Six Degrees of Stakeholder Separation

10 August, 2015

When the film “Six Degrees of Separation” was released in the U.S.A., it must have raised quite a few eyebrows. Surely it is impossible to suggest that everyone on planet Earth is connected to everyone else if you go through six relationships? In Ireland, the reaction was different. Here we asked was it really that many steps? This is because Ireland is a small country and within our society, connection is important.

If you visit any small town in Ireland, budget for an element of frustration if you ask for directions or want to buy something. The person you are dealing with will not be listening to you, because the first order of business is to trace down your accent. The exchange goes something like this:

“Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Ballykissangel please?

“You’re from Cork, aren’t you?”

“That’s right”

“Which part?”

Mention your home town

“Ah, I used work there in the nineties! Do you know the Magillacuddies?”

Six degrees of separation or the third degree, it does not matter, you are not getting directions until the local has you placed and a connection established.

While this can be infuriating if you are in a hurry and not in the humour for this sort of thing, it shows Ireland’s competitive advantage – we are the best when it comes to networking. In the commercial world, gaining access to organizations is easy because there is always someone working there who is married to someone who played under-age football with your second cousin.

For Irish Project Managers then, project stakeholder management should come as easily as breathing. Just sit an Irish Project Manager in the same room as a stakeholder and watch as the connections are established. Even if they are not related, they will have some common ground – an interest in Golf, a hatred for Leinster rugby, or even a relative with the same illness. For the Irish party, it is vital to get the measure of the stakeholder: what type of person are they? How should they be approached? If the stakeholder is not Irish then this gentle interrogation is flattering – showing interest, putting the person at ease.

However, there is one danger with using connections to gain access to stakeholders and that is abdicating responsibility for managing the stakeholder to your gateway person. There is a tendency to assign responsibility for the relationship to the person who made the relationship possible in the first place.

This is a mistake and anyone who has ever played a game of Chinese Whispers will know why – second-hand information is never as clear as hearing from the horse’s mouth. There is also a danger that the connection is more interested in how the stakeholder benefits from the relationship than in the project’s interests.

As an example of how this sort of indirect management can cause problems, a training manager in a large corporation was assigned the task of bringing a recognized guru in a technical subject to speak at a symposium the company was organizing. The training manager, not being familiar with the subject, consulted one of the staff in the R&D department (his wife’s Pilates instructor’s husband) who happened to be on great terms with one of the leading names in this area (attended the same university, served on the same soccer team’s supporters’ club committee).

Instead of asking for an introduction to this expert, the Project Manager asked his colleague to find out if the guru would be willing to come to Ireland and speak on the specific date. The response was positive – not only was the guy willing to talk, he was planning to bring his family to Ireland on a vacation around that time, so everything lined up perfectly. All he needed to do now was to make sure his tour of the country came close to the symposium site on the day of the talk.

At this point, the Project Manager made a huge mistake. Instead of obtaining contact information from the connection and discussing travel expenses directly, he let the connection pass the message along that reasonable travel expenses would be allowed. The training manager assumed that the speaker would claim the equivalent of a single, return flight ticket and an overnight stay in the local hotel.

Picture his surprise when the symposium was finished and an expense claim arrived that basically covered the speaker’s entire vacation to Ireland. It transpired that the connection had spoken to the speaker over the phone and there was no record anywhere of the “reasonable expenses” proviso. So now the training manager now had to get in touch directly. He eventually managed to negotiate a compromise that still kept the symposium within budget, but was far higher than estimated.

This was an important learning experience for the training manager: whatever about the Six Degrees of Separation, if you are a Project Manager, then you need to ensure there are Zero Degrees of Separation between you and your stakeholders.

Stakeholder management is so important that it not only features on our Project Management Professional (PMP)© and Program Management Professional (PgMP)© courses, but it also is the subject for one of our specialized one-day course, entitled Stakeholder Management. For more details of these and other courses, please visit our web-site or contact us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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