I am occasionally asked by learners in my project management fundamental classes which is the most important knowledge area in the PMBOK® framework. My usual response is to say that each knowledge area is important but the emphasis and level of effort spent on each will be vary depending on the specific context of a given project.
But if I was forced to choose one PMBOK® knowledge area to recognize over all others, it is Project Stakeholder Management.
This choice might surprise some of my readers, especially given how much I've written about Project Risk Management. After all, Project Stakeholder Management is the newest knowledge area, and is covered in fewer pages in the PMBOK® Guide than the others. The triple constraint doesn't include stakeholders so why would I emphasize it more than scope, schedule or cost management?
One reason for this is that knowing who your key stakeholders are as well as understanding their attitudes towards and influence over your project are key inputs into many of the processes from all of the other knowledge areas. This is why Identify Stakeholders is one of only two processes in the Initiating Process Group.
If you have been involved with project work for a while, you will have been part of or at least heard from teams who ended up coming in over budget, behind schedule or delivering less than was approved, but as a result of effective stakeholder management, the project was still deemed a success. You might have experienced the opposite with a project which was completed on time, within budget, and with scope delivered within quality specifications, but the dissatisfaction of a key stakeholder resulted in everyone feeling the project had tanked.
One of the reasons that many of us entered the project management profession was that we wanted to continue to develop our skills. While we can get better at scheduling, budgeting or any other hard skills, there is much greater potential for long term learning by focusing on soft skills. Honing the multiple competencies required to manage stakeholders provides us with a career long development road map and the returns on this investment are likely to be much greater than with hard skills.
Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence will negatively impact many current jobs. I don't worry too much about the project management profession. So long as project work is done by and for human beings, the need for effective stakeholder management will continue to be a hedge against automation-driven job losses.
They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel - Carl W. Buehner