In many cases, managing stakeholder expectations while managing projects or programs within their constraints is as much an art as a science. It takes a balance of knowledge, tools, and “soft skills” on the part of the Program/Project manager, and an environment that is conducive to success. With so many factors to take into account, what does it take to successfully work with the stakeholders on your program or project? All of us who work on programs and projects face this question.
A great deal of excellent guidance material, tips and techniques for working with stakeholders exists. In this brief article, we aim to provide you with a synopsis of things to consider, some “food for thought,” if you will, including some ideas and techniques that we have seen work well in our own experiences running programs and projects.
1. What or who is a stakeholder?
Let’s start by defining what a stakeholder is. The Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) describes a stakeholder as a person or organization that:
- Is actively involved in the project
- Has interests that may be positively or negatively affected by the performance or completion of the project
- May exert influence over the project, its deliverables or its team members
Within the context of a project, The UK’s Association of Project Management defines stakeholder management as follows:
“Stakeholder management is the systematic identification, analysis and planning of actions to communicate with, negotiate with and influence stakeholders. Stakeholders are all those who have an interest or role in the project or are impacted by the project.”
We shall use these definitions as our starting point.
2. Should you think of your stakeholders in groups or segments?
When considering whether to group stakeholders together, you are asking yourself: what “stake” does this stakeholder, or do these stakeholders, have in my program/project? Several dimensions can be used – choose what works for you (if it makes sense to do so). An example of one dimension is to break them into responsibility, such as the client, the project team, suppliers/contractors, the end consumer(s), activist groups, and so on. Another method is to categorize stakeholders by their level of influence and their level of support. Some people use “stakeholder maps” to graphically show who their stakeholders are, and who is most important or “closest” to the program / project.
3. What do your stakeholders think constitutes success on your program/project?
In a previous article on Project Success Planning, we posed the question “What does success mean?” to everyone on your program or project. In another article, The Nine Critical Steps for Project Success, we discussed documenting all stakeholder expectations early (step 2, for those of you who recall this article). As we mentioned at that time, small projects may collect stakeholder expectations through personal interviews or by email. Larger programs and projects, with stakeholders potentially numbering in the thousands, may need to employ more sophisticated/broader techniques such as sampling and extensive consultation. Different stakeholders (or groups of stakeholders) will view your program or project through different lenses, and this is something over which you will only have limited control. Some stakeholders will be against your program or project, and you will need to determine how to work with them.
The takeaway message is that it is important to understand your key stakeholders’ meaning of success (or why they oppose your initiative), work with them to understand why they think of the program/project in this particular way, and get on the same wavelength as them. Understanding their viewpoints is the first step to knowing how to respond and inform them appropriately.
4. How do you resolve conflicts between stakeholders?
One issue that is all too common is the lack of a defined process for resolving conflict amongst stakeholders. A stakeholder influence diagram is often used to prioritize stakeholders; however, less influential stakeholders can have ideas that are discounted. Balancing the influence on decision-making to add benefit to the program/project is vital to success.
5. Should you create a Stakeholder Management Plan?
In our experience, it can be useful to create this type of plan, as long as it is then used by your team. Creating a Stakeholder Management Plan just to satisfy a company procedure, and then putting it “on the shelf” or forgetting to carry out the actions it contains is a waste of valuable project resources.
6. Is it worth keeping a “CRM log” to track your stakeholder relationships?
CRM or Customer Relationship Management is a term widely used in marketing circles, and basically means to keep track of customers. This principle can be applied to your stakeholders. Do you have a list somewhere of all the stakeholders you deal with? If you don’t, think about creating one – you will probably be surprised by the number of people you liaise/work with. Whether you think keeping a register is or is not of value is up to you. You may find it a helpful process to review your stakeholders, say, once a month, to ensure you are keeping on top of things. Spending 30 minutes each month summarizing any key comments such as when you last contacted people, how helpful they are being to your initiative, and who you need to put more effort into speaking with next month could jog your memory and ensure that you have things covered.
7. How can you influence your stakeholders?
Exerting influence in a subtle way without using formal authority (for the most part) is key to successfully working with your stakeholders. Whilst you will have formal authority bestowed on you with some stakeholders on your program or project, with many, you will not. Program and Project Managers should be conversant with the basics of what is known as Organization Change Management” to help them with this. Various approaches to managing change in an organization exist; the basics are about ensuring there is a level of understanding early, and then continuing this effort to communicate to ensure that this understanding turns into support and willingness to adopt change. Using a few simple techniques and approaches to get your stakeholders on board will go a long way toward helping your initiative to succeed. In particular:
- Start the process early on; do not leave it until well into the Execution phase.
- Be very clear with your communications.
- Be open and honest with people.
- Show a genuine interest in “what is happening in their world.”
- Gain feedback and take it into account – do not make it “one way traffic.”
- Keep up the “hard yards” of talking with people.
8. This is all great in theory, but I don’t have time!
We all know the old adage, that project management is 90% communication. A large proportion of communication is working with stakeholders. If you cannot devote quality time to working with your stakeholders using well-conceived strategies, you will probably be placing your program or project at risk in some way or another.
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