The Most Important Project Management Knowledge Area

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Categories: Stakeholder, Stakeholder


By Rex Holmlin


I teach project management to undergraduate and graduate students, and recently one of my students asked me which knowledge area was the most important.


My response: All the knowledge areas are important. Depending on the project and organizations involved, we would use more or less of the processes and tools, but most likely we would use all the knowledge areas in some way to help ensure project success.


But as I reflected on the question later, as well as my own nearly four decades of experience as a project manager, I realized my answer wasn’t great. In retrospect, I should have said Stakeholder Management is the most important knowledge area.


By training, I am an engineer. I love cost estimating and scheduling. But as important as these topics are, the source of most problems on projects is people. And the best way to avoid project problems is through the people involved in the project.


Therefore, paying attention to the four processes of stakeholder management can pay significantly more dividends to a project than a schedule or cost estimate.


When it comes to stakeholder management, I believe we shortchange our projects most often in two areas.The first is identification of stakeholders.


I am reminded of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Early in the film, train robbers Butch and Sundance are being chased by a posse. They stop to catch their breath, hoping they have lost the posse. When the lawmen appear over the ridge still on their trail, Butch and the Kid look at each other and say, “Who are those guys?”


This is the key question with the identification of stakeholders. We as project managers need to do a very thorough job of identifying the people, groups and organizations not only involved in the project, but who might be affected by it.


The second aspect of stakeholder management where project managers often fall short is stakeholder analysis. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge(PMBOK® Guide)includes some great stakeholder analysis tools, but I recently came across an outstanding academic article(PDF link) by John Bryson of the University of Minnesota about stakeholder analysis.


It provides step-by-step instructions on 15 stakeholder analysis tools and techniques that can really take your understanding of the stakeholders in your project to the next level. I think you’ll find it both interesting and a potential source of tools to help you avoid a lot of the headaches we often encounter with project stakeholders. 


Which knowledge area do you think is the most important?

Posted by Rex Holmlin on: May 01, 2015 04:40 PM | Permalink

Comments (17)

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Based on the experience with those of my projects that were not successes I agree that stakeholder management is the single most important knowledge area. Then maybe I'd list communications management. However, in the long term the most important and impactful topic, which gets a little bit lost in the structure of process groups and knowledge areas is a good project close out with lessons learned. For me that is the single most powerful area for the team, the PM and the whole organization.

Hi Thilo!

Thanks for the note and comment.

I agree. Project close-out and development of lessons learned is central to project success. I think in many projects we don't begin close-out as early as we might and we get the project "physically complete", but can never quite push it across the goal line in terms of close out being complete.

I also believe your emphasis on lessons learned is right on target. This is really a knowledge management issue, but many organizations don't place it in that context. Instead, we let the knowledge we have developed......often through a fair amount of effort and pain..."roll of the table" never to be thought of again. Thanks for commenting!

I also believe that stakeholder management is an important knowledge area. If there is any road block in the project than people are the only resource when they work together as a team can accomplish any challenging work and come out with their best ideas

Hi Dheeraj!

Thanks for the note and your comment. You're absolutely correct. We have a wealth of tools in project management, but at the end of the day, it is all about the people on our project team.

Thanks Rex for your post.
I agree that stakeholder management is a primary knowledge area.
Subset of this is the sponsor''s identification and analysis.
I''d like to suggest another key question after "Who are those guys?": "what relationships there are among them"?

Hi Alessandro!

Thanks for your comment! Your question, "What are the relationships between stakeholders?" is both important and often overlooked aspect of stakeholder management. Our stakeholders often have interests and objectives that are not completely aligned with the project. Additionally, even in the same organization, they may have vastly different risk thresholds and tolerances. Thinking about, and understanding, the relationships between stakeholders may open up avenues for influencing stakeholders through other project stakeholders as well as help us understand communication patterns and concerns of our stakeholders.

It would be apt to say people management is the key to project success. Thank you for the post. You miss or ignore an influential stakeholder at your peril

Hi Rachit!

Thanks for your note and observation; I agree very strongly with you that "people management" is a key to project success. Within the "people management" umbrella I would include three PMI knowledge areas .....stakeholder management, human resource management and communications management....a total of 11 different processes.

I think your observation about ignoring an influential stakeholder "at your peril" is right on target. While we may not enjoy thinking in those terms, we don't set our project or ourselves up for success by ignoring influential stakeholders.

Thank You. People Management is a kind of art.!!!!.

I like how this conversation has turned towards the topic of people management. We are constantly talking about delivering value and the best way to measure value is to look your stakeholders, your people, in the eye and see their reaction. I agree, people management is an art.

Hi Balasubramanian! Hi Kevin!

Webster''s Dictionary defines art as "a skill acquired by experience" and "an occupation requiring knowledge and skill" Your observations are exactly right. I think the most successful project managers focus on developing their "people management" skills which would include project stakeholder management, project communications management and project human resource management.

Interestingly, Webster''s also defines art as "something that is created with imagination and skill that is beautiful"...... which is likely what all project managers think about their projects.

Really loved this blog as well as the chain of meaningful discussions !!! Thank you all.

Hi Heman!
Thanks for the note and very kind words. I hope you continue to find useful information in all of the blog postings on Voices of Project Management.

A project manager spends 80% of their time communicating. Stakeholder identification is critical, and I cannot deny that a dis-engaged stakeholder will derail a project. But, I would offer that communication is on equal footing with stakeholder management. These two areas (stakeholder and communications) are like a dancing couple twirling arm-in-arm. Lose one, and the other falls.

Excellent, and well-written article Rex!


Thank you for initiating this great thread.

The project starts & ends with Stakeholders - I agree that Stakeholder management is a make-or-break factor in successful project management.

I also agree with David - Without effective communications management, one cannot effectively engage Stakeholders & drive the results that the project needs.

But to me, Risk Management is absolutely critical. When done right, it gives a realistic map of the likely pitfalls which must be addressed in order to drive project success (such as which stakeholder to pay more attention to; what communications mechanisms should the PM leverage in engaging the stakeholder; what depth & frequency of communication would the stakeholder be most receptive to; etc - and I deliberately chose these examples to connect to stakeholder management & communications management). Bottomline, if the PM does not give adequate attention to risk management, he/she would drive the project off the rails.

Very interesting all your opinions. I have read several articles where experts agree that all areas of knowledge are key and important. However, I want to share a reflection, the core of a project is to generate a tangible or intangible product; manage people, costs, time, manage participants, manage risk, produce a scheduled program, everything is focused on the scope of the project, what will be produced. If this is the core of the project, the reason for being, the object of it ... I would think that quality is the most important thing. If all work is supported by a culture and quality infrastructure, expectations and the project by itself should be met in time and cost. Therefore, I would consider this, the quality, the most important area over others.

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