by Maricarmen Suarez, PMBOK® Guide-Seventh Edition Development Team member
At the center of every project effort, we find people. Stakeholders in various positions can and will impact the outcome of our endeavors. As practitioners, it is essential to engage these stakeholders early and often to understand their needs and interests. Active engagement will be a critical success factor in realizing the intended value of the project. Simply put, choosing whether or not you want to engage stakeholders is not an option—engagement is a must!
An example that comes to mind is a project to contain the further spread of a virus outbreak. There are certainly millions of stakeholders that would have to be considered in this case. A public health crisis not only impacts patients and healthcare workers on the front lines, it also includes the media, medical supply providers, and many others inside and outside of the healthcare industry. Think about the supply and demand challenges should manufacturing plants have to close for an extended period of time. Yes, an outbreak has the potential to disrupt entire markets, and the stakeholder impacts are immense. This can be overwhelming!
While planning the stakeholder engagement, it is crucial to recognize that the stakeholder landscape is rarely static. Individuals or organizations will morph throughout the life cycle of the project; new actors will appear while others move to the background. Their degree of influence will also have ebbs and flows. Focusing on the response to the virus outbreak, we can identify the World Health Organization as a stakeholder with a high degree of influence. This specialized agency is concerned with global public health and leads the collaboration of many other segments to ensure the highest possible levels of health around the globe. Understanding the influence a stakeholder has can help us develop a specific engagement approach.
Another criterion to consider is the impact or the degree to which a stakeholder can effect change. In our example, think of the clinicians and public health officials. They can positively impact the outcome with their clinical management decisions or their ability to share clinical data in a timely fashion. Project leads can act as a force multiplier by being aware of stakeholders’ needs, interests, and opinions. This will allow the project lead to facilitate a shared solution, focusing on delivering value.
People fuel project delivery. Often we can think of this in terms of the “what” and “how” of efforts. The “what” is the result that the project aims to deliver, the outcome ultimately leading to value. The “how” is the behaviors or skills that foster a collaborative stakeholder landscape. Some tools that would help a practitioner in this area include:
Interpersonal skills: Things like integrity, honesty, and respect are essential to fostering healthy relationships.
Communication: Open and transparent, a practitioner should be able to flex their style as needed to ensure everyone is engaged and informed.
Collaboration: We win or lose as a team. Being able to function in a cross-functional environment and craft shared solutions is pivotal to success.
Ultimately, the impact of engaged stakeholders can lead us to develop better response strategies and project outcomes. In our example, engagement can lead to better understanding, carrying out a plan, and communicating effectively. These are certainly steps to achieve the outcome of containing the spread of a virus!
Over the years, I have shifted my perspective from stakeholder management to stakeholder engagement. Humans, unlike widgets, can’t be managed, and attempting to do so is an exercise in futility. They can be engaged within the context of the project type, industry, environment, or delivery approach. Correctly engaging stakeholders, understanding their individual needs and levels of influence, and aligning the project efforts to support those needs is essential. This critical focus area will lead to the achievement of a much stronger outcome. This is why I believe stakeholder engagement is an essential project performance domain for all projects regardless of type and approach.