One Simple Step to Improve Any Client Project

Do you have clients? Or maybe important stakeholders to manage? Yep, I thought so.

Sometimes, it’s easy to build a great working relationship with the key players and everything just seems to “click.” Once in a blue moon, there’s a struggle at every turn. Most projects land somewhere in the middle.

But what if you could change this? How often do you take deliberate steps to improve your working relationship instead of winging it or falling into old habits? And what if it wasn’t that hard?

Talk to Each Person—Separately

Try this: have a separate 30-minute conversation with each key stakeholder before you kick off the project and find out what’s important to them. Do a videoconference if possible, but the regular ol’ phone is OK too. The key is talking to each person individually.

Talking one-on-one is the best way to engage with someone who’d otherwise be guarded in their responses. (Photo credit:

In a larger group setting, the interpersonal dynamics change everything. People fall into a default mode, treating the discussion like any other conference call, multitasking on email, slipping into meaningless corporate-speak, etc. You must break out of this to get any level of candor—which, as Pixar knows, is how you get great results.

See? They’re serious about this.

Also, I believe a one-on-one setting is a much better forum for people to really feel heard. Inevitably, limited budgets and timelines will prevent someone from getting something they’ve been dreaming about, but reasonable folks react to these limits more productively if they’ve truly been listened to and feel understood.

Here’s What You Should Ask Them

So if you’re on board with the basic idea of one-on-one discussions, you’re probably wondering what questions to ask them. Here’s what I recommend:

  • “Tell me about your role at the company, and the ways in which you expect to be part of this project.” (Typical answer: “My title is blah blah blah, but really I’m in charge of XYZ. I’ll be running point on issues regarding A, B, and C as it relates to…”)
  • “What’s your take on why this project exists, and why it’s moving forward now versus last year or next year?” (Typical answer: “Well, I think this came up because we were approached by ABC to do a partnership and…”)
  • “What does success look like to you for this initiative overall?” (Typical answer: “We want to launch in six months or less and get to $5M in revenue within 18 months.”)
  • “What’s keeping you up at night about this project?” (Typical answer: “This is uncharted territory for us, and we’ve had bad experiences in the past with outside consultants.”)

I’ve tried different variations over the years, and this is a good list that doesn’t miss anything critical and still fits into 30 minutes. When this goes well, you end up surprised by their answers to some or all of the questions. (You know what happens when you assume!) Armed with this information, you can plan your kickoff agenda more effectively, and sometimes even reduce the number of people that need to attend.

I promise that if you try this, you’ll never regret it.

Thanks to Kevin Hoffman for his thought leadership on designing and running better meetings. I also want to give a shout out to Russ Unger, Brad Nunnally, and Dan Willis for the inspiration in their book, Designing the Conversation: Techniques for Successful Facilitation.