The concept of a stakeholder engagement goes back to the early 18th century, but the story of its modern use began in the late 1800s, properly arriving at its current meaning in the early 1960s.

The Emergence of Stakeholder Management

By the time I started managing projects in the early 1990s, the concept of project stakeholders was well established and I learned the basic techniques of stakeholder management. It wasn’t until later in the decade that the term became more widely known when Tony Blair talked of a ‘stakeholder economy in 1996.

The basic techniques I learned are as applicable today as they were then and I successfully used them and then trained others to use them for over twenty years. But in the last few years, I have discerned a changing climate around how good project management deal with their stakeholders. This is nothing more than the very best have always done, but the change is rippling through the profession and it is led, I believe by two changes: an increase in the number and effectiveness of the influencing tools available to us, and – more profoundly – a change in mind-set.

I Don’t Want to be Managed

As our tool-set becomes richer and more effective, our ability to subtly persuade influence and drive compliance is increasing. But with this is an increase in the use of these methods by advertisers, salespeople and, most noticeably, politicians. And where politicians go, the ground gets muddy. People are becoming cynical of what they perceive as techniques that are used to manipulate them and their perspectives. Stakeholder management is starting to seem like manipulation and, I think, stakeholders are saying: ‘I don’t want to be managed, thank you’.

What becomes imperative, if we are to get the best for our project: to harness ideas and build consensus, is that we engage actively with our stakeholders. We handle their concerns, desires and contributions in a positive and respectful way. We need to stop trying to manage stakeholders and start thinking about how to engage with them.

What is Stakeholder Engagement?

In The Influence Agenda, I define stakeholder engagement as the process of actively contacting, communicating with and influencing a stakeholder. Note that to communicate effectively – and to have any chance of influencing – the process needs to be two-way. Listening is one of the core skills of a project manager.

This means giving up the old certainty of developing a solution, deciding to implement it, doing it, and then defending it against resistance: this old 4D paradigm of stakeholder management is dead. In its place is the simpler – but less easy – 3D approach of dialogue first, then deciding and finally doing, with the support of engaged stakeholders.

Effective stakeholder engagement needs you to understand five things:

  1. People – and the relationships between them
  2. Organisations – and the ways that power and influence work
  3. Project context – social, commercial, economic, technical, environmental and regulatory
  4. Situation – and how you want to change it
  5. Tools and process – to listen and influence

The Tools of Engagement

There are a whole host of tools available to project managers now – most of which are not proprietary in any way. That said, there are some excellent software tools available although, for me, there is always a risk that the technology can get in the way of simple pen and paper analysis followed by a just do it attitude. On a large project, however, a good database of stakeholders with a few well-selected fields is a real asset. If you have a CRM system available, look at how you can adapt that.

  • The primary tool-sets are:
  • Tools to identify your stakeholders
  • Tools to analyse and understand your stakeholders
  • Tools to craft a message
  • Tools to influence: especially using what I term soft power and hidden power
  • Tools to handle resistance
  • Tools of plan and manage your engagement campaign

How big is your tool chest? If it has only one or two tools in each category and hasn’t grown much since you first trained as a project manager, then it is time for a refresh.

Let’s get Mature

But I think you need to go a step further. I would like to see stakeholder engagement emerge as a strong professional discipline, much as software development, project management, and risk management all have. And each of these also has a maturity model that sets standards to allow organisations to measure the level of institutionalisation of good practices.

I think its time for Stakeholder Engagement Management to have a maturity model.

To me, it seems self-evident that organisations should put stakeholder engagement front and centre of their culture. Customer-focused business do this, but they focus it all on one group of stakeholders with a particular impact on their commercial success: what about the rest? The first step to creating a Stakeholder Engagement Culture has to be to take it seriously and assess your own cultural maturity.

My modest proposal offers a basic stakeholder engagement management maturity model. Others will doubtless be better qualified to develop this into a rigorous tool. What matters most is that you start to consider the questions it raises for your organisation, and I’d love to hear from you if you do.

Level 1
Ad Hoc
No formal processes, nor recognition of the need for one. Any good work is done independently by individuals. Tools are shared informally among committed individuals and freely adapted, resulting in little or no uniformity.

Level 2
Awareness of the need for a systematic approach. Project and change management guidelines state requirements for stakeholder engagement management with little more than generic guidance and no substantial training available. Tools are “home-made”.

Level 3
The first documentation of stakeholder engagement policies and procedures is produced, with responsibilities allocated and some training available. People are aware of shortcomings and gaps. Simple tools are available centrally.

Level 4
Clear metrics are established to guide implementation and decision making. Formal procedures are followed and individual levels of expertise are recognized, with formal training and development available. Sophisticated tools are available.

Level 5
Stakeholder engagement is embedded in all organisational processes and is a part of the day-to-day culture. Knowledge, skills and techniques are constantly reviewed, with the organisation seen by others as a source of excellence and its senior practitioners regarded as leading experts.

Call to Action
If you are serious about the success of your projects, you will be mindful of a truth all project managers know, which I call Stakeholder Rule Number 1:

‘Your stakeholders will determine the success, or not, of your project.’

On a personal level, this means honing your skills in engaging with your stakeholder group as effectively as possible. And if you are part of an organization, then why not aspire one step further? Why not start the process of building a powerful stakeholder engagement culture? If you do that, I am convinced that your efforts will be handsomely rewarded.

About Guest Contributor

Dr Mike Clayton cares passionately about the role of stakeholder engagement in project management and is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan. This is one of the very few books available focusing on project stakeholder engagement.

Mike’s project management experience was gained delivering major change projects for a wide variety of corporate and Government clients while at Deloitte Consulting. He went on to found two training businesses and to train over 10,000 new project managers. He now focuses on speaking, seminars, and writing. He also acts as a trusted advisor to selected clients.