By Mario Trentim
According to Le Chatelier’s Principle, any change in the status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system. Although Henry Louis Le Chatelier was a chemist, his principle applies to project management, right?
No project occurs in isolation: Each inevitably disturbs the environment because it stems from the organization’s structure, politics and strategic objectives. So, it’s no wonder that some projects can’t succeed despite a project manager’s best efforts.
To make things happen, you need a support coalition of powerful and/or influential stakeholders. But how can you get the necessary buy-in for a project?
Let me assure you: You will fail if you try to guess what is in your stakeholders’ heads. We all have a natural tendency to do that because, by nature, we feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. That explains why we are always trying to "fill the gaps."
What does this have to do with project management? Everything. Project managers must overcome two biases that pose obstacles to successful stakeholder management.
The first is that we see the project from our perspective, which leads us to narrowly identify stakeholders. Forgetting to include the project’s "hidden stakeholders" can be catastrophic.
The second, which I believe is bigger, is that we conduct stakeholder assessment and analysis with preconceived thoughts and distorted vision.
The secret to stakeholder management is obvious: You cannot catch fish using your favorite food as a bait. You have to use the fish’s favorite food!
When assessing stakeholders and strategizing how to engage them in your project, be sure to do your homework. When possible, ask your stakeholders directly about their expectations regarding the project.
This diagram offers an overview of potential stakeholder interview questions:
(Monteleone Consulting, 2010“Generic Questions for Interviewing Stakeholders”)
Of course, to a certain extent you need to be skeptical of the answers your questions elicit. My MBA students always ask me: How do you know if a stakeholder is telling the truth?
My answer is simple: you don't. You cannot tell for sure if a stakeholder is trying to manipulate the project (and you). But here’s a tip. Keep observing your stakeholders' behaviors and attitudes. Always put yourself in the stakeholders' shoes and discuss hypothetical scenarios with your core stakeholder management team.
Here is a worst-case scenario: I once had a sponsor who was against the project. I admit it took me some time to realize that he would do everything he could to make the project fail.
How did I discover the truth?
I’ll explain in my next post—don’t miss it. Until then, share your thoughts. What would you do in this situation?
The new Knowledge Area, stakeholder management, was cheerfully welcomed in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition.
Figure 1: Lack of stakeholder management leads to poor results. (Trentim, 2013)
Most of us rely on soft skills, communication and leadership to manage stakeholders. But while they’re helpful, interpersonal skills are far from being the sole way to implement stakeholder management. As a matter of fact, there are hard skills in stakeholder management — tools, techniques and methods that should be diligently applied to enhance stakeholder management and improve project success rates.
For example, there are at least 10 different tools for stakeholder identification. Often, project managers rely only on brainstorming to write a stakeholder registry, conforming to the methodology imposed by a project management office (PMO). That’s why I believe we need a paradigm shift.
A project manager’s goal is to add value. Value depends on stakeholder expectations and perception. Consequently, the project manager’s goal is to engage and involve stakeholders in value creation. This is what we call managing for stakeholders.
On the contrary, the term stakeholder management assumes we can manage expectations. This is wrong. We cannot manage people, to paraphrase U.S. author and businessman Stephen Covey. We lead people. We persuade and influence stakeholders.
In 2013, the Project Management Institute published my book, Managing Stakeholders as Clients. It presents a framework with a paradigm shift from traditional stakeholder management by first setting the premise that we can’t manage stakeholders or their expectations — we can only lead, influence and persuade people. To my surprise, I was the recipient of PMI Educational Foundation’s 2014 Kerzner Award* at PMI® Global Congress 2014—North Americafor my results in managing projects and programs. But in particular, the award recognized my creation of this stakeholder management framework and the results of its application.
The main difference between stakeholder management and managing for stakeholders is this: Stakeholder management’s goal is to manage stakeholders’ expectations, enhancing support and reducing negative impacts — a reactive measure. It’s almost as if project managers develop stakeholder management plans to protect themselves from external interference.
Managing for stakeholders means involving and engaging stakeholders in value creation, boosting their support and having them take ownership in a proactive way. Managing for stakeholders embraces change as a learning process.
While stakeholder management is instrumental, employing processes for conformity, managing for stakeholders is results-oriented. In summary, stakeholder management is an attempt to manage stakeholders’ expectations toward the project. On the other hand, managing for stakeholders is clearly oriented to manage the project and its results for the stakeholders, on behalf of their changing needs and expectations.
Now that it’s clear we should start approaching stakeholder management from a different perspective, in my next post I’ll share more tips and details from Managing Stakeholders as Clients. Don’t miss it!
How do you manage for stakeholders?
*The PMI Educational Foundationadministers the prestigious Kerzner Award. The Kerzner Award is sponsored by International Institute for Learning, Inc. (IIL)to recognize a project manager who most emulates the professional dedication and excellence of Dr. Harold Kerzner, PhD, MS, MBA.