It is rare for a project of any size not to rely on at least one person or group outside your department or even your company. Even in a minor role, these external players have the potential to loom large if they fall behind schedule.
So you must be proactive to enlist cooperation on your project.

Even in best of circumstances, with support from management, a competent contact person, and clearly defined specifications, things can go wrong. It seems as if this should be a simple relationship: All you need to do is make a phone call to introduce yourself, briefly explain your project and what she needs to do, and give her the name of the contact within your group. Then you can tell her the major project milestones, invite her to call any time she has questions or concerns, and ring off.

But if you only do that to enlist cooperation, it’s likely that you’ll find out a few weeks later that nothing has been done—that this “minor” component of your project may limp along behind schedule for the rest of the project, perhaps eventually affecting your critical path. The component may have to be minutely tested for every function. In short, that small but now significant portion of the project has become a disaster. Why?

To answer this question on how you enlist cooperation, you need to consider the situation from the contact person’s point of view:

Perhaps, on the day you called, she was distracted by another problem and didn’t catch everything you said; then later on, when she looked at what she did write down, it didn’t make any sense. To her, you were just a disembodied voice full of your own self-importance, and this rubbed her the wrong way.

She may have felt that your assignment had been thanklessly dumped on her; perhaps her supervisor “volunteered” her without reducing her existing workload.

She never called the contact you gave her because she didn’t know where to begin and didn’t want to appear foolish. And, because your project never came up in status meetings with her supervisor, the whole thing was easy to shuffle to the bottom of her things-to-do list.

The lesson here is that when working with people outside your group, your department, or even your company, you need to overcome any tendency to assume too much and minimize contact; in actuality, these are the people that need interpersonal contact the most when you are trying to enlist cooperation.

Tips to help you avoid the pitfalls of trying to enlist cooperation

  1. Make personal contact. Whenever possible, arrange a face-to-face meeting with contact people. Don’t interact solely over the phone or by memo unless you work in different countries. Establish some rapport face-to-face.
  2. Start with a short warm-up visit; this should be no more than a brief introductory meeting at a mutually convenient time. Send a friendly memo with a succinct overview of your project prior to the meeting. Don’t blindside them with a cold call, filled with details they can’t absorb. Instead, give them some more documentation and some time to prepare for the in-depth follow-up meeting. Allow them ample time to review it and bring their questions.
  3. Ask for their help. Don’t assume that they are already on board psychologically. The tone of your initial meeting should be “Will you help me?” not “You will do this.” Ask if they can meet the projected schedule. Give them on honest opportunity to say no. And make sure they have a realistic workload and support from their manager.
  4. Personally introduce them to their contacts and technical resources in your company or department. Walk them to the office of each person they will need to work with or get information from and introduce them. Sit in on high-level meetings if necessary. Make sure your group is accessible and helpful.
  5. Provide an in-depth explanation in person, including documentation they can refer to later. Either personally review the project at the required level of detail with them, or make sure the right person does. Don’t force them to ask for everything.
  6. Invite them to all meetings. That includes the kick-off meeting as well as all status and impromptu meetings. Treat them like full team members. Even though they may not choose to attend everything, give them the option.
  7. Include them in the information loop. Make sure they are on all relevant distribution lists. They need to know project status, design changes, and schedule adjustments just as much as the other stakeholders.
  8. Do milestone check-ins. The early ones are the most important. Personally review the deliverables. Be sure to catch miscommunications up front. Be explicit in your feedback about what has been done right and what needs improvement. Once you’re comfortable that the contact people are on track, you can then do high-level check-ins.
  9. Include them in all acknowledgment meetings and accomplishment write-ups. Everyone likes to have his or her name associated with a successful project. Make the acknowledgments appropriate to their level of contribution.
  10. Write them personal thank-you notes. Acknowledge that their contributions required effort above and beyond their regular assignments (if this was the case).
  11. Write a memo to their supervisor specifically describing their contributions. Be honest, fair, and timely with your report.

But why bother with all this time-consuming personal contact when trying to enlist cooperation?

Here are several reasons:

The first is that it will ensure the success of your project. If you don’t use your “soft management skills, all the “hard” skills in the world won’t get your project completed. Because people get the work done, people skills are what will encourage them to do it right.

The second reason relates to your product or service. Every component and every person on your project is important, and this includes interfaces with projects and people outside your project. If it fails in any area, your project and others will be negatively impacted, perhaps in ways you may not even be aware of until serious damage has been done.

The third reason to pay special attention to personal contact has to do with your career and your reputation. A good project manager wants to be known as a person with whom people want to work. Yes, there may have been a few successful projects that left dead bodies and bad feelings in their wake, but you need to consider all the projects that will follow the present one; in short, you need to consider your career. It’s never worthwhile to stay on bad terms with people you have worked with; you may need them for your next project; they may get transferred to your department, or you might get transferred to theirs. One of you may end up as the others boss. You never know.

In addition, the people you work with have coworkers, spouses, friends, and acquaintances in the industry. The bigger the impact you’ve had on them—positively or negatively—the more likely your name will come up—positively or negatively. If people feel that you dealt with them fairly and helped them to do a good job (or at least to avoid failure), your good reputation will follow you.