How to Keep End Users and Sponsors Engaged When a Project is Unpopular

Projects are usually exciting endeavors that hold the promise of positive things to come—increased manufacturing capacity, greater productivity, the entry into new customer markets. But occasionally you may need to plan and execute projects that don’t enjoy wide support or generate much enthusiasm. Initiatives related to downsizing efforts or an unwelcome move to a new location, for example, are often unpopular with stakeholders.

It can be challenging to move these projects to a successful completion. Unlike typical initiatives, where the benefits are strong motivators and it doesn’t take much effort to drum up support, unpleasant projects generate fear, anger, disappointment, and a general disinterest in project activities. Getting stakeholders to participate is difficult at best.

If you’re executing a project that no one wants to do, consider two of the most common obstacles you’re likely to face and consider some strategies to overcome them.

End users are uncooperative.

When user groups anticipate they will be negatively affected by a project, they may be hesitant to participate in planning sessions and unwilling to work collaboratively on tasks. The same holds true if they have close colleagues who are likely to feel the brunt of the initiative’s end results. However, because most project teams rely on end users’ assistance on a range of matters—from gathering information during the planning process to reporting any hiccups that occur as tasks are executed—you need to gain their cooperation in order to succeed.

Try this:

Begin by breaking activities into small components. An otherwise unwelcome task can be more palatable if users have one distinct exercise to focus on. Rather than covering a dozen agenda items during a weekly project meeting, identify just a few topics that you want to discuss with end users. They can then exit after their sessions is complete, or they can stay if they choose to do so. You’re better positioned to maintain users’ cooperation if you make it as painless as possible. 

Securing support from end users’ department managers can also help keep project activities moving forward. If users are unhappy about the initiative or its anticipated outcomes, those higher up in the organization may be able to help. They’re usually in a better position to understand what motivates end users and they might have ways to influence or incentivize their participation that aren’t available to the project team.

Sponsors aren’t good champions.

Being closely associated with an unpopular project can make even a typically enthusiastic sponsor uncomfortable. A reluctance to be seen as the bad guy could lead to delayed decision making, poor communications, and a lack of vocal support. Unfortunately, executing an effort that’s widely disliked is exactly when you need sponsors’ help, so it’s critical that you keep them engaged and useful.

Try this:

Highlight the project’s positive outcomes when working with sponsors. This gives them an incentive to stay connected and provides them with talking points they can use when discussing the effort with their departments. Your organization may be downsizing, but will the resulting reduced headcount and lower expenses give a much-needed financial cushion in return, ensuring a sustainable business model going forward? Though finding the upside is sometimes difficult, it’s important to keep sponsors focused on the longer-term benefits.

Partnering with an objective third party, such as a project management consultancy experienced in executing difficult initiatives, may also help give sponsors the additional support they need. Unpleasant conversations can be made less contentious if a neutral facilitator is part of the group. This allows everyone to put their personal feelings and agendas aside so they can focus on accomplishing their objectives.

PMAlliance, Inc uses a team of highly experienced and certified professionals to provide project management consultingproject management training and project portfolio management.

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