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Project Management

How to Keep the Approval Process from Bogging Your Project Down

Laura LaPrad
January 21, 2020
conveyor belt with project approvals on the assembly line
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Nothing slows a project down quite like the approval process, amiright?

Your team can be trucking along full speed ahead. Next thing you know, your project hits a wall in stakeholder review. One stakeholder keeps sending new rounds of revisions while another hasn’t responded to any of your emails. 

And your timeline feels the crunch.

It happens to the best of us. But you don’t have to sit back and watch your project crash. 

Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So why not apply that idea here? 

Here’s how to keep stakeholders on track and your project plan intact—and what to do if things go wrong anyway. 

Why projects get stuck in review

You can’t get ahead of a problem if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. So let’s identify common reasons the approval process can go wrong. 

Any of these project bottlenecks sound familiar?

  • Stakeholders provide conflicting feedback.
  • There are too many reviewers with an unclear chain of approval.
  • Reviewers lose sight of the original project goals.
  • You end up in a never-ending cycle of revisions because scope and timing for review were left unclear.
  • A stakeholder misses an approval deadline.

How to prevent bottlenecks and keep the approval process on track

You’ve probably encountered every single one of these hold-ups in your projects—maybe even all at once. The good news is, you can absolutely take steps to keep your projects in check.

Here’s how it’s done. 💪

1. Establish a clear, streamlined process for feedback

It’s a lot harder to succeed if you don’t know what success looks like in the first place. So before you even start to write your plan, discuss review and approval with stakeholders, and let their input shape how the process will work. 

These tips can help you engage stakeholders in a productive conversation about the feedback process before a deliverable lands in their lap for review. 

Set parameters around review

Leaving scope wide open for the feedback process inevitably leads to more work, killing your project budget and timeline.

Be specific about how many days and rounds of revisions a review cycle includes. That way everyone’s on the same page about—and comfortable with—the scope you set together.

Try saying this: Usually I give 3 days for review in the timeline with 2 rounds of revisions. Can you do that?

Establish clear roles and responsibilities for reviewers

Want to avoid too many cooks in the kitchen with no one clearly calling the shots? Set clear roles and responsibilities for each deliverable before the project starts—and be prepared to reiterate this to keep people on task as work progresses. 

Use a RACI chart to document roles and responsibilities, and add this info to task notes in TeamGantt so it’s easy for your team and stakeholders to find at the task level.

Discuss reviewer availability and backup on the front end

Stakeholders are busy folks, and you don’t want to send a deliverable for approval only to find out your stakeholder just left for a 2-week vacation. 

Talking about availability with stakeholders on the front end enables you to build your project schedule around their out-of-office time. It’s also a good idea to ask stakeholders to designate a backup reviewer so you won’t be left in the lurch if (and when) plans change. 

Determine how feedback will be delivered

A good process doesn't happen on its own. So work with your stakeholders to figure out how feedback will be collected and accepted. 

Things can get out of hand fast, especially if you’re working with a large stakeholder group. So do your best to channel feedback through a single stream to minimize confusion and help prevent unnecessary bog-downs brought on by free-for-all debates. We like using a shared document that’s written in one voice with a direct style so it’s easier to resolve conflicts and get to work more quickly. 

Here are a few ideas to help you keep feedback in check: 

  • Consolidate all edits and comments through one stakeholder. Ask stakeholders to designate one person to wrangle all their feedback and send it back in a format that’s actionable and easy-to-understand. This ensures feedback comes back to you in one consistent voice. It also pushes stakeholders to work out differences amongst each other so follow-up conversations and arguments don’t drag your timeline down. 
  • Set an approval meeting to get all reviewers talking in the same room. This tactic worked really well for a high-stakes project I worked on that required input from many busy stakeholders. It helped us come to content decisions more quickly as a team so I had a clear path forward for addressing feedback and securing final approval.
  • Use a collaborative document or tool to gather feedback. This makes it easier to keep tabs on version control. It doesn’t matter what tool you use, as long as stakeholders have easy access and clear guidelines for how, when, and why to use it. 

Just keep in mind that your process may look different for each project depending on what tools your stakeholders use, whether stakeholders are internal vs. external, and what stage your project’s at.

2. Build review and approvals into your plan

Now it’s time to formalize your process by putting tasks, dates, and assignments around it. Make sure tasks and milestones are spelled out really clearly so it’s easy to follow along when you present your plan to stakeholders.

Remember: Creating a project plan is only the beginning. You also need to talk about it. Highlight key approval milestones, and work with stakeholders to answer these questions:

  • Who should be involved at each stage of review?
  • Does the timing for review and approval work? 
  • How will we narrow down feedback and come to a decision?

Yes, you may have discussed all these things at the outset of the project. But things change, and stakeholders aren’t dialed into the project details like you are. 

Consider this a golden opportunity to check in on previous decisions and confirm they still make sense. After all, it’s always easier to adjust the plan before work gets underway. 

3. Proactively manage approval process and expectations

Once work begins, you’ll need to keep a close eye on how things are actually progressing and keep stakeholders in the loop along the way. 

You’re not doing your job as a project manager if you’re not continually iterating and reiterating what’s to come. And if stakeholders understand what’s expected of them and when, they can’t point the finger at you if they miss an approval deadline. 

We’re big fans of dropping hints and cues as gentle reminders along the way. It’s less about being a pest and all about setting your project and stakeholders up for success.

Your project plan and subsequent status reports are simple tools you can use to establish process and responsibilities every step of the way.

Project plan

Your project plan is a living, breathing document that will likely shift and evolve once work begins. So use it as a reference point to communicate progress to stakeholders as you work up to milestones.

For example, let’s say your team is almost ready to present work for review. Reach out to the stakeholder a couple of days in advance to review the timeline and confirm they can still deliver feedback on time. 

And because a plan is visual, it’s an easy way to show stakeholders how their approval impacts the entire project schedule.

Weekly status reports

A weekly status report is the perfect opportunity to give stakeholders a heads up about what’s coming down the project pipeline. 

When you talk through your status report, be sure to call out upcoming milestones, and ask stakeholders if they foresee any issues with their deadlines. If you’re concerned they won’t make it happen, be upfront about the risks of missing a deadline. 

Eliminate surprises by using this opportunity to give stakeholders a brief process refresher and review roles and responsibilities. 

What to do when a stakeholder misses a deadline

This is bound to happen at some point or another, and it’s difficult to resolve because you can’t really control stakeholders—especially if they happen to be paying clients. So what do you do when a stakeholder misses a deadline that will completely alter your timeline?

Here are 3 steps you can take to get your project back on track. 

1. Accept that it’s out of your control and not your fault

The truth is, humans are part of the project process, and you can’t control their actions 100%. If you’ve engaged stakeholders in the planning process and communicated expectations early and often, it’s not your fault if they don’t uphold their end of the bargain.

The best thing you can do at this point is accept the situation and move on to problem-solving mode. Even if the delay isn’t your fault, it’s your job as the project manager to address it. 

2. Use baselines to show the impact of delays

Showing how a delay affects your team’s timing and work helps stakeholders realize the impacts of their inaction. And, unfortunately, sometimes it takes one slip-up for people to get it.

This is where TeamGantt’s baseline feature comes in handy. For instance, if you set a baseline and then update your plan based on the new, extended deadline, you can show stakeholders how their missed deadline shifts your entire plan. 

3. Negotiate a change in your plan to make up for the delay

This is where the rubber meets the road. Take a look at the timeline, and offer solutions to minimize the project damage.

You might have to remove time from future review cycles, cut back on the project scope, or add more resources to the budget to meet the final deadline. Discuss alternate options with your stakeholders—and be honest about what’s possible—to ensure they understand the impact of the delay and are on board with the plan for moving forward.

It won’t be easy to sort out because the options are never ideal. Whatever you do, stand firm in the time you planned to execute the work—and reiterate the importance of that time to the quality of the project. 

Just know you can always work through any issue. And while your stakeholders might not end up 100% happy, you’re doing everything in your power to make up for lost time and keep the project on track.

Dive deeper to keep stakeholders on track and in your corner

Want even more tips and tools for managing stakeholder relationships? Check out Class 09 - How to Manage Stakeholders in a Project in our free online video course The Art & Science of Leading Projects.

Learn how to manage expectations and address red flags before they become an issue. Plus, download helpful resources like a stakeholder decision matrix and a new stakeholder onboarding template. 

It’s all on-demand and totally free!

Start learning today!

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