Stakeholders are people too

Stakeholders are often described with words such as: troublesome, idealistic and thorns in the project manager’s side, and often have been called much worse behind closed doors.

Historically, project managers have approached stakeholders and stakeholder management with a tried and tested three step process. Sometimes with different questions, but the approach is generally the same:

  • Identification: Who are our stakeholders?
  • Analysis: What are their needs, concerns and expectations? For example, are they in the group to keep satisfied, key players or minimal effort?
  • Plan and compete the tasks to manage stakeholder’s needs, concerns and expectations.

This approach has been the project manager’s way of managing stakeholders in the most efficient and logical way.

However, most stakeholders are not satisfied with this approach. If this tried and tested process worked, why are so many projects deemed as failures from the perspective of stakeholders? The answer is quite simple: the traditional process does not work as the approach is fundamentally flawed. We are asking stakeholders to trust us as project professionals, yet we haven’t spent any time building a relationship or discussing the mutual benefit of us working together. Most of the time, in project environments, the stakeholder-project manager relationship is adversarial, with an us versus them mentality. The relationship is superimposed and artificial which is often reflected in the project manager and stakeholder relationship, and sometimes project results reflect this.

This presentation looks for a new approach to stakeholder management, one that seeks to remove the challenges of the traditional approach.

It is time for project professionals to approach stakeholders differently. Spend less time identifying, analysing and planning and spend more time engaging, building relationships and trust. Any long term relationship is built on these qualities and a stakeholder is often with the project for its life – one, two or five years.

This presentation proposes a new approach to stakeholder management: involvement and engagement and outlines the approach to imbedding this in project environments by addressing the following points.

Communicate early and often – Set up a communication template in consultation with the stakeholders on how often they would like updates, and how they would like them, be it face to face, email, progress report etc. Discuss this at the start of the project. This will show the stakeholders that you are serious about the project, but also that they are an important part of it.

Escalate the importance of involvement and engagement within the project environment – It’s not enough to just have a plan. It is critical to seek to understand what your stakeholders desire both spoken and unspoken. The expectations must be carefully managed from beginning to end. Every team and project varies in its rate of change, so pick the most advantageous communication channel and frequency, and make sure it’s effective. Just as having the plan is important, monitoring its effectiveness, adding and cancelling supplemental ways of communicating will be required. Communication is a constant, err on the side of over-communicating as there are always people that didn’t hear, understand or make connection when they heard it the first time

Identify and analyse stakeholders, approach them in a different way and evaluate their involvement. Stakeholders are first identified and analysed. Based on this analysis the following strategies are recommended.

Approach involvement and engagement with creativity – Make yourself and this project stand out. Be different, in a positive way, in how you involve and engage your stakeholders. Be reflective and review performance. If your approach to communicate with your stakeholders isn’t working, then adapt it so it does work. Ask how else can I reach my stakeholders?

Encourage involvement and engagement, be efficient with your time and the time of your team -The best project managers ensure they are productive for most of their time and avoid time-wasters at all costs. Here are some tips:

Create the plan – What does this have to do with time management? If everyone knows what they are doing and have a plan with regular milestones to focus on, you as a project manager will spend a lot less time dealing with issues brought about through a lack of clarity.

Remember the 80/20 Rule – The 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle) is the idea that by doing 20 percent of the work you can produce 80 percent of the benefit of doing the whole job. The value of this for a project manager is that it reminds you to focus on the 20 percent of activities that matter. Of the activities you do during your project, only 20 percent are important. Those 20 percent produce 80 percent of your results. Identify and focus on those activities.

Not just Status updates – It’s best to avoid team meetings where you go around the room and ask each person to give a status update. These meetings have little value and waste time. Instead, spend that time focusing on risks, issues and opportunities. Use the team time to brainstorm solutions and create ideas. Team meetings should have an agreed agenda that you stick to. If you schedule an hour for the meeting, make sure it lasts for an hour and no longer. Take big issues offline if they are likely to cause a meeting overrun. Don’t make everyone sit through lengthy technical discussions that don’t involve them. Setup a working group to focus on the issues and report at a future meeting.

Stop micro managing – Avoid delving into the details of the work. With a software development project, it’s not necessary for the project manager to get involved at code level, leave this to the developers. You’ve selected the right team for the job. Let them get on with what they are best at.

Don’t do the work – It is very easy to fall into the trap of doing all the work. Avoid this at all costs. Managing a project is a fulltime job and problems can occur by taking on too much. It is tempting to carry out a few tasks when a deadline is coming up but try to leave it to others.

Create a to-do list – Creating a daily to-do list keeps you focused on achieving your objectives. Marking tasks off as completed creates a real sense of achievement and drives further activity. Time management is a basic skill for project managers. If you can’t manage your own time, how can you expect to manage your teams? Ask each day what you did to move the project forward. Plan your next day, what will you do to ensure your project continues along the straight and narrow. Plan your time, manage your resources with a light touch and communicate effectively. With a little time management, project success should come easier.

Elevate the importance of involvement and engagement by responding to questions from your stakeholders quickly efficiently and honestly – This will give your stakeholders confidence on the work that you are producing. Ignoring their emails and telephone calls only gives the impression that something is wrong or that you are not doing the work. If there is an unexpected issue, then explain it to the stakeholder, as well as the steps you are going to take to resolve the issue. If it is appropriate to do so, you can always seek advice from the stakeholder, especially if they are an expert in this area.

Ask your stakeholders about your project, often – Keep your stakeholders engaged and involved. Creating a communication plan and sticking to it is the key. Don’t fall into the trap of only contacting the stakeholders when there is a concern or on completion. Communicating with the stakeholders will also ensure that the key deliverables are met. It is also a useful tool to ensure the “scope creep” does not occur. The stakeholders on your project may also be on other projects so but giving regular but relevant communication will ensure that they are more likely to respond in a timely manner and in a positive way.

Invite honest feedback – Use the opportunity to learn from the experience. All of us can improve in some areas. It may also be the case that we will work with the same stakeholders again on a different project and we want that experience to be positive from the start. It stands to reason, that we should be interested in what these people have to say about us and how we can better meet their needs. In particular, we should be looking for feedback that provides us with additional information to:

  • Help make better decisions and plan for the future
  • Measure our performance
  • Help identify new markets or the likely success of new ideas

Feedback can be gathered in a variety of ways, from general conversation to a formal and structured survey or review. Each of these has a place but total reliance on one over another may jeopardise the veracity of the information gathered. Given that business decisions are often premised on feedback, this presents a substantial risk.

We can assume what our stakeholders think about the project and what they are looking for from us, and base critical business decisions on these assumptions.

Or, we can actually ask them.

Seeking feedback is not new, nor is it rocket science, but there are a range of tools that make it easier. In conclusion, involvement and engagement of stakeholders will build relationships and deliver project outcomes.

Lisa Twyford

Lisa Twyford

At the start of my career, I learned quickly that many organisations were full of good intentions, but all too often lacking the skills and know-how to execute effectively. That’s why I founded clear decisions™ over 12 years ago. My vision was simple, I had a desire to help businesses and their people move through change projects with great success.

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