By: Maricarmen Suarez, PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition Development Team member
Is project management a science or an art? While we could debate this fun question for decades, I think we can all agree that there are elements of both. Our profession continues to evolve with a focus on quality, globalization of reach, and the velocity of change—we have seen it all. But first things first, at the center of it all, we see one thing in common—people. I genuinely believe that it is those human interactions that help us deliver value through project management. Consequently, a fundamental principle of project management seems to be stakeholder engagement.
Anyone that is impacted by changes can be considered a stakeholder. It is critical to define who our stakeholders are, acknowledge their motives and define their engagement, as well as understand their level of involvement and sphere of influence. As a practitioner who is continuously assessing the stakeholder pool, I ask myself daily that old question: “where should I spend my time and energy? With the optimists? The naysayers? Or the ones sitting on the fence?” I’m not sure there is a right answer to that, but my experience has taught me that the best solution is “all of the above.”
The optimist will always have a positive, can-do attitude. They help you move your initiative forward and, depending on their level, they can prove to be an invaluable resource to influence others.
As for the naysayers, it is essential to understand their drivers, i.e., what motivates them? Why are they against the project? What would it take to get them to a middle ground? Is there an unidentified risk, either opportunity or threat, that may have been overlooked? By no means, am I suggesting that everyone can or should be converted to the “right” side of an initiative; but as a project leader, my role is to ensure that everyone has a voice and that needs are met. I guarantee that while the naysayers may never be cheerleaders beaming with support, they have enough to be able to compromise and not derail or stop our initiatives.
That leaves the ones on the fence—those on the middle ground that can go either way but are choosing to stay on the sidelines to see what happens next. These stakeholders are the ones I find myself spending more time and energy with. Simply because I consider them sponges. The fence-sitters feed off of other stakeholders. While I can’t control every channel and every interaction of these stakeholders, I can ensure they have the right amount of information to make an informed decision.
Some best practices I use to proactively engage stakeholders include:
- Creating awareness: let the person know how their behaviors can impact others on the team and help them identify remediation strategies.
- Reposition negative statements: model your positive responses and don’t let the negative comments stand unanswered. When they come (and they will, believe me!), try to rephrase them in a positive or neutral light.
- Involve the whole team: ensure everyone is working to the same outcome and that all stakeholder contribution is heard.
I consider stakeholder engagement a pivotal principle—projects are undertaken by people, for people. As practitioners, we have a unique opportunity to engage and serve stakeholders proactively. As they say in the flight safety briefings, always put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others.