What to do when… the client’s internal decision-making unit is severely fractured

Alexander Weekes
5 min readMay 3, 2024

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One piece of advice I gave in my recent article was to make sure that the key business decisions are made internally (on the client side) before presenting them as decisions to the project team. Discussion is encouraged but when a client has multiple stakeholders who don’t agree on fundamental goals or desired outcomes, this quickly descends into chaos. The project team shouldn’t have to listen to business decisions being figured out or granular details going back and forth. But it happens. And can happen for several reasons.

If the project has benefits for more than one business unit, there will likely be more than one project sponsor. That means (for larger organisations) it will be on more than one income statement. If cost is driving the project (as opposed to business outcomes) you may find one stakeholder is more sensitive to overall cost than the other(s).

Another potential reason for a fractured decision-making unit is simply a difference of opinion. I don’t mean this on a granular level but at the highest possible level – what the key objectives of the project should be. This is more common in organisations that are still figuring out their strategy although I have seen this in mature organisations as well.

The third major cause of this problem is the disassociation of some of the stakeholders from the project. I have worked on projects where there are major stakeholders who don’t attend showcase meetings and those who do, aren’t decision-makers. The obvious outcome is that work requiring sign-off will have to be re-presented to someone with sign-off capability. Or worse they give the thumbs up only to have it revoked by their superiors when they finally see the product. What an embarrassing waste of time. So before discussing what to do with a fractured decision-making unit, let’s look at what a cohesive one looks like.

The ideal decision-making unit

The decision-making unit should be presented as one monolith on key success criteria and outcomes. That’s not to discourage a plurality of opinion, as this is a critical dialectic that is part of the process and leads to better ideation. Rather, the stakeholders on the client side should all be in agreement and aligned on what the desired outcomes are, including the desired impact and overall business implications. This starts before the project kick-off but should be solidified during discovery. This also means that anyone who has an oar to stick in should be present during those meetings. Discovery isn’t just about uncovering what needs to be done in a project. It provides a baseline for communication, an acceptance of working norms and alignment on what success looks like. Those who care about those factors should not just be present but should actively participate in shaping them.

A strong decision-making unit also does its homework. Not every decision can be made ahead of time. When action points arise from discussions or feedback is required from a presentation of work, a good decision-making unit takes the conversation offline, refers back to the desired outcomes and returns promptly with a unified decision. It also empowers anyone part of the unit to make that final call.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

So what to do?

  1. The first thing you should do is establish protocol during discovery. As all my work suggests, a good discovery sets the tone for a successful project. During discovery, the key stakeholders should be identified and informed of their responsibilities during implementation. Shared responsibilities between the project team and the client help to build the concept of “one team” and encourage the client to treat the project team as a partner in achieving business outcomes. This requires transparency from the client to inform the project team of all the members of the decision-making unit. Discovery is also where you establish success criteria. With all of the decision-makers in the room, the minimum requirements for reaching a successful conclusion can be agreed upon and you can get everyone’s explicit alignment with those criteria. With defined success criteria, you no longer have subjective goals but rather objective desired outcomes, from which all decisions should be rooted.
  2. The most obvious thing you should do is create a clear communication schedule and confirm the channels with full transparency. Make sure everyone knows who is the primary point of contact and if there is a single person who is ultimately responsible, ensure that everyone is aware — including that person. Regular communication with the project team is important but communication amongst the stakeholders is equally valuable. Meetings that require decisions from client stakeholders should have mandatory attendance of the people identified and it should be made clear that missing these meetings will be an impediment to project progress. Treat the client stakeholders as another team that you “manage”.
  3. If necessary, you should build the decision-making process for the client. If their unit is so fractured that they do not have a working process already, define the information flow, use frameworks such as a RACI and implement protocol that the client has to follow. Similar to a workflow (for best practice see here), create steps that need to be followed with entry and completion requirements for each. For example, when a showcase requires sign-off, a live demonstration to stakeholders #1, #3 and #4 may be mandatory before a new work package can begin. In this example, if stakeholders #1 and #2 are present but #3 and #4 are absent, another demonstration must be performed, or the original one is postponed until #3 and #4 can attend. Even if #1 and #2 sign off on the work. This will require you to be strict but the client will eventually accept this protocol when they see the benefit to their project.
  4. If you are still having issues during implementation, then facilitate alignment workshops with the client. Bring all stakeholders together in a meeting and explain that their current decision-making process is not conducive to a successful project. The goal is to find common ground, re-establish alignment to the desired business outcomes from the project and iron out kinks hindering progress. Continue these meetings as checkpoints to ensure misalignment doesn’t sneak in, and continue to foster the client-partner relationship through regular updates.

Conclusion

Managing a client-partner relationship can be tricky. It becomes even more tricky when the client has multiple stakeholders, and near impossible when they are misaligned before the project even starts. Establishing clear rules, well-defined success criteria linked back to broader business outcomes and scheduled communication protocols helps strengthen their decision-making unit. Which in turn improves the chances of project success.

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Alexander Weekes

Digital Strategy consultant and lecturer helping senior project executives build systems & processes to remove the stress from delivering innovative projects.