Is your project more than a line item on a spreadsheet?
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
In this wildly uncertain time but almost certain budget reductions, I'm hearing of scenes playing out in virtual conference rooms across the country: a list of all 2020 initiatives are culled together, listed on a spreadsheet, and projected on a shared screen so a leadership team can evaluate if they are 'essential' or 'non essential'. Suddenly all your sweat and tears over the past 10+ months is winnowed down to a single line with column headings such as:
Alignment to strategic pillar
Projected revenue impact 2020
I've been in plenty of these meetings before, either as the decisioning body where you have only a cursory understanding of what "Enhance Workforce Efficiency through X" and 50 other projects really are, or (if you were lucky) on the lobbying side pleading for the life of the project due to circumstances which are usually out of your control. Many times you don't get to be in the room at all.
Pardon the GOT reference - or the suggestion that your project is as shady as Little Finger - it's those projects that do deserve to die.
In The Room Where it Happens
The mood in these meetings will be tense, project sponsors will be surveying the [virtual] room for alignment behind their pet projects- maybe there was pre-lobbying for Project X, even horse-trading. Some may come prepped with their own pre-conceived kill list. The CFO will remind everyone the tough road that lies ahead - hidden message - don't fight me on this. The point is - there is a lot of corporate politics at play that are often largely out of your control.
Ultimately the fate of your project lies in a collective understanding of what your project means to each of these decision makers. How well do they understand it? How well does it align to goals they care about? Does your project have a story? Do your stakeholders know it?
I've seen the power of a good story narrative move mediocre projects through, and the absence of it kill deserving ones. And when I am saying 'story' I am talking both about an emotional short 'hook' that engages your audience while connecting to your initiative, but also the strength of a clear narrative - a compelling story arc - to not only explain your work but get your audience to CARE about it, root for it. When people have a real connection to your work it means more than the one sentence description it is allotted on the spreadsheet, and adds color to the $$$ in the cost column.
So what if you didn't do that upfront 'story' work. Now what?
Here are some suggestions based on some plausible scenarios you may be facing over the next few weeks:
You have time to get a [virtual] meeting with key decision makers or influencers.
Whether 1:1 or with a group, put your narrative together (typically slides) and be prepared to adjust it based on your audience. Keep it short and sweet, but include:
What's at stake. What happens if we DON'T do this?
Pick 2-3 data points & visually show what the problem is - how it's trending
Know what their push back is going to be and address it head on
Find creative ways to get them to experience the problem your initiative is solving. They need to feel the pain first hand.
Try as you might, you can't get an audience before 'the meeting'. I get it - everyone is heads down or locked in other meetings.
Take a video of yourself delivering the short presentation - with your face and the slides. Note the tips above. They need to see (and hear) your passion.
Send the video to each stakeholder individually with a personal note. Even if they don't watch it all (or any) you'll get remembered. Which may be a deciding factor.
You have NO time to get a meeting with key decision makers or influencers but are granted 2-3 minutes 'air time' at a collective meeting to 'plead your case' .
Forget Power Point - or a 'plan on a page'. Do something different to break up the monotony of what is surely a long day of diatribes. You'll be more memorable, and your creativity will be noted.
If I had only a few minutes, I'd concoct an exercise where everyone in the [virtual] room had to do something to experience life with / without my project so they can 'feel' the pain or the benefit.
Spreadsheet is with the CFO, they have final decision, 12:00AM deadline and it's 11:57PM. Take a shot of tequila and pray. It's out of your hands my friend.
Your project has miraculously survived the first round of cuts OR your business has somehow dodged the COVID economic bullet. Don't take it for granted. Check in. Get the internal 'vibe' on the project and listen how others play it back to you. If it needs work, start building out your narrative NOW.
Think about your audience! What do they care about? Why should they care about your project?
What is the big idea? Please - if it's a technology project - it's NOT ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY. It's about how the technology improves the experience for actual people.
Build your presentation around a compelling story structure - take your stakeholders on a journey. It doesn't have to be a novel! You can do this in less than 10 slides.
Tell them what's at stake if your project does not go through.
I'll say this again: Come up with a short exercise to get them to engage in the conversation or feel the pain of what your project is solving. I know it may feel strange, but get over it. What do you have to lose?
Be well my friends. Of course if you want to bounce off your work, get feedback on your structure or need guidance, I'm here to help. I prefer this work to home schooling.
Meredith Jurek is a former CMO and VP Marketing across several major consumer service brands. She is now the founder and Chief Articulator of Storycore, where she helps business leaders get their strategy 'out of their head' and onto a shareable format so they can evangelize change within their organization . Follow her on LinkedIn at meredithcjurek and Storycore.