Failures of Client Management

Continuing with our theme of learning from failures – ours or others’ – let’s look at how you can make your project fail in ways related to client (mis)-management.

This column is #2 in a series, following up on October’s failures of project leadership. Again, these points of failure are based on excerpts of a book I’m working on, Pass the Blame! And 99 Other Ways to Screw Up Your Projects.

4. Misunderstand the Business Problem

Unless your specialty is criminal law, your clients come to you because they have business problems.

Sure, those problems (usually) have a legal component, and often the clients state the issue in terms of their perceived legal need. But it’s your job as a legal project manager to first understand the business problem driving the issue.

This is true even with superficially straightforward issues. The client is seeking a patent, for example, but is it an offensive, defensive, portfolio-strengthening, or even a vanity play? The mechanics of prosecuting a patent may be the same, but how you counsel your client – and the time, money, and energy you spend – will likely depend on the client’s business need.

But as you recognize, few business-legal issues are straightforward. One lawyer related to me his experience with a client insisting he spend dozens of hours (and thousands of the client’s dollars) suing someone who was basically judgment-proof. Only after a series of frustrating meetings did he think to ask why the client was so gung-ho on the suit. Turns out the client wanted to send a message to others in similar situations. That knowledge completely changed the way the lawyer pursued the matter going forward.

If you don’t understand your client’s underlying business problem, you’ll waste hours and dollars, and you’ll risk delivering a perfectly fine legal result that doesn’t solve the real problem.

5. Accept an Unsolvable Business Problem

Once you understand the client’s business problem, you need to determine whether or not you can solve it, or at least contribute to a useful solution. If the client is asking you to ski through a revolving door, your project is doomed to failure.

If you don’t believe there is a legal-related solution to the problem (or at least none within shouting distance of what the client is willing to spend), address the issue with the client early in the process. This may mean involving corporate leadership in a worst-case scenario. Who else on the business side needs to be on board, such as project sponsors? Can you get their help in working with the client to find a solution that has a reasonable chance of success?

Don’t be afraid to push back. (Yes, I know some clients are unreasonable. You need to decide whether you want them angry at you now, or later.) Don’t say “No way,” but rather, “I think we might accomplish X, for Y dollars,” as a means of at least starting a useful conversation.

6. Accept Stakeholders Disagreeing on the Business Problem

Most legal project of any real size have multiple stakeholders on the client side. Even if you’re dealing with the CEO directly, there will be others in the reporting chain each with their own issues – and likely maneuvering their way up the ever-narrowing corporate ladder.

One of your first tasks in taking on a legal project is to identify all of those stakeholders, and then to figure out what they need to get out of the matter. For example, if a matter is likely to have public visibility, the marketing/corporate-image team becomes a stakeholder.

It’s your job to help them reach agreement not by getting yourself in the middle but by ensuring that they are all talking to each other. I’ve seen projects where the stakeholders have never met, let alone agreed on goals. Enlist your primary client in resolving these issues, getting people together, and hashing it out.

7. Miss a Hidden Stakeholder

The corporate-image stakeholder mentioned above is one obvious example of a project stakeholder who may be “hidden,” or not obvious to the client and project team. Think about how project teams often learn about this particular stakeholder: They do something that makes complete sense from a legal perspective only to get burned by the fallout from the damage to the corporate image.

But hidden stakeholders make surprise appearances in so many matters. If you’re negotiating an agreement, for example, are you aware of everyone who will have to sign off on it? If you’re buying real estate, who is responsible for checking with multiple jurisdictions to be sure you can build and operate particular businesses – and have you identified all the different business units Facilities is considering for a move into the new space?

It’s up to you as project manager to “think outside the box” and consider the wide variety of possible stakeholders that the project might affect. Even if you don’t think they have a decision-making stake, you don’t want them using backchannels to talk down your project – and your competence – to the company’s C-suite. If in doubt, bring them into the tent, at least in consultation even if not in actual decision-making.

Of course, enlist your client’s help here. Inside counsel may develop a good feeling for corporate issues (and corporate politics), but those not in house rarely see more than a partial and distorted picture.

8. Disconnect From the Stakeholders

Keep your stakeholders in the loop (within the bounds of privilege and confidentiality, of course). If nothing else, you’ll cut down the “noise” (a/k/a whining), but you could be surprised by how often those outside perspectives bring unexpected value to the project, or sound early warnings.

If you allow stakeholders to be at odds with the project team, or with each other, you set up your project to be undercut from within. Lawyers may want to remain above the office-politics fray (and, um, good luck here), but your project itself will rarely be independent of competing corporate interests.

Finally, be sure you have top management support for any project that has a significant budget or involves multiple stakeholders with decision-making input. Remember that your client, too, usually has a boss.

9. Overlook the Backstory

“Backstory” is a literary word for “how we got here.” Consider Hamlet, for example, where the murder at the heart of the drama occurred a month before the play’s first scene. Shakespeare controls the narrative so that we learn about this murder – and other matters of the Danish court – as the play progresses, but projects have no such storyteller pulling the strings.

So you’ll have to seek out the backstory on any matter of significant size.

“How we got here” exerts considerable control over what the various stakeholders want and expect from the legal project. Your project may succeed even if you never learn the backstory… but failing to grasp that narrative can trip you up when you don’t understand what the stakeholders really are after.

Remember, one of the key tasks in project management is to gain agreement on the three or four Critical Success Factors, especially since so many legal projects are ambiguous in defining success. For example, you rarely win or lose a civil suit outright. The action of being granted a patent may be a yes/no question, but there will be ambiguity in what the patent truly covers and the extent to which the company can wield it.

On complex projects, the more you understand about what happened before the client engaged you – including what may have occurred with third parties – the better you’ll be positioned to find business and legal solutions that meet your stakeholders’ objectives.

Next Time

In the next column, we’ll examine some ways in which screwing up the project charter – the gathering and collection of important and shared up-front information – can bring a project to ruin.

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