Why Consensus Doesn’t Always Equal Project Success (And What You Can Do About It)

Project management professionals know that consensus among stakeholders is a critical component in moving a project forward and meeting final objectives. But consensus is just one component of many that must be addressed, and sometimes even the most foundational agreements are too flawed to withstand the future challenges that typically arise.

How can you ensure that your project achieves the level of consensus it needs? Getting all involved parties to agree on something doesn’t procure the funding, timeframe, or other resources that are often needed to shepherd a project through to a successful completion. What happens when you’ve achieved consensus nirvana, and things still aren’t going the way they should? Original agreements sometimes don’t fully support the fundamental objectives your project is supposed to meet. Below is an overview of how the consensus phase sometimes goes wrong, and tips for steering it back on course.

What type of consensus have you reached? Beware the final agreements that required foundation-level compromise. If too much has been negotiated away, your project management consulting team may soon be looking at a project that is so far diminished from its original scope or intent that it no longer meets everyone’s needs (and may, in fact, meet no one’s needs). Have you lost necessary support or resources? Have you agreed to conditions or objectives that leave no wiggle room for managing the occasional glitch? If you’ve finally reached consensus only after stripping the project to its lowest common denominator, chances are good that your project is lacking some critical pieces. Agreeing that you need additional manufacturing capabilities isn’t sufficient to clearly define your project’s objectives, let alone plan and execute a project that meets that goal. Scope, cost, impact, timeframe, and other factors must still be worked out. Reminding stakeholders that “this is what we agreed on” will not resolve the fundamental errors in planning or execution that may result from a poorly-supported consensus.

What’s still left to do? Especially when negotiations have been protracted or tense, it’s important to constantly evaluate the objectives of the project against the agreements you’ve been able to reach so far. Is the price your organization will pay—in terms of financial cost, impact to operations and personnel, market standing, and any other area which may be affected—still worth it when viewed against the project’s compromised objectives? Have your project’s objectives been chipped away to such a degree that your access to funding or other resources has been hindered? Have your stakeholders lost their passion for the project? Has the timeframe been compromised as a result of an extended negotiation or planning phase? Has your Project Team lost key talent or expertise since the project’s inception? Ensure that your project management team is still capable of fulfilling its role, that needed resources are available, and that the scope continues to meet the necessary metrics to be considered a success.

How do you tackle a too-soft consensus? Your approach will depend heavily on the type of organization and complexity of the project you’re supporting, but some good first steps include returning to your project’s original scope and re-opening negotiations, conducting a new cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate any diminished ROI, gathering updated market data to reaffirm your need for additional resources or other support, and working with end users to highlight any potential negative effects of moving forward with your project’s current plan. You may also want to evaluate your decision-making team—if negotiations have in any way been based on a lack of proper authority to commit funds, staff, or other resources, then you may consider elevating the discussion to include individuals with increased authorization levels.

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