If you are experiencing a lack of buy-in, demotivated teams and unhappy. It is likely that the root cause of your problem is poor stakeholder management and engagement. (No, free biscuits may not be enough this time).

What is a Stakeholder?

People. You read that right – humans, with their fears, desires, interests, and egos – and that’s exactly why they can be difficult to manage and engage since not all of us have taken psychology at uni. Stakeholders represent individuals or groups that hold a stake in the project, either because they will be impacted by the project or because they have a vested interest in it. Any project, even if it’s a minor internal one, will have stakeholders, from the client to the project.

Stakeholders can therefore be internal or external to the project.

Common stakeholders in a project tend to include:

  • Project sponsor
  • Project team
  • Customer
  • Suppliers
  • End users
  • Shareholders
  • Departments
  • Unions
  • Local communities
  • Council and political representatives
  • Competitors
  • NGOs
  • Professional organisations
  • Regulators

What is Stakeholder Management?

Some argue that stakeholders cannot be managed, just engaged. But let’s remain optimistic and consider both scenarios. By managing stakeholders, we are not leaving their engagement level to chance but instead, we are playing an active part in ensuring that we have a plan to increase the likelihood of their support and to reduce any resistance. Ultimately, we do stakeholder management to keep everybody happy, balancing their original expectations with our own. At the end of the day, stakeholder management is often the management of expectations, egos, and relationships.

This process involved three key steps, which can be expanded on in a Stakeholder Management Plan, one of the management processes completed during the Planning stage of the project:

Stakeholder Identification, Stakeholder Analysis, Management of Stakeholder's Engagement

Let’s look at these in more detail:

1) Stakeholder Identification

It’s easy to just think of the sponsor and other internal, direct, stakeholders but, make no mistake, anyone can be key stakeholders and should not be neglected. Would you know how to identify a stakeholder in your organisation? Here are some questions you should ask yourself.

  • Who will be affected by the project?
  • Who is directly responsible for making decisions in the project?
  • Who is influential in the subject of the project?
  • Who has been involved in the past in similar projects?
  • Who has not been involved but should have been in the project?
  • Who can obstruct a decision if not involved in the project?

While stakeholder identification doesn’t need to be exhaustive, it should not be rushed or neglected either. Remember, stakeholders, are not islands. They communicate and are influenced by one another. Stakeholders identified are listed in a Stakeholder Register, which can include aspects such as name, role and organisation. It is important to stress that the process of identifying stakeholders is not a one-off activity to be carried out just at the beginning of the project, but should be a continuous activity throughout the project. You never know when a new stakeholder may emerge!

The typical starting point for stakeholder mapping is to consider who your stakeholders are; “anyone who has an interest in the project or the outputs of the project”.

This identification is best completed with core team members and the Sponsor. Each stakeholder is then considered for their level of interest and power. Some replace the word power with influence. Stakeholders are then plotted in a grid such as the one below:

Stakeholder Mapping - Influence Low and High

2) Stakeholder Analysis

Now that we know who the stakeholders are, it’s time to analyse who they really are. What is their level of interest, what power do they have? And what are their expectations? Are they in favour of the project or against it? All stakeholders are equal but…some are more equal than others.

Stakeholder analysis can be done using a power-interest matrix. Where each stakeholder is plotted based on their level of power to impact the project and their level of interest.

  1. Meet their needs/ Keep them satisfied: stakeholders in this group, have little interest in the project but have high power to make it continue or stop. Examples of such stakeholders include the financial department, which holds the budget for the project. The best way of engagement is to meet their needs and keep them satisfied. This can mean inviting them for project updates, have occasional meetings or ensuring that their communication requirements are being met.
  2. Least important / Minimal effort: stakeholders who have little power and little interest in the project are the least important and require minimal effort from the project manager. However, they should not be totally overlooked: a stakeholder can move from one quadrant to another without warning!
  3. Key player / Engage closely: stakeholders with a high level of power and high level of interest are your most important stakeholders. The key players such as the project sponsor and the project client. These are the individuals that you will want to keep in your side and that will require all the TLC you can provide, from conversations over lunch to daily reports and 1-2-1 updates.
  4. Show consideration / Keep them informed: this quadrant represents a scenario formed by stakeholders with low power but who are highly interested in the project. These are stakeholders to which you need to show consideration, such as the project end-users, and who you should keep informed, with regular updates (e.g. a newsletter).

It is important to note that this analysis is not static but rather dynamic! Who your most important stakeholder is today may be different to who they are tomorrow.

3) Management of Stakeholder’s Engagement

“No one destroys what one helps to build” is probably one of the most important lessons I learned from my mentors when I started my career in project management consulting. Trust me, project management is all about relationships. Handling stakeholders – particularly difficult ones – requires a specific skillset, this includes:

  • Excellent communication
  • Being able to influence and resolve conflicts
  • Problem-solving
  • Emotional intelligence

Plotting stakeholders on a grid are only the very first start point, just like listing risks in a log. It’s what you do with this information that makes or breaks it. Being proactive, getting out from behind their desks and engaging people are fundamental activities. Sometimes this can feel like the last thing you want to do, particularly if you believe you will have a difficult stakeholder. Keeping them at arm’s length cannot improve the situation. Engaging in regular open honest and reasonable communication can only be a bridge to a more successful outcome.

It is fundamental that the project manager creates an environment for the project where stakeholders can feel comfortable in expressing their concerns and expectations and in aligning them to the reality of the project.

Managing expectations is a continuous effort, which also requires the project manager to factor in the cultural context of each stakeholder, their capacity to engage (e.g. language barriers), as well as how well informed they are about the project. In fact, stakeholders who are engaged and whose expectations are being well managed:

  • Are fully informed about the project
  • Understand their role in the project
  • Sell to others the benefits that the project will deliver
  • Assist in removing obstacles in the project

If you spot any of these signals in your project, congratulations, you have a lucky project!

Tips for managing stakeholders better (including the difficult ones!)

Despite best efforts, it is difficult to please everyone so you should pick your battles and always try to improve your stakeholder management skills. To manage your stakeholder’s expectations more effectively, try the following:

  • What’s in it for them: don’t give them generic information and benefits. The best way to gain buy-in is to focus on what is relevant to each stakeholder, that is, what’s in it for them and is specific to their role that will make their life easier and/or take a pain point away.
  • Learn what makes them tick: everyone has a passion, a hobby, something that inspires us. Find out what makes your stakeholders tick and use the information in your favour to start a relationship and build rapport. Who would have guessed that James also enjoys playing chess?
  • Small talk is big talk: I’m a big believer that formal problems are very often easier solved through informal conversations. Don’t be afraid of small talk; if your project client is a football addict and his team just had a great match the day before, you may also win, just by bringing the topic up.
  • Keep your friends close (and your enemies closer!): I’m certain this suggestion is also in the “Art of War” (any possible comparison is pure coincidence!). Indeed, while it is important to keep your project supporters happy, it is even more important to monitor the difficult stakeholders who, if they are dominant, can influence the positioning of others. Pay close attention to the following:
  • One does not destroy what one helps to build: even symbolic gestures, such as asking a key stakeholder of their opinion. Giving them a quick update phone call or asking a colleague to review a document, may seem small but can be sufficient to generate a sense of belonging to the project.
  • Be emotionally intelligent: we are humans. We have good days and bad days and that is OK. A good project manager is one who recognises this reality and uses empathy and positive emotions to drive behaviours.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: take note, communication is not only about speaking but mostly about listening! Pay attention to the signals your stakeholders are sending you.
  • Be authentic: stakeholder management should not be confused with stakeholder manipulation. Sure, there are egos to be managed but nothing beats an honest conversation and leadership by example, in my humble opinion. Authentic leaders inspire, act as role models, and generate a sense of trust. Who wouldn’t want to support one? 

Successful projects are a result of successful relationships with the project stakeholders. As a Project Manager, you cannot be successful on your own. Engaged stakeholders lead to more motivation, more productivity, better adoption, and a sense of ownership and positive change that will spread to others. It’s not something that can be achieved overnight or by simply having a log. It requires time, commitment, energy, that’s for sure. However, that’s also the key criteria for measuring success and a question you should be asking yourself at your next highlight report: are my stakeholders engaged? Aim for great relationships and the rest will follow.

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