In the latest edition of the PMBOK, there was a small but significant change in the language around stakeholders. Instead of Stakeholder management, the focus of the PM is stakeholder engagement. What does this change mean?
Management – a definition
When I think of management, I think of control, of guidance, of constraints. Indeed, when I Googled “management definition” I got the following result “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.”
To me, the key word here is controlling. Even the notion of dealing with stakeholders conjures up images of difficult conversations, and unreasonable demands.
When we engage stakeholders there is much more sense of give and take, and exchange of information, and sharing of perspective and insights. Stakeholders are no longer to be kept at bay or at arms’ length. They are to be woven into the fabric of the project at every stage and their input is to help guide the project to success. This is quite a mindset shift.
There are four pertinent balancing tests to think about with stakeholder engagement.
This is more than gathering a list of people who have an interest in the project or program. This is also the process of understanding what motivates them, how interested they are. How will they be affected – positively or negatively – by the project outcome?
And what they want is multi-faceted too. What do they want from the project? And what do they want in terms of involvement in the project? How do they want to communicate? People have different levels of interest in the project, different reasons for that interest and different ways of absorbing and processing information. We sometimes forget that!
This is an exploration of where they sit in the organizational structure - more than seniority or job title, this considers their networks and contacts within the organization. For example, I worked with an operational manager who had great influence over the decision making of the CIO. Knowing that helped me to position my discussions with him to take account of what the next conversation would be – the one with his friend, and consequently what my next conversation would be – with my boss the CIO.
Considering each stakeholder’s sphere of influence looks at the networks this stakeholder has, and any special responsibility they have been given for this project that extends beyond their normal formal – and informal – role. For example, in one organization, an individual had been given a special responsibility on the project to review all procurement agreements because they had experience of this in a past position.
Every stakeholder has ways that they can help projects be successful. And those ways are not always the obvious one. Sometimes they have special knowledge, they know the context of the project, the history of past change efforts or know what the real goals are of the organization. Other times they know the right people, have a great understanding of corporate culture and have that special way of getting difficult things done. Or they may have a really good understanding of customer behavior and can help the team make good design decisions.
The other side of the coin is how they might hinder. The most obvious way is not being available when you need them, but there are subtle ways stakeholders can create a drag on a project if they don’t feel appropriately engaged and connected. They may push for conflicting projects or pull resources away from your project to a pet project of their own.
This may be the single most important consideration in stakeholder management/engagement. The first part of this equation is to ask:
How do they want to be engaged? What is their interest and commitment to the project and how do they want that commitment reflected?
I have had stakeholders who were willing to be contacted at any time to offer advice, an opinion or just to be a sounding board. They have come to lunch and learns, shared insights into customer needs and desires, shared the organizational vision. They have been project advisors, mentors, and coaches – they are like gold and in some places like seeing a Unicorn!
By sharing and inviting feedback it has been possible for me to change the role of a stakeholder. By explaining how I see them supporting the project, why we see them that way and why we want them to engage in that way, it is often possible to craft a role for them that goes beyond their initial expectation.
This is also a great time to use some strengths-spotting. It is often the case that people do not really appreciate what they bring to the table or how they can use it to best effect. I have experience of a stakeholder whose greatest strengths were kindness and teamwork. When he was first assigned to the project as the “Business Owner” he was at a loss as to what he could bring. He felt he had little expertise in what we were trying to do, and his initial request was that I just keep him updated once a week with whatever dashboard I had been using for his predecessor. We had a conversation and it was clear that he was skilled at connecting with people. As we explored his interests and his strengths, it quickly became apparent that he could provide context for the project team, connections to valuable resources throughout the organization and would show up and give the team moral support when things got tough!
Choosing the mode, frequency and content of communications with stakeholders is key. Evaluate every medium. Maybe it is a dashboard, and email update, a weekly meeting, or a phone call at a prearranged time. Or maybe it is a Vlog – a videoed update that you can put in a shared location for people to access at their convenience – a newsletter that is available for download or a weekly lunch & learn. Find out what works for your stakeholders and be prepared to communicate in many ways.
Finally, consider whether the stakeholder’s role will remain static throughout the project. Have a regular check in during longer term projects to make sure the stakeholder list or matrix is current. Review the methods and level of communication periodically to keep things on track.
As project professionals we often spend a lot of time considering our process, and yet experience and research shows the biggest return on investment is from the people. Spend time with the people, and the people will make your project the best it can be.
A few weeks ago, a coaching client of mine asked me to explain stakeholder management. He wanted me to provide him with a definitive list of his stakeholders for his particular project. He described the project to me as follows:
“We are developing a new customer accounting system that will allow customers easier access to their financial accounts while increasing security, reducing the opportunity for accounts to be “hacked” and supporting greater self-service. While customer support staff will still be needed for special activities, large financial transactions, handling overseas wire transfers and the final steps in account opening, most account activities will be put in the hands of the account owner.”
“Who are my stakeholders?” he asked.
Four stages of Stakeholder Management
There are four basic steps in stakeholder management.
First, we want to identify who the stakeholders are. Often, we focus on the people who will benefit from the initiative, supporters of the project. It is important to remember that the broad group “stakeholders” includes anyone who has an interest in the project – positive or negative.
Clearly, in the case of my coaching client, this would include the customers who will change the way they do business, and it will include the sponsor of the project, the team designing, building and testing the new software, any department whose workflow will be impacted,
We loosely identified stakeholder groups as people who:
TIP: Brainstorm the list with as many people as possible. Using a RACI or RASCI matrix can help you focus on what sort of involvement you expect them to have. Get all the possible stakeholders on the list that you can. It is easy to remove people. It can be painful to bring someone new up to speed that you missed first time around.
For each stakeholder group, my client made a further list of the members and he started to highlight those who might have special requests or special interest in the project beyond that suggested by their organizational role.
My client continued to fill out his grid, assessing which stakeholders warranted individual attention and which could be gathered together as a group. He then planned a series of meetings and calls to explore expectations, next steps and the process for building the ongoing relationship. He paid particular attention to the sphere of influence and discovered that several of the individual stakeholders had influence beyond the scope of their official role. This led to him adding two stakeholders who at first did not seem to be impacted by the project:
TIP: Consider sphere of influence and be ready for surprise stakeholders!
This comes down to discussing and agreeing expectations with each stakeholder or stakeholder group. Explore their ideas for how to be engaged. Come up with four or five key ways to engage and communicate.
My client spoke with his stakeholders and came up with the following menu of options:
Not all the options highlighted were used all the time. My client created a communication plan that incorporated all these various forms of communication. He also worked out with various team members roles for them in the dissemination of information. For example, one of his colleagues with great handwriting updated the new wall on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
TIP: make communications interesting (and reduce PM overwhelm) by changing them at different stages of the project. The News Wall may be more useful during testing that during development, the bi-monthly review may work better in the early stages of the project when things are moving more slowly and more groundwork is underway.
PMI shares an interesting statistic that is based on research by Andy Crowe that says that project managers spend more than 90% of their time communicating. My own research has shown that 80% of people related to projects - project managers and non-project managers alike - expect us to provide context and purpose and to make sure everyone knows who is on point (90%). When asked what the best thing about a project manager is, many people say that they provide a single point of contact and that they ensure constant and consistent communication. Our interaction with stakeholders is critical to ensuring that project outcomes are predictable, consistent and result in the benefits expected by the consumer. Realized benefit is what projects are about – even more than the triple constraint, because sponsors may live with cost and time overruns if the bang for the buck is high enough. An on time on budget project that does not deliver the expected ROI is a failure.
A relationship is not static and nor is the relationship we have with our stakeholders. The individuals may change, their level of interest in the project may wax and wane. I had a stakeholder who said his only interest was knowing when the project was done. He told me the only communication he wanted was a call to say, “the project has been completed and the product is ready for use.”
A common theme I hear with project managers is that all this communication is very time-consuming. In my experience, the time spent to find out how individual stakeholders process information is the best investment. Often you can reduce the number of touchpoints if you can make each touchpoint really count.
TIP: Consider at least these five elements as you design your stakeholder management plan and the communication plan to go with it:
And finally, the check in. Creating a regular check-in to make sure the communication is working helps keep the stakeholders engaged and the project on track.
 Crowe, Andy. Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not. Velociteach, 2016.