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Learning to love those very, very irritating stakeholders

On most projects thinking sooner or later turns to stakeholders. Unfortunately, it is usually later rather than sooner. Stakeholder management is regularly kicked off only when there is a problem with stakeholders.

 

Stakeholder management is one of those parts of project management that is often treated as an after-thought. Stakeholders can be viewed as irritants who get in the way of the “real work” being done on the project. Be honest, don’t you ever work and think this way? Don’t you ever get fed up with having to sit in meetings trying to get commitments from people and annoyed at spending time dealing with office politics?

Surely you have better things to do on your project?

I want to challenge this attitude. Poor stakeholder management is the source of huge problems on many projects – problems that can usually be avoided or mitigated. I believe stakeholder management is growing in importance. The risks from poor stakeholder management are increasing.

 

The increasingly complex stakeholder universe

Stakeholder management has been an integral part of project management for a long time – at least as long as I have been a project manager, and that is long enough!

There have always been issues with stakeholders. In the end, projects work with people. People are inherently political with varying beliefs, levels of understanding, viewpoints, approaches and degrees of interest or engagement. But if anything stakeholder issues are becoming more complex. Projects, to a large extent, reflect the organizational reality of ever increasing stakeholder complexity.

Let’s start with the 3 classic stakeholder groups. We have always had to deal with sponsors – with money and a business need. Secondly, there are suppliers – like the IT department, or operational teams seconding staff to the project, coaxing them into providing what the project needs. Finally, we have staff and groups impacted by the project to consider. 

One change that I have observed is that expectations in terms of the depth of relationship, types of communication and level of interaction have become more demanding. The other change is the ever growing range of individuals and groups who must be viewed as valid stakeholders.

For instance, there is the increasing regulatory burden in many industries. Regulators and legislators have moved from being occasional stakeholders to representing multifaceted fulltime relationships to manage. Projects often sit right in the sights of regulators.

Another example is that organizations increasingly make commitments on sustainability, reducing discrimination and other forms of corporate social responsibility. Social expectations of businesses are evolving and becoming more onerous.

These trends result in broader stakeholder universes for projects. The groups a project must consider, monitor, listen to and satisfy, often with complex information and reporting needs, continue to expand.

 

So what should you do?

All project methodologies contain approaches to stakeholder management, and I don’t want to repeat them here. But when it comes to being able to implement those approaches in practice there are a few important tips:

  1. Start up front, during the scoping phase: how broad and complex is the stakeholder universe for this project? Unless you think this through up front your project approach risks being inappropriate.
  2. Resource according to the complexity of stakeholders: building the stakeholder management tasks in the plan. Two projects with similar deliverables may on the surface require similar plans and resources. But if one has a few stakeholders with similar needs, and the other has many stakeholders with diverse and conflicting needs then the projects will in practice be very different. If your plan and resource levels do not reflect the differences you will struggle to cope when you have a complex stakeholder universe.
  3. Ensure your plan reflects realistic timescales to understand, engage and align stakeholders: along with time to achieve any commitments and decisions required from those stakeholders. This is not add on work to the project – it is the project
  4. Reflect on your own attitudes and approach to stakeholder management: it’s not just pointless meetings and politics. If you have complex stakeholders, a big part of your work will be handling meetings and politics. Think about stakeholders as a positive asset a project can leverage, and a source of issues and risks that are core elements of the project to resolve.

You’ll probably never love all your stakeholders. There will always be difficult people. But if you want to love your job as a project manager, you need to learn to love stakeholder management!

 

A footnote: the stakeholder universe

Effective stakeholder management is based on a good mapping of the stakeholder universe and practical steps to engage and manage the necessary interactions.

Mapping the stakeholder universe starts with understanding of a project and its context. From this you can determine the relationships the project needs to have, and the groups with an interest in the success, failure and impact of the project. This analysis can lead to a complex set of stakeholders, each with individual needs.

In the end, no project has the resources to satisfy every demand of every unique stakeholder. Therefore having mapped the stakeholder universe the next step must be to prioritise. There are several dimensions to stakeholder prioritisation. Firstly, there is the simple activity of deciding which stakeholders to work with. But stakeholder prioritisation must be more sophisticated than this.

 

Which stakeholders get individual attention? Which are handled as part of a group? Who gets the personal attention of the project manager? Which stakeholders are delegated to others with more time to deal with them – or in some cases, the specialist skills and knowledge to handle the interactions? And as a result of these questions: what resources and tasks need to be built into the plan?

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