Most projects begin with a high level of support from a number of key stakeholders. These are the people who have approved the resources or have a need for the project to succeed. As the project proceeds, conditions change and early assumptions often prove to be incorrect. If the program extends and costs start to rise, there is a tendency for people to start to distance themselves from the team. There are, after all, few benefits in being associated with a failing project.

So how do you manage the relationships to ensure your project continues to receive the support it needs to be successful? The answer is to pay attention to the ‘Cycle of Doubt’.

I first came across this term in an excellent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled ‘Protect Your Project from Escalating Doubts’. It sets out some key lessons for every project leader. All projects rely to a greater or lesser extent on a number of key stakeholders. The authors, Karen Brown, Nancy Meyer and Richard Ettenson work through a number of the important aspects of stakeholder support. They observe that an event occurs, which triggers a degree of doubt. The consequence is that the reputation of the project declines in the minds of the stakeholder. This leads to a loss of contribute support which potentially reduces resources needed to deliver the project which means that more deadlines are missed and so there are further doubt triggers.

This might seem quite obvious, but it is important to understand that the reality of the cycle is more subtle. The goals and objectives of the project remain in place, but once the project’s reputation starts to decline, the peripheral support needed from other parts of the organizations involved are now harder to find. Resources become less easy to access and influential individuals start to distance themselves from the project. This leads to further problems as support is slowly withdrawn, continuing the cycle.

The cycle of doubt does not immediately kill your project. After all, doubt is not the same as disbelief or hostility. The effect is less of a collapse in confidence and more of a sense of decline. It is not that the stakeholders no longer believe in the project, but they slowly become more skeptical of the chances of success. Understanding the phenomenon of a slow withdrawal of support is important because it is often initially invisible in the early stages. Once the cycle of doubt takes hold however, it can be difficult to reverse.

My key takeaway from the article is to recognize the tendency towards complacency when managing stakeholders. Too many project managers live inside the ‘project bubble’ as they focus on task progression. Consequently stakeholder support is neglected until there is a crisis, by which time the cycle of doubt has set in and time must now be invested trying to rebuild the projects reputation.

The article provides a useful summary of some of the common triggers that contribute to the cycle of doubt and sets out eight useful actions for managing stakeholder support when the project environment shifts. I have attached a link to the article on the MIT Sloan Review website below. Provided you register, you can access up to three articles a month.

There is nothing particularly radical in their suggestions but the thinking is logical and easy to implement. The point however, is that when your project starts to go off plan, stop the cycle of doubt by addressing issues early. Communicate openly and honestly with key stakeholders and continually work to maintain their confidence in your ability to deliver.