Stages of Project/Relationship Initiation: Diagnosis

This is the fifth in a series of twelve blogs that provide insight and tips on managing client relationships.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with the first stage of project/relationship initiation – The Diagnosis Stage.

Stages of Initiation

Your interaction with the client begins as soon as the client begins to formulate an impression of your organization.  This can be from an initial conversation with a receptionist, reading an advertisement, hearing word of mouth comments, or experiencing the first direct contact with you.  You may or may not have any control over the client’s first impressions, but you need to be aware of them in order to productively manage the initiation of your project.

If you can safely assume some interaction preceded your involvement:

  • Find out as much as possible about the previous encounters (who, what, when, where and why).
  • Determine what went well, and what didn’t.
  • If you uncover any pre-existing problems, make every effort to fix them without blaming or embarrassing anyone (you will be a hero to all involved).

Regardless of whether you are attempting to initiate a new relationship or expand one that currently exists, three stages within initiation will always take place.  There is no prescribed length for each stage, but there is a set order.  It is:

  • Diagnosis
  • Definition
  • Approval

These stages apply to project work as well as all types of supplier – client interactions (including work with internal customers).  Each stage has relationship management implications that need to be addressed.


“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

                                                       – G.K. Chesterton

In you are entering the project very early on; you will most likely be involved with the Diagnosis stage (i.e., figuring out what the problem, opportunity or need actually is).

In the Diagnosis stage, your goal is to determine why the current situation exists, or metaphorically, why the fence was erected in the first place.  Invariably, this will require you to do some detective work, digging into the background and historical data that will develop into a clear picture of the events leading to the current situation.  The more intellectual and emotional awareness you acquire about the client’s relevant history, the better prepared you will be to craft a creative and effective solution.

A significant associated benefit is the client’s increasing confidence that:

  • You appreciate their evolution in arriving at this juncture.
  • You respect their past and present cultural trends and influences.
  • Your solution will reflect where they have been, and where they want to go.

In this stage, you are seeking to understand:

  • Why does something need to be done now (or soon)?

    For example:

      • Has there been an increase in new clients?
      • Has there been an increase in client complaints?
      • Does the business need to diversify?
  • What events have led up to the current state of affairs?

    For example:

      • Has there been a merger or acquisition?
      • Is new leadership setting new priorities?
      • Have market fluctuations required internal reorganization?
  • What relationships are affected (or were affected) by these events?

     For example:

      • Did relationships with existing customers change?
      • Have internal relationships between departments gotten better or worse?
      • Have reporting relationships changed for a number of employees?
  • What previous solutions/alternatives have been attempted, and what do the results of these attempts reveal?

              For example:

      • Can you draw from a repository of lessons learned or best practices?
      • Have there been training programs directed at the situation?
      • Have prior projects attempted to solve the problem?
  • Do different opinions exist as to the need, opportunity or problem?  (i.e., are there two or more ‘camps’ with competing ideas for solutions?)

            For example:

      • Are there two or more executives proposing differing solutions, or defining the situation in competing ways?
      • Are there different solutions for domestic and international interests?
      • Are there ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ forces in opposition?
  • Who are the stakeholders?  (Identify stakeholders who ‘own’ the situation and those who can influence whether or not a solution is pursued.)

             For example:

      • Who has the authority to interrupt or impede the project?
      • Who will derive the most benefit from project success?
      • What departments may not have an interest in the project but may be impacted by it?
  • What do key players believe to be the root cause of the problem?

              For example:

      • Will identifying the root cause have significant political fallout?
      • Is the root cause strictly financial?
      • Has the root cause been previously defined but ignored?
  • How well has the alleged root cause been verified?

             For example:

      • Is the data describing the alleged cause current and relevant?
      • Is the person or group who defined the cause unbiased and properly trained?
      • Have subject matter experts been called in to review the findings and verify their accuracy? 
  • What relationships need to be carefully managed during the Diagnosis stage?

              For example:

      • Are there any key stakeholders who may resist offering information important for accurate diagnosis?
      • Will it be difficult to enlist the support of some key influence stakeholders who don’t see the value of the project?
      • Do you have access to key decision-makers so you can determine how they will base their decisions?

Pursuing a solution or outcome without this vital information can lead to disappointing outcomes or abject failure.  Part of your role as a relationship manager is to develop the client’s commitment to honor best practices and lessons learned.  This will impress the client with the value of their own experience and history, and your value as a facilitator of positive change.  In particular, your interest in (and understanding of) key relationships will let the client know you are aware of the impact that these interactions may have on any new solution.


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