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Map Your Relationships and Save that Critical Project

Several weeks ago I spoke to one of my clients who is trying to rescue a critical project. I’ll call her Susan here (which of course isn’t her real name). Susan is a COO for a rapidly growing company, and she’s been charged with rolling out a customer care initiative for the company. Sales have grown rapidly but the company is struggling to manage the growth—communications are getting crossed, delivery timelines are slipping and customers are seeing problems. They’ve even had one customer cancel a contract in frustration.

Susan seemed like the perfect project leader. She understands the company processes better than anyone, she’s good with technology and she is great at project management—that’s why her CEO put her in charge. But the project is in trouble. They are missing important deadlines, there’s a lot of confusion and people are starting to lose confidence. Worst of all, the company’s customer service department was starting to make jokes that the project is just as bad as the problems it was trying to fix; Susan knew she had to get this in hand, and fast.

Susan had made a big mistake, and a very common mistake: she had focused all of her attention on managing the project and had neglected to manage the relationships needed to make the project successful. I see this problem a lot, and there’s a simple but powerful tool that can help—relationship mapping.

Here’s how it works.

Understanding the power of relationships—especially in a high-growth company

 Like Susan, far too many leaders don’t spend enough time thinking about relationships. The fact is companies are actually complex networks of relationships. The bigger your company, the more complex that network becomes. This is especially true for high-growth companies (like Susan’s) because the network of relationships is expanding and evolving rapidly. As a leader, your most important function is to manage the network of relationships so that all parties are working together smoothly.

Here’s how you can do it.

Start by understanding your network

The first step for any important initiative is understand your stakeholders, and I recommend making a list of your stakeholders at the beginning of any important project. Stakeholders in this context refers to all the people who have any influence on your success; including your boss, your direct reports, peers that you depend on, outside vendors, and even customers.

Analyze your relationships

Next, think about your relationship with each of your stakeholders and classify them in one of three groups: “Ally,” “Neutral,” or “Opponent.” Allies are the people who share your objectives and who are vested in the project’s success. Typically your boss is your ally, as would be your direct reports. Anyone that you have a shared delivery goal with would also typically be an ally. You have a “Neutral” relationship with anyone who won’t be significantly impacted by your success or failure. Sometimes we have important support organizations, such as a finance group or an IT department, that fall into the “Neutral” category. Opponents are people who have competing objectives or a strong disincentive to help you succeed.

And here’s something that trips a lot of people up: it’s possible that someone you normally have a positive relationship with could turn out to be an opponent on a particular project. Remember, this is about goal alignment and how they will be affected by the project; it’s not about personal relationships. Conversely, you might share an important goal with someone that you personally don’t like, and thus you become allies in this context.

Also consider influence in the organization

Now that you understand who’s an alley, neutral or an opponent, think about how influential they are in the organization. For simplicity I generally have people rank influence into three groups: high, medium or low. An opponent who is fairly junior (i.e., low influence) might not be a problem, but an opponent who is in the c-suite could turn into a serious challenge. Also remember to think about true influence and not just title. For example, an ally who doesn’t have a very senior title, but who is very well connected in the organization, is likely to be very valuable.

Set your strategy

Now you can create your map and strategy. I often have clients make a three-by-three grid, with three columns for the relationship (Ally, Neutral or Opponent) and three rows for level of influence (high, medium or low.) You goal is to foster as many allies as possible—i.e., to pull as many people over into the ally column as you can. Look for opportunities to build win-win relationships. If opponents have a specific objection, try to understand their point of view and to find ways to accommodate their concerns. Start with the most influential opponents and work your way down.

Also try to turn natural relationships into allies. Perhaps there’s a way to expand the scope of your work to address some of their priorities as well, or maybe if you explain the initiative they’ll understand the value for the company overall. Make sure to also nurture your ally relationships so they stay strong. If you find there’s an opponent situation where you can’t find a win-win, look for an ally who’s influential enough to you manage the opponent and mitigate any risks.

Conducting this analysis on Susan’s situation helped to find the solution. Although she’d had a long-standing, friendly relationship with the company’s vice president of customer service, John, (again, not his real name), he turned out to be an important opponent. John felt that his department was being unfairly blamed for many of the missteps with customers, and that this whole project was a way to sideline him. He also believed that he wasn’t being recognized for his contribution to the company’s growth, because his department was seen as a back-office function. Although John wasn’t in the c-suite, Susan was highly dependent on him for her success—many of the critical tasks fell to John’s department—and he had a lot of relationships across the company. A closer look revealed that most of the project’s problems seemed to come from disconnects with John’s department.

Susan saw a quick win-win opportunity; she approached the CEO to make John her co-lead on the customer care initiative. She has a long record of success, and she could easily share the spotlight. John needed a visible success and was eager to take on a bigger role. Susan even offered to mentor John so that he would have more support for his professional growth; this meant that John now has a strong incentive to keep Susan happy. It worked, and Susan’s (and John’s) customer care project is back on track.

Take a look at your important initiatives. Have you given enough consideration to your stakeholders? Are there opponents that you’ve overlooked? How well are you managing relationships? Are you fulfilling your most important role of making sure all networks operate smoothly?

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