Getting Sign offs on Project Documents
As a project manager, have you had issues getting clients to sign off on documents prepared for their review? Well, sometimes getting clients to read through the document and then thoroughly understand the contents before appending a John Hancock can be a daunting task. In my experience, clients are reluctant to sign off on documents because they feel obligated or bound to its contents. It makes them responsible if there are any issues which affect the project in the long run. Clients don’t want to be held accountable for affirming something that could potentially have an impact on the project, the organization or even their employment.
Project sign-off usually means accepting the project during the project closure phase, which involves making sure that all the deliverables are completed, and all the deliverables are according to the project scope.
However, a project sign-off can also mean the following:
– Approving the project charter or other major project documentations like Project plan, User Acceptance Test plan, Requirements Specifications, etc
– Approving a major deliverable in the project
– Accepting the closure of a phase in a multi-phase project
In general, we can say that project sign-off means a formal acceptance from the client, regardless of when this acceptance occurs and why. Sign offs are critical throughout all processes in the project management cycle because they ensure that stakeholders are carried along with the progress of the project.
Importance of Sign offs
Protects the interests of all stakeholders
Sharing of risk between service provider and client so that both parties stay accountable for the success or failure of the project
Ensures that stakeholders are carried along during the project life cycle
How to get that Sign off!
From the outset you need to establish who has the authority to sign off the various stages. This might be a team member, the project manager, a senior manager or the business owner. Also you need to decide which key deliverables require sign off from clients before moving to the next process or phase. Ensure that these decisions are properly communicated to project team members and client from the initiation so they know the expectations and purpose of the sign off.
Ensure that clients appoint key individuals who will handle sign off at each process or phase. Carry these individuals along during those phases and ensure they properly understand the information contained in the document. Explain to clients at the onset the importance of getting sign offs and appointing individuals who will be responsible with handling the signing of project documentation.
If possible, provide abridged or summary documents for review. Clients can get overwhelmed with bulky documents and it might dissuade them from actually reading and understanding the information presented in the document. Summary/Overview will highlight key information that is relevant to the client and easy to assimilate.
Maintain a culture of trust and reliability with your client. If they feel they can trust you not to use information against them, they are more likely to sign on the dotted lines. As a PM, you have to deliver on your project targets and milestones at least most of the time. If you have a poor delivery rate, always missing targets and deadlines, the chances of getting a sign off at the completion of a project phase becomes challenging. Also, your ability to implement feedback from your client into your project demonstrates that you value their input and will make them cooperative during the sign off phase.
Include clauses or statements in your sign off that make documents valid after a period of time if not signed. However efforts need to be expended by the PM to ensure that sign offs are properly documented and archived. While you don’t want to threaten or manipulate your client with the clause, a good PM ensures that the purpose of the sign off is properly communicated and manages the client through the process until project closure is completed.
I’ve also discovered that escalating delays in sign offs via issue/risk register and formal letter to key decision makers on the client side can get effective feedback. Departments/units do not want to be held liable for posing a risk or delaying the project. So, once an action item or query is issued from top management, the probability of getting immediate response is increased. That can be another effective means of getting the information you need at the right time without delaying the progress of your project.
If all else fails, there’s always good ‘ole’ Nigerian incentives*. Freebies like recharge cards, branded gift items, stationary, etc can go a long way in getting customer acceptance. The incentives should be meant to motivate the clients and get them to appreciate the importance of the sign off especially when they are sceptical of their involvement in the project. It will go a long way towards restoring confidence, team building and facilitating participation from all key stakeholders.
*Disclaimer: Please note that the author is by no means advocating or suggesting bribery in exchange for sign offs. The PM should always strive to adhere to ethical standards in the performance of their duties as dictated by the professional organizations they represent and established laws and guidelines.
About the Author
Uloma Jacob PMP is a Program Manager, consultant and trainer on project management, strategic and operation planning, and PMO set up and management. She blogs about her experience managing projects in Nigeria on her blog – bespokemgmtconsult.blogspot.com.