of baked goods, we at TransparentChoice want to make your life easy, so we’ve built these solutions into our software, and assembled a global network of partners with experience of making the magic happen.

If you want help please reach out and we’ll help you build the stakeholder alignment needed to make the case for change in your organization.