Back in 2018, I was working in Functional Safety team when the software development director (where I had left his team a year ago) was down in Penang, met up came to me with a proposition. At that time, Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning and Machine Learning were the buzz words of the industry. Company also made headlines by acquiring a low power inference engine IP startup called Movidius. He came to me asking if I would like to be the program manager for the overall software deliverables for a new product now called the 3rd Generation Intel Vison Processor Unit (VPU). It was supposed to be the first System on Chip (SOC) made by Intel to offer deep learning inference (whereas in the past, Movidius created Neural Network accelerators). The job is to ensure smooth planning for all software components that make up the full solution, monitor the execution of software engineering deliverables to be on time and make sure that we meet the stringent quality release criteria. I made up my mind to take up this role before his visit was over and sealed the deal because I believe in the future of this product.
Fast forward to 2021, the product is finally launched and the project is by far the most challenging in my career. I learned a lot from this project, as we have to define a new product with a unique software stack. At the same time, a lot of the business hinge on the success of this product, so we get a lot of visibility from VP level management, which means we have a good “monitoring and controlling” process for this project.
The most unique aspect of this project to me was the people who are part of my stakeholder in this project. To put it in perspective, this is the first time I am involved in a project that involves stakeholders from literally all over the world, from various backgrounds (as some of part of the Movidius acquisition) and all new to the product, process or company in one way or another.
I want to take this chance to share some of the lessons on stakeholder management that I have to learn the hard way in this project.
The program teams are located all over the world. The teams working on key silicon IP and software are based in Europe. Leadership of the program are based in the US. Engineering teams, especially the customers, are based in Asia. With the teams spread out all over the world, there are inherent challenges with managing project and management stakeholders. The most basic problem is finding the best time to meet and sync on the fast paced project. Changes are always coming in hard and fast as we try to build a new product for a new market. Secondly, at the start of the program, there is challenge on aligning our planning and dependencies since there’s not much clarity on the dependencies.
I learned about the “Power-Interest” matrix to manage stakeholder in the PMP training and I find it easy to use. Every stakeholder is rated in 2 categories. First is how much “Power” or authority that they have on the project. People in Power could be the project sponsor (who is funding the project), the managers, directors and VP’s who are directly responsible for the success of the project. In other words, these are the people in management who “put their badge” on the project. The second category are people who have interest in the project. They come with many reasons to be interested in the success of the programs, some of them are line the business unit managers, who wants to grow the business using the product but not part of the program execution team.
Based on their “power-interest” matrix, I am able to manage their needs and expectations and at the same time “protect” the project execution team. The aim of stakeholder management is to ensure that satisfaction of the stakeholders.
The key stakeholders that needs to be engaged and influenced actively are those that have high influence and also high interest in the program. These are the people like the VP of program portfolio, whose responsibility it is to ensure that all programs are executed according to plan. He gets a weekly meeting with all the key functional teams, and we bring up the top issues to him (and hopefully there is a proposal for a path forward to overcome the issues). He is kept informed in the meeting but the review also gives him a chance to provide feedback. This is where he exerts his power and influence.
We also have to deal with people who are high powered but low interest. I have a local VP who is not as interested in the project as it is the responsibility of his counter part at that time. So the strategy is to keep him satisfied, so I bring up the program status during our few meetings together. He asked that I help his team to enable a new use case, where I made sure that team got all they needed. He is happy in the sense that his team have some involvement in the project that would have contributed to new customer engagement
The harder ones to please are those that have high interest but low power (most of the time they think they have high power). We have a business unit marketing person who is very interested in the program to a point that he is trying to influence the direction of the program execution by repeatedly pushing his requirements into the discussion. Our mistaken was inviting him to attend our execution meeting, when we should have just kept him informed through weekly dashboards or forwarding the meeting minutes.
And finally there are those who are are not in power to impact the program and also not interested in the program. These are the rest of the people working on other programs. The strategy is to monitor their needs. One example is a business unit manager where we called to meet once our product is stable to inform him that he can start to explore the marketing strategy on his side. Something for him to think about if he wants to include in his portfolio. Something that would be a win-win for him and the project team
Tip – Personality Profile
There are many personality profile that is available such as the more widely used DISC profile or the “Colored Brain”. All these profiles provide individuals with a specific profiles, so that they understand their strength and weakness. In a group setting, personality profile can be used so that we can work with each other better. Most of these profile tests like DISC will provide, in general, the way a person prefers to work. Understanding the person’s profile, we can work with them on using their preferred method instead of what you feel like doing. It’s not enough to stereotype a person based on their profile, the tip is to have a conversation with the individual and find out what works for both of you on how you want to work together.
With the stakeholder management strategy lined up, applying the strategy to real life use case is a different story altogether. There’s a lot of grey lines when categorizing the power-impact of the person, especially in the early stages of the program. I felt that my inter-personal skills in building relationship with people was useful for the most part. I am sure there are other skills that will be as useful, but for that time I leverage on what I had.
I feel if there’s a pair of glasses that I can wear and it shows the true intention of the person, it would have helped civilization. But non exist. Instead, I build upon the Malaysian culture of hospitality and friendliness to get to know the few people that matters. Once we know what are their goals and their purpose, it is easy to be aligned with their actions. Our chief engineer is very competitive and we thought it was because she was competing with another project that is happening in parallel, want to show who is better. But deep down, she wants to make sure that execution is unhinged because we are creating a whole new product line, using a new technology. This would be the first product for the company. We can see that she has a larger purpose for us to be successful and that helps us to support her in despite the stressful expectations.
Listening also helps to build trust in the stakeholder.
2. Offer Help, Lean in to your network
My key partners in the programs are part of a recent startup acquisition, coming into a large company is a culture shock for them since they now have to deal with tighter process and more teams. Knowing their struggles, I offered help. I have experience in releasing software using the company process and I took on the responsibility to set up the larger process so that they just have to follow on. We also worked together to define the process for integration and testing, ensuring that they still keep the process they are familiar with and still able to deliver the to the overall program.
Secondly I also leaned in to my contact to get help. One key area is in logistics and platform enablement. I asked my team to help document and check out the pre-silicon platforms so that it is easier for others to use. I also helped to reach out to the lab team to help with board shipment as some boards need to go to US before repackaged to be shipped to India. I lean in a lot to my contacts and networks, at a point the chief engineer called me the “mafia” since I am able to clear some of the roadblocks for the programs by leveraging on others.
3. Point to the vision
I find that in almost all cases, it is easy to come to a consensus during discussion if the larger picture or the vision is clear. Ultimately, all the stakeholders are in the same boat, especially with our partners with other organisation. Whenever we start a serious discussion like a map day, we always start by coming together on what we want to achieve for the program. Many times, we get derailed by some ideas from stakeholder on how best to handle things, or what are the new requirements needed. Ultimately, we always point back to the 2 main customer and what they are asking for as the anchor to all our decision.
Lucky for us that the company have a good recognition system where I can give points to people, that they can later convert to vouchers. I use that system a lot when I see people putting effort to move the program forward. There are small wins that we celebrate together such as after map days and face to face meetings. Other times, a simple thank you note to them and the managers do help. The recognition piece is something that needs mindfullness, need to be aware when people are putting their best and remember to recognize them. My policy for sending out recognition is to award the effort not the outcome, be specific on the what I am recognizing and also point out how that has impact in the larger picture.
5. Build your supporters
Despite all the I can do, there are people who will not be swayed by what I say. I accept as a fact of life, I cannot win over everyone. For situations like this, I build up a team of supporters. Don’t get me wrong, I was not building a bunch of “Yes” man. I was building a network of people that trust in me. They are the people that I ask for help, to lean in, when I need to bridge with someone else. This strategy also works to reach out to more people. Since I am limited by how many people I can engage, I will leverage the program manager from my partner organisation to talk to all the people in his org on my behalf. That way I can reach out to them, using someone that they already trusted, slowly I will build up trust that way too.
Leading this program has been a new high in my career as I have many opportunities to overcome challenges that maybe comes once in a decade. Thinking back, there are many aspects in program management that I played a part but most proud of the stakeholder management that was put in place. It’s about achieving results through others without authority, that’s what influencing is all about.
This article serves as a documentation of my own lessons. To respect the people and the situation, I tried to remove all names and references as much as possible, knowing that it will water-down the context of the situation. I know in 10 years time, I probably cannot remember the when-how-what in the stories.