Protect your key communication project from potential doubters by enlisting high-profile supporters.

How to protect your big communication project from doubters

Important decision makers have approved your big new communication project. Stakeholders supported your launch event, and you have prepared a solid plan to deliver a good result. Even though you believe your plan continues to head towards success, support for this key project may start to fade for various reasons. Many strong projects can stumble and fall against the ‘cycle of doubt.’ When this happens, you find that support has fallen away, project completion time is threatened, and your key objectives won’t be met. What can you do to protect your communication project from doubters?

Communication projects should be safeguarded from potential doubters

Reduced post-launch support can be the start of severe ongoing problems. You need to act to secure your communication project’s momentum. The answers to these problems in the minds of doubters were covered in a far-sighted project discussed in this article.

My discussion in this article is based on an invaluable 2017 MIT Sloan Management Review article by professors who have taught project leadership to executives in the US, Europe and Asia. The late Professor Karen Brown, along with Profs. Nancy Heyer & Richard Ettenson, conducted structured and intensive interviews with 120 business leaders and veteran project leaders from eight different business sectors. For this project they also analyzed and identified critical themes in a range of successful and unsuccessful high-profile projects reported in the global business press.

As a project leader, you would be in a strong position when you take on board ideas and actions offered in this article, You will be better able to protect and strengthen a project’s reputation against skepticism and doubts, sustain project momentum, and achieve important organizational objectives. What’s more, the insights summarized here apply to projects of almost any size and in any industry, including the public sector. If you lead a communication team or are a project team member, you can benefit by adapting and using these insights as a guide to your own projects.

Examples from research interviews about negative cycles

  1. A large company’s project foundered from a sharp decline in its status when the project mentor/sponsor was promoted and moved to another location.
  2. Development of a new product was derailed when team members realized the project’s complexity and scope were greater than their initial understanding of the project. Support faded as team members were spending more of their time on other projects with more achievable objectives and clearer delegation of activities. As performance dropped, these key participants further detached themselves from the struggling initiative.
  3. Several corporate social responsibility initiatives at a global company lost critical momentum when unexpected, more urgent, projects required by regulations were added to the company’s project portfolio.

A project’s post-launch reputation influences the level of favor it enjoys among those whose energy and support are critical to delivery of results. The reputation of a project and its chances for success can be spoiled by new organizational priorities, changes in leadership, and distrust of information about the project’s progress. These negative forces can act together, trapping the project in a downward spiral. A senior leader at a Fortune 500 chemical company summarized the problem of negative momentum this way:

When a project develops a bad reputation, people begin to stay in their offices and avoid face-to-face discussions to address issues and solve problems. They do not want to be associated with a bad project. And a project in trouble typically gets in worse trouble as people stay away from it.

When a project’s status suffers, it can be starved of the fuel it needs to move forward. The process is self-perpetuating, resulting in a ‘cycle of doubt.’ (See the dynamics of the cycle of doubt in the image below.) Regardless of where time, cost, and performance metrics stand, an inflow of doubt can degrade a project’s reputation, leading to a downward spiral that can feed on itself. But, the spiral can be reduced or reversed with the right diagnostics and actions.

Above image: MIT Sloan “Protect Your Project from Escalating Doubts”.

The first step in combating a cycle of doubt is to understand its causes. Research uncovered four key types of triggers that can draw a project into the cycle of doubt: priorities, leadership, delivery, and messaging. (See the ‘Triggers Contributing to a Cycle of Doubt’ image below.) Within each of these categories, a set of specific and common triggers of doubt and their impact is identified.

Three issues project leaders need to resolve

Project leaders need to understand three related questions:

  • How to recognize if a project is vulnerable to the cycle of doubt.
  • How to ensure a project doesn’t fall into a downward spiral of doubt.
  • How to reverse negative momentum if a project begins to stall.

Time spent developing a deep understanding of the full range of threats to a project’s reputation is a worthwhile investment. The triggers outlined below indicate the main reasons why a project’s cycle of doubt emerges:

Above image: MIT Sloan “Protect Your Project from Escalating Doubts

Protect your communication project from doubters – Here’s how to recover your project’s momentum

Most complex projects include some doubt triggers. If the project leader has recognized the doubt triggers, they must address the next two issues:

  1. How to prevent momentum stall,
  2. How to reverse any downward spiral caused by the cycle of doubt.

Research has uncovered eight action steps project leaders can take to stabilize or recover a project’s momentum. A 9th recommendation is also offered for when a project’s reputation and performance can’t be salvaged.

While this list of corrective actions offers useful options, astute project leaders will use their experience and understanding of their project’s context (such as the organization’s politics, processes, and practicalities) to implement the specific action step or combination of action steps most effective for solving their particular project challenge.

1. Prove the concept

When the stakes are high, viability is uncertain, and strong resistance or apathy are possibilities. Project leaders can generate enthusiasm and pave the way for a successful large effort by proving value in limited and successive stages of the project. Of course, the option of trial segments may not be feasible if a project has a very tight deadline that doesn’t allow time for testing. Experienced project leaders say that “simplistic ‘big-bang’ delivery of large projects simply doesn’t work.”

Experience has shown that the project leader needs to identify the right blend of these eight action steps, as only one or a small combination may be insufficient to reverse a steep decline in reputation and momentum.

An additional consideration about proving the concept is that the revelation of weak points and nonstarters in a small-scale effort can save the project leader and contributors from having a large-scale disaster on their hands. At worst, the team will have carried out a limited or ‘quiet failure’ that didn’t use up major company resources, or expose the organization to long-term or high-profile risk. A limited commitment may make the project leader’s personal reputation vulnerable within the organization.

2. Keep it short, or break it up

Shorter projects are less likely than longer ones to be a casualty of diverted attention or changing priorities because shorter projects finish before they can be overshadowed by new initiatives.

An experienced project leader in the health care industry said a key strategy for avoiding the cycle of doubt and maintaining project momentum was to, “wherever possible, scope the project to objectives that can be accomplished in 3-6 months.” For large projects with distant time horizons, this can mean breaking the project into meaningful sub-projects, each with measurable results. For some projects, however, segmenting may not be feasible or helpful. The project leader must determine whether a project can be meaningfully divided into segments with shorter windows for deliverables.

3. Specialize, and if possible, co-locate the core team

For big initiatives that need a dedicated team, assigning members full-time and moving them together has definite advantages. It signals organizational commitment, accelerates momentum, and reduces delivery time, all of which reduce vulnerability to the cycle of doubt. While co-location may not always be possible for global projects involving geographically dispersed team members, significant purposeful changes that are visible (such as dedicating team members full-time to the project) generally raise the project’s profile and reputation among its core team members, as well as among stakeholders. Obviously videoconferencing greatly reduces this difficulty, although remote team members are unlikely to be noticed and widely associated with the project arouind the organization.

image opposite : by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

4. Be wary of a rush to action

Potentially great projects can be compromised if there is pressure or misguided enthusiasm to initiate activities before appropriate planning and risk assessment have been completed. One study found that great projects — exceeding expectations and creating superior value for their organizations — begin with a ‘long period of project definition’ dedicated to clarifying the need for the project, planning the best execution method, and assuring stakeholder buy-in.

In contrast, an impetuous leap to action can lead to predictably negative outcomes. One executive we interviewed described it as “the nonsense of action everywhere and traction nowhere.”

Project sponsors, who are always eager to see progress, often declare that detailed project planning is unnecessary and time-consuming. A senior company executive criticized a project leader for including everything but the possibility of an intense dust storm in the project risk-management plan. However, by the end of the project, most of the 50 potential risks the project team identified had been encountered and, because of the detailed planning, successfully handled. Detailed planning and anticipation of risks helped the project and its team members maintain a strong reputation throughout. At the same time, project leaders must understand that the most comprehensive risk assessment will not reveal the “unknown unknowns” that often emerge as a project develops.

While responding to unexpected events will always remain a key challenge for project leaders, research shows that no project can succeed without careful planning — for both the project’s technical requirements and the project’s reputation. Up-front collaborative planning across all aspects of the initiative can create a solid defense against the cycle of doubt because it builds stakeholder ownership and commitment, aligns priorities, clarifies expectations, results in comprehensive plans, and sensitizes stakeholders to knowable pitfalls and their solutions.

5. Communicate with integrity

Experienced project leaders stress the importance of communicating with integrity and with an appropriate rhythm. The transparency of today’s business environment, fueled by the instant nature of digital communication, leaves the project leader and teams with no place to hide. Facilitating honest, authentic engagement, while not overwhelming stakeholders and contributors with information and updates (or starving them of information), is the best way to help individuals and groups appreciate the project. This includes understanding pitfalls, appreciating project progress, and, most importantly, emotionally connecting with the initiative.

Although this may seem obvious, project leaders can be caught off guard and easily make mistakes under pressure about managing the information flow to and from project stakeholders. Three general guidelines can help project leaders avoid communication traps that can create skepticism and doubt about their initiatives:

  • Include ‘no surprises’ in your communication principles. Both negative and positive surprises can lead to distrust and doubt among essential supporters. Stakeholders wonder: “Why didn’t they tell us sooner?…What else have they been hiding?…If we’d known sooner, we could have adapted our plans.”

In contrast, an executive discussed an enterprise-wide reorganization and downsizing project in a global manufacturing company. He repeatedly emphasized with his team only one theme in terms of how communication would happen: “When you carry information out or bring information in, think ‘no surprises.’ I will accept good and bad news just the same, but I want accurate news.” This principle served the project and the organization well despite being confronted with major challenges.

  • Engage in dialogue. During a project’s often lengthy delivery phase, project leaders must systematically seek stakeholder input, listen authentically, and, when possible, take appropriate action. For the project leader, managing feedback from broad and often far-flung regions can be challenging, as not every team member or stakeholder will agree on the issues that need attention or have equal value. The project leader must exercise both technical and political discretion in implementing only those changes that move the project forward and enhance its reputation, while at the same time showing respect to those whose ideas did not translate into action.
  • Maintain a regular rhythm of communication. Some project leaders are reluctant to communicate negative information. Silence inflames an already challenging situation by creating an information vacuum that creates distrust and raises questions about the integrity of the project leader and team. As one observer remarked, “No news is bad news.”

A project leader was responsible for shutting down a 400-employee, medical device plant and moving 15 product lines to other facilities. Knowing that lapses in communication would lead others to fill the void with rumors, he issued regular weekly updates. The project leader understood that if you don’t manage your message, someone else will.

A steady communication tempo helps to sustain stakeholder interest. At the same time, project leaders must recognize that efforts to keep stakeholders informed (even with positive news) can go overboard, resulting in ‘attention burnout,’ even among enthusiastic stakeholders.

When the unanticipated departure of a powerful sponsor began to erode support and interest in a strategically vital project at a Fortune 100 global technology company, the project leader began holding ‘Site Communication Days.’ The project leader delivered the same message about the project’s importance and progress in a series of face-to-face sessions to 10 groups of 30, using a rolling communication board and dry-erase markers.

This consistent, direct communication fitted the culture of the manufacturing facility and helped sustain energy and momentum for the project until a vocally supportive sponsor arrived eight months later. When the initiative crossed the finish line, it delivered on its initial objectives of significant improvements in safety, quality, and delivery.

6. Enlist project ambassadors and high-profile supporters

The project champion or sponsor is a central figure whose leadership credibility and visible support can generate consistent enthusiasm among important stakeholders. However, a major initiative also needs a ‘platoon of advocates’ — the right combination of people whose functional backgrounds and collective clout can reach into the organization to generate and sustain the project’s brand through triumphs and challenges.

One project leader emphasizes the importance of reaching down to the lowest levels in the organization to identify ambassadors — people who do not necessarily hold high-level titles or specific roles within the project, but who are trusted and respected for their technical knowledge or leadership skills. In one-on-one conversations, this project leader sought these people’s insights and explored their willingness to contribute to the project, as well as how best to leverage their involvement and support. Encouraging all team members to tap into their personal networks to seek ideas and support for a project can create an even larger and more influential grouping of project ambassadors. The challenge here is that individual team members may not have the appropriate personal networks or the persuasive communications skills required to gather support from all key stakeholders.

7. Revitalize the project with outside resources

Often, organizations are too ambitious in taking on too many projects. When this happens, the project leader should consider engaging outside contractors to pick up some of the project work. This can generate the extra contribution needed to keep the project on track while energizing team members. Although not always an option for projects with very tight budgets or confidential content, added resources can help to sustain or rekindle positive project momentum.

8. Know when to change course

When project leaders are engaged with struggling projects, they often feel compelled to stay the course, driving their projects into the ground. Stepping back, taking stock, and making changes where needed can rescue the project. Breaking this unproductive pattern requires strong leadership: the judgment to recognize when there is little to gain from continuing along a losing path, the strength to revive enthusiasm for the project’s purpose, and the courage to correct the course being taken. Bringing fresh thinking and a revised plan will most likely fully restore the project path.

9. Have the courage to pull the plug when warranted

Sometimes a leader must accept that a project’s reputation and momentum are beyond salvage. The project has spiraled so far down the cycle of doubt, and performance has degraded to such an extent that the best course of action is to acknowledge defeat, absorb and communicate the lessons learned, and plan next steps to address the ‘why’ that motivated the project in the first place. Not surprisingly, as one project leader said, “This is probably the hardest thing for managers to do.” Yet, struggling on in these circumstances damages the project leader’s reputation, drains team members’ energy and commitment, and wastes company resources.

Protect your communication project from doubters by confronting the cycle of doubt

Even the most technically sound and strategically important projects can be sucked into the cycle of doubt, a self-perpetuating vortex that draws energy and needed support away from a project and reduces its respect in the organization. A solid plan and strong launch are essential but don’t guarantee success. Astute project leaders recognize draining factors that can stall forward momentum and halt new initiatives.

These include unclear or changing organizational priorities, loss of support from key sponsors, problems with project delivery, and insufficient or misrepresented project messaging. They also have action plans in place to monitor and correct these forces, and communication strategies to mitigate negative consequences.

Checklist to prevent the cycle of project doubt

Use the checklist below to assess the extent to which your project is positioned to prevent or recover from the cycle of doubt. The more items you can check, the more doubt-resistant your project is.

Above image: MIT Sloan “Protect Your Project from Escalating Doubts”.

Further reading

You can read further insights on effective project communication in my article, “Communicate better to improve operational performance.”

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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