Project Management

When the Only Constant is Change: Managing Projects in a World of Changing Stakeholders

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The saying goes that two things in life are certain: death and taxes. However, experience confirms that a third element can be added to this list: change. Change is now the new normal and in the context of not-for-profit projects, this reality is more visible than ever.

Numerous articles have been written about our changing environment, ranging from the way new technologies are revolutionizing our workplaces to how people can cope with change as an individual process. Even in project management events, there is now usually a track for exploring the relation between projects and change. Change management appears to be the current hot topic.

Change is at the core of what project managers do. Projects are vehicles for change, and through their execution they seek to create a better status quo. Despite the strategic importance of change management within project management, changing stakeholders is seldom addressed. That is, the interested and/or impacted parties that can make or break your project.

Stakeholders can change for various reasons. Examples include stakeholders who haven’t been previously identified and suddenly become a driving force in the project, a change in the structure of a supplier’s organization, a major donor who decides to get involved, or for political reasons.

If changing stakeholders is a scenario which some project managers in for-profit companies may be familiar with, this situation is even more evident in the setting of not-for-profit organizations. In fact, non-profit organizations play a vital role in creating value in and for the civil and public societies, however, they often encounter themselves at a crossroad. The rapidly changing environment where they operate – such as extreme cases of disaster recovery and emergency response projects – may not always allow for a thorough stakeholder management analysis, not to mention government and government-related institutions are often one of their key stakeholders Thus, the risk of changing priorities from key partners and fund providers when elections are due being a constant risk to be managed.

Bearing this in mind, it is therefore crucial for project managers to know how to deal with the new stakeholders in town. Here are a couple of strategies you can employ:


Get to know your new stakeholders

The official email is out and you’ve been informed that a new person is joining today. Don’t be shy…go introduce yourself! Briefly explain what your role is, what projects you are involved in, and even point out where your desk is, if applicable. Show hospitality and be approachable. First impressions are lasting ones, so it is important to establish a connection from the first day. However, don’t dissertate on every little detail of your projects or the new stakeholder will be overwhelmed with too much information. Instead, set up a meet and greet meeting over coffee and learn what your new stakeholder cares about, what his/her interests and priorities are, or where can you assist him/her with. Make the newcomer an ally!


Don’t make comparisons

Most people don't like to be perceived as the replacement of someone else, so you should avoid making any kind of comparisons between the new stakeholders and his/her predecessors. Every individual is unique. If the new stakeholder is making unpopular decisions and strategy is taking a U-turn, don’t complain how good life was with the previous stakeholder or persist in telling what he/she would be doing differently. Instead, try to understand the reasons behind the change and focus on the big picture. Don’t weaken your relationship with the new stakeholder by being impatient or impolite. However, this does not mean abandoning critical thinking! It means providing an opportunity for the new stakeholder to establish his/her own management approach and considering different points-of-views without a judgmental tone.


Revisit roles and responsibilities

In order to ensure that people are on the same page and know what is expected from them, it is important that the project manager provides sufficient context on the project and current status to the new stakeholder, as well as an introduction to key contacts, their roles, and responsibilities. There are not many things worse to the momentum of the project than perplexed or misguided stakeholders who don’t know what to do or who to contact.


Get out from behind the emails

E-mails are a useful way of communication, but an emoji cannot replace the feeling of receiving a genuine smile or express body language. Emotions can oftentimes get lost in translation. Adding to this, emails can be perceived as an impersonal way of passing your message as it immediately creates a distance between interlocutors. So next time, use the phone or get out from behind your desk and spend time establishing connections. Make no mistake; most project issues are people issues, not schedule or cost issues. Hence, it is crucial to invest time in building rapport with your stakeholders. Sometimes, it is easier to answer questions and solve problems next to the coffee machine than in meetings!


No one destroys what one helps to build

This is one of the key lessons I got from my mentors and one that I try to embed in every project I manage: if people are involved in the project, they will be less likely to challenge or oppose it. To ask for someone’s opinion, give them a call to inform about the latest update on the project, or even call for support in peer reviewing a document may sound like little things, but they can make the difference between a stakeholder who is engaged with the project or not. Remember: no one destroys what one helps to build.


Best practices will tell you that you should add the new stakeholder to the stakeholder register and define what your management strategy should look like. In which quadrant of the stakeholder matrix do they fit? Informed, keep happy, manage closely?

This is, of course, something that you should do but you should also be aware that you can’t manage stakeholders, just their engagement and expectations. Above all, you should remember: stakeholders are not simply entries in a register. They are human, just like you and I. Tream them as one.


Marisa Silva, the Lucky PM, is an experienced certified PMO and PPM consultant, trainer, and speaker, with a track record of building capabilities in complex organizations undergoing transformational change. A passionate advocate of the value of PMOs and project management, she is Committee Member of the APM PMO SIG and PMO Manager and Deputy Programs Director at Project Managers Without Borders. Marisa is the author of “Bedtime Stories for Project Managers” and the founder of in2PMO, a specialist PMO and business transformation consultancy firm dedicated to help organizations deliver impactful and sustainable business value from their PMOs, projects and programs.

Posted by Marisa Silva on: February 21, 2017 01:09 PM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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Nice Article.
You sometimes come across stakeholders who never assume responsibility or their part in project failure , the failure to deliver one or more of the key business objectives or delays in delivering projects.
It almost , always is the Project Manager who is at fault in spite of incorporating all of the suggestions that you have alluded to in your article.
That's the nature of the beast.

Thank you for your comment, Deepesh. I fully understand your point. Strong communication and risk management may help but unless the PM is properly managing the stakeholder's expectations and reminding them of their role, much can go wrong.

Nice article Marisa ! You have aptly shown the right path to manage projects in a world of changing stakeholders.What is important is to understand the needs of stakeholders with the establishment of a personal rapport rather than via email communications.Meeting of hearts is very vital for the Project Manager to care and carry the new stakeholders along as active participants for effective project delivery .

I totally agree with your article! I always make contact first by phone to establish a rapport with stakeholders, and try to pick up some personal facts so as to create a relationship/friendship. What you said about people being involved in creating something are less likely to destroy it is too true.

Great article!!
Currently, I am working in similar situation, your article is really helpful to me.
Thank you so much for sharing!

One of the best things Ive read in while, very insightful,

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