Managing Projects with Multiple Clients

By Bruno Collet

The number of clients is one of the biggest factors of complexity, and therefore of success, for a project. By “client” we mean here any stakeholder who is expecting business benefits from the project. The best – possibly only – time to set this part right is at project initiation. Consequently, it’s critical to set up a system that will help manage multiple clients with overlapping and/or conflicting interests.

1. Identify clients

Among all stakeholders, clients are those who expect business benefits from the project and can express them clearly. Make sure they understand that they will have a job to do. Explain that they will be responsible for some activities and co-accountable for results. This should avoid free riders who want to influence the project without committing anything. Power comes with responsibility.

2. Group clients according to expected business benefits

Group clients based on what matters to them. In order to do that, list business benefits stated by clients and let them “subscribe” to any of them. Again, mention that subscribing as a client will generate some work on their side. Try not to exceed around 5-10 business benefits for a mid-size project.

3. Define high-level business deliverables and corresponding clients

Divide the project into high-level business deliverables based on clearly delimited business benefits while optimizing for minimum number of clients for each deliverable.

For each deliverable, agree on one primary client who is accountable for all client activities for this deliverable. If needed, agree on a few secondary clients who will be consulted or informed. The primary client is responsible to act as proxy for secondary clients of the same deliverable.

Make sure primary and secondary clients understand what these responsibilities are in terms of power over the deliverable and work expected from them. While this might vary across projects, I suggest making the primary client fully accountable (provide requirements, approve deliverables, and so on) and that he/she chooses if and when to involve secondary clients. Therefore secondary clients really are, as the name implies, secondary.

The project sponsor sits above all clients in the sense that he/she is the primary client for the whole project and therefore the default primary client for every business deliverable unless he/she delegates this responsibility to another client. In large organizations the sponsor might not be the main beneficiary of the project or at the right level to take on an active client role, but is rather the one who has the budget.

The business deliverables should become the top level (below the project itself) of the work breakdown structure (WBS). In effect, it corresponds to breaking down the project into subprojects, or making the project a program containing specific projects.

WBS for Multiple Clients

Figure 1: WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) for Multiple Clients

4. Perform project management activities separately for each business deliverable

Most project management activities are local to a given business deliverable. For example, scope, cost, and schedule are managed at business deliverable level. More importantly, change management and communications are performed separately for each business deliverable. This ensures that project management activities are located at the appropriate level of detail and that communications remain relevant at all time.

To better understand the benefits of this approach, let’s have a look at the opposite approach. The same project is structured around technical deliverables, the top level of the WBS being essentially a list of technical silos. In this case, because technologies tend to transverse business deliverables, it would mean that all clients have to be involved for all deliverables, spurring a flurry of over-communication and diluted accountability, not to mention the difficulty to assess project performance in a meaningful way since many deliverables do not have business meaning.

Bruno Collet combines business acumen with technology know-how. His successful track record comprises Daimler-Chrysler, Siemens, and Loto-Quebec, with roles such as management consultant, project manager, SAP consultant, and software architect. Bruno Collet’s skills are firmly grounded in academic excellence by achieving an MBA at John Molson School of Business and a Master of Computer Science. He maintains a professional website:

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