If you are experiencing a lack of buy-in, demotivated teams, and unhappy employees, poor stakeholder management and engagement are likely the root causes of your problem. (No, free biscuits may not be enough this time.). There are many aspects to managing stakeholders effectively, including analysis and engagement.  This article will explain further some of these and give hints and tips to elevate your stakeholder engagement, including difficult ones.

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 challenging to manage and engage since not all of us have taken psychology at university. Stakeholders represent individuals or groups that hold a stake in the project because they will be impacted by it or 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.

What makes a good stakeholder?

Well-behaved Stakeholders exist and make up most of our delivery and PMO experiences. Some characteristics include:

  • A new leader is joining the organisation and ‘getting it’, leading to a supportive Champion who is happy to engage and be actively involved.
  • Stakeholders are open to collaboration and present in delivering changes as they share a commitment to success.
  • Stakeholders who are encouraging but willing to challenge as a critical friend to find improvement opportunities.
  • Stakeholders take ownership and accountability for supporting and sometimes delivering communication.
  • Constant and constructive feedback was received from Stakeholders throughout the project’s life, and notably at the end.

Who are the stakeholders in a project?

  • 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. Still, we are playing an active part in ensuring that we have a plan to increase the likelihood of their support and reduce any resistance. Ultimately, we do stakeholder management to keep everybody happy, balancing their original expectations with ours. Stakeholder management is often the management of expectations, egos, and relationships.

What is the stakeholder management process?

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

How do you identify stakeholders?

It’s easy to think of the sponsor and other internal, direct stakeholders, but make no mistake—anyone can be a key stakeholder 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 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 your stakeholders: “anyone who has an interest in the project or its outputs.”

Core team members and the sponsor best complete this identification. 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

How do you do stakeholder analysis?

Now that we know the stakeholders, it’s time to analyse who they 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, in which 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 can 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, having occasional meetings, or ensuring their communication requirements are met.
  2. Least important / Minimal effort: The least important stakeholders are those who have little power and little interest in the project and require minimal effort from the project manager. However, they should not be overlooked: a stakeholder can move from one quadrant to another without warning!
  3. Key player / Engage closely: stakeholders with high power and interest are your most important stakeholders—the key players, such as the project sponsor and the project client. You will want to keep these individuals on 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 highly interested in the project. You need to show consideration to these stakeholders, such as the project end-users, and whom you should keep informed with regular updates (e.g., a newsletter).

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

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:

Stakeholder mapping

  • Don’t use it internally; contact your stakeholder groups and ask them how they feel about the project.
  • Getting their actual views and opinions will help to define the right approach. Do they feel they have more authority than you think? How can you use that?

Be authentic

  • Take the time to get to know your stakeholder groups. Be personable and add a human touch to your interactions.
  • Understand their perspective and how they arrive at their conclusions to understand and define their role.
  • We are humans. We have good days and bad days, and that is OK. A good project manager recognises this reality and uses empathy and positive emotions to drive behaviours.
  •  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?

Build networks

  • Engage with other departments inside your organisation.
  • Don’t forget that external (other companies in your sector, such as the Wellingtone Community) can all support your evolution.
  • We’re confident this suggestion is also in the “Art of War” (any possible comparison is pure coincidence!). Indeed, while it is essential to keep your project supporters happy, it is even more critical to monitor the difficult stakeholders who, if they are dominant, can influence the positioning of others.
  • Even symbolic gestures, such as asking a key stakeholder for their opinion, may seem small but can be sufficient to generate a sense of belonging to the project. 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.

Get evidence

  • Few (Senior) stakeholders will buy in (if they aren’t convinced from the start) only once they see value, so get evidence to support your change.
  • Don’t assume everyone sees it as you do.

Take a helping approach

  • If something is obvious to you, it doesn’t mean it’s evident to them, so take the time to walk people through the ‘thing’ to ensure clear understanding.
  • Ensure that you are helping them understand their responsibility as a stakeholder, not just what you need from them.

Communication is key

  • Communication is not only about speaking but mostly about listening! Pay attention to the signals your stakeholders are sending you.
  • Understand your audience, and don’t use technical Project Management terms if it will confuse them.
  • Use a language familiar to the culture, or do something different and choose a fun way to talk about projects.
  • Formal problems are 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 win by bringing the topic up.

Take the hit

  • Initiating good stakeholder relationships will take time and effort; do not underestimate the investment of your time.
  • Do not do this alone; your delivery or PMO team should also be building bridges.
  • 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: Formal problems are 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!): We’re certain this suggestion is also in the “Art of War” (any possible comparison is pure coincidence!). Indeed, while it is essential 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 for their opinion, may seem small but can be sufficient to generate a sense of belonging to the project. 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 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. 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, productivity, better adoption, a sense of ownership and positive change that will spread to others. It cannot 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 ask yourself in your following highlight report is: Are my stakeholders engaged? Aim for great relationships, and the rest will follow.

What is the best approach to stakeholder 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 – tough ones – requires a specific skill set, which includes:

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

Plotting stakeholders on a grid is the first starting 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, mainly if you believe you will have a difficult stakeholder. Keeping them at arm’s length cannot improve the situation. Regular, open, honest, and reasonable communication can only be a bridge to a more successful outcome.

Fundamentally, the project manager creates an environment where stakeholders can feel comfortable expressing their concerns and expectations and aligning them with the project’s reality.

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), and how well-informed they are about the project. Stakeholders who are involved 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

Real-life examples of how to make project management practice more approachable

Some attendees from our Wellingtone community event were able to provide examples of things they have done to make their Project Management practice more approachable.

  • Talking about wonky donkey projects (those that require a bit of assistance) to remove the stigma of ‘red’ projects.
  • Categorising projects as animals or something similar brings more fun and interest to the process. You can read more about that here.
  • Ella’s Kitchen, one of the previous APM PMO of the Year Award winners, took a new approach to their ‘Run Smoothly’ team. You can re-watch our webinar with them.

APM Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ)

The 2-day APM Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ) is the most popular formal qualification and provides an excellent foundation in best practice project management. It is ideal for new Project Managers and team members and those seeking a first qualification in project management. At the end of the course, delegates sit a one-hour multiple-choice exam.

APM Project Management Qualification (PMQ)

The 4.5-day APM Project Management Qualification (PMQ) is the blue ribbon standard for professional project managers. Ideal for experienced Project Managers with a minimum of 2 years experience. Typically delivered over a few weeks, our training comprehensively prepares delegates for the PMQ exam.

APM Accredited Change Management Practitioner

This 2-day course addresses the growing need for PMO teams and project management practitioners to bring change management principles and best practices to their delivery processes. 

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By: Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)

Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)
PPM specialist with extensive experience in industry with a focus on collaboration, PMO conception & strategy, method and capability development. Marisa also retains depth expertise in Microsoft PPM having led a large number of client deployments.

Published: 21 March 2024

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