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A healthy influence

A healthy influence
William Hooper

Success in delivering change is dependent upon the ability of project managers and others to wield influence, build support and overcome resistance. Services, projects and companies are social entities supported by human endeavour. Their functions are shaped by personal agendas and relationships which can be engaged to advantage, or ignored at peril.

A new book was recently sent to me, Colin Gautrey’s A Project Manager’s Guide to Influence. The sales community has long researched and applied techniques such as stakeholder mapping, political analysis and stakeholder influence. Some have applied similar techniques to fields such as business transformation [Ref 1] where significant change must be driven throughout the enterprise. I found this a useful summary of the subject applied to the delivery of projects. Most within it would seem to apply equally to the maintenance of good governance of services by both customer and supplier.

Darwinian Influence

Organisations can be large, rapidly changing and multi-stranded. Parts grow; others wane. Resources move. Priorities shift. Competitive opportunities open and lose their lustre. Markets are opened. Support systems require update.

Senior staff are charged with setting direction, appointing, prioritising, holding to account and with allocating resource. That is what exercising power looks like. The quality of information on which they have to act is always imperfect. Risks can be large and unknown. Some of those to whom they turn for advice are incentivised to mislead. One of the instincts seniors hone whilst climbing the greasy pole is that of smelling the bull from other varieties. Little surprise that they trust some people more than others. That gives the trusted and credible influence.

Endeavour may be viewed from many perspectives. When looking at projects in terms of organisational power, Gautrey observes that they have the effect of altering the distribution of power. Little surprise then that some should be motivated to support whilst others oppose. There are reputations and careers at stake.

Every organisation has resource shortages of one sort or another; most commonly management attention, skilled staff and cash. If one initiative is to progress another, with its own lobby group and benefits, must be cut or delayed. The result is that one group wins and another loses out. So if you are to win and keep the resources you need, it looks like a smart move to work out who is going to be helped, who will lose and how to shift the balance in your favour. If this review results in your defining your proposition more effectively, the value delivered to your organisation will be enhanced. A project that stands no chance of success sometimes cannot be re-framed so should be killed before effort is wasted on it.

The key to influence is maintaining a strong relationship with those having a significant effect on the achievement of your outcomes. Whilst affection and personal chemistry are important, if you are to gain the decision you seek, you need to manage competing agendas to agreement. This makes for a complex picture. Real stakeholder management comes from the orchestration of these vested interests, based on a deep understanding of the base drivers and motivators, personal and professional. That is what makes it fun.

Many project and service managers seem to drift through life in some unholy combination of ignorance and goofy optimism. Of course you must care about your timely output, but if you do not see the evolution of your brief that renders the labour irrelevant, you gain nothing. It is astonishing that so many should start a project or sustain a service without thinking of winners, losers and counter-tactics. Such people are continually surprised by the turn of events, predictable for others. This is immensely wasteful of resource.

The Stakeholder Influence Process

Many approach stakeholder influence in the manner of a 1960s horror flick. The assumption is that the caped and fanged opponent is best approached with a sharpened cedar stake. As long as the opposition is hit hard enough and often enough, victory will follow. Another governance meeting accompanied by screaming damsels and bludgeoned peasants. Unfortunately, the poor project manager is doomed to eternal torture by being re-assigned to the project from hell. It all comes as such a surprise to the poor soul.

There is a better way. Gautrey’s approach shares much with that seen in major account selling, having the advantage of being adapted by an experienced programme manager to project delivery:

  1. Focus – assess your priorities and focus your influencing goal
  2. Identify – work out which stakeholders can have the biggest impact
  3. Analyse – map the position of each stakeholder
  4. Plan – decide your strategy for increasing buy-in
  5. Engage – adapt your approach to influence your stakeholders
  6. Maintain – keep the momentum going with regular reviews.

The insight comes less from the macro-level steps than the indicators of health or trouble associated with each. This gives the practitioner the evidence from which to draw conclusions of the current state, actions needed and the effect in creating the movement required. Most of the questions are really basic, such as:

  • What does each stakeholder want to achieve?
  • What is the quality of your relationship with the person?
  • To what extent is their agenda affected by what you are doing?
  • What is going on around them?
  • What are you going to do with them?

“If you do not truly understand someone else’s position, ambition and problems, your influence attempts will be much more difficult.” The approach allows the practitioner to rise above the wall of obstacles to look for a negotiated better overall solution. The focus is on the delivery of benefit and the management of risk more than purely personal affection. “Influential people seek out what needs to change, and then take the action to bring about the change.” Gautrey carefully positions such influence within an ethical framework that addresses the legitimate interests of the customer to avoid the shoals of exploitation.

Politics does come into the approach although Gautrey knowingly says little on the subject in this book. The finest work I have come across is the now almost ancient Management and Machiavelli. The author, Antony Jay, also wrote Yes, Minister a cutting political comedy, so you know to expect acute observation and wit. This uses Machiavelli’s method of laying out the political options and analysing each in terms of its effects. A fine read and sound method.

The Silver Bullet

Beyond the analysis (which Gautrey advises should be as brief as possible), this is one of the areas in which success really does come down to doing a small number of things well. And sustaining the quality of effort. In the case of influence, it is to build and maintain high quality relationships with your powerful advocates. Effort needs to be focused on the few that matter. Research into successful customer-supplier relationships has identified the following as being most important in building these relationships:

  1. Trust and credibility
  2. Communication and influence
  3. Problem solving and conflict resolution

There are some most helpful indicators of the quality of each of these within the book, valuable in pointing to what needs to be done next to improve what is hoped is already good. It is notable that addressing only the logical aspects of persuasion is far less effective than these methods.

The simplicity of this approach and message does not mean that doing it is easy. Far from it. I remember working long into the night before governance meetings, crafting the presentation of issues so that they would most clearly address the committee members’ agendas and concerns. We knew when we had got it right because they instantly saw the relevance of the question and worked hard to resolve it. This gave the project a boost with new direction and purpose. Hard choices were made and support remained, but only as long as we kept working at it.

An Aside – SIAM

Mr Gautrey’s book addresses project management, producing a simple and pragmatic guide for practitioners. Stripped of research and elaboration. The result is stark and useful.

Much of my work recently has concerned commercial management in a multi-supplier environment. There are two major groups who approach Service Integration and Management (SIAM), each advocating their approach. Both have much value to bring. The first is the Service Manager, bearing high the gospel according to ITIL. This addresses the meat of performance and clarifies the interaction between the parties to delivery. Blessed be the SLA and the performance metric.

The second is the commercial manager with the Old Testament that lays down the covenant in indelible tablets of stone. This hoary seer chants the obligations at matins and vespers, arguing over change notes for the rest of the day. He is accompanied by the ancient prophet of profit, the Finance Manager, reconciling his invoices as the beads of a rosary. Praise be contractual certainty.

Whilst these sages have much to say about what needs to be done to support the successful interaction of multiple suppliers in delivering good end-to-end service, the triune is made whole by effective relationship. This is hard to build and too often trivialised. The vindictive imposition of service credits, the slothful payment of an invoice and havering over change all undermine effective relations. The wise governor knows the complex interaction of interests and balances them continually through influence. This may be imperfectly done, but striving with noble intent steers from conflict to joint problem-solving in an intelligent and flexible manner. This is at the heart of the much sought “intelligent customer” behaviour.


1.    ‘Inside Change’. William Hooper. Business Strategy Review Volume 24 issue 4, 2013.

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