Managing Stakeholders and Communication

18 March, 2015

The Project Management Institute, in its wisdom, decided to separate those processes related to stakeholder management from communications management in the fifth edition of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Besides giving PMP® exam students an extra knowledge area to worry about, what were the benefits of such a change?

Up to the fifth edition, the important point to remember with stakeholders is that you must communicate with them. This gave the impression that keeping stakeholders informed was the be all and end all of stakeholder engagement. However, by separating out the stakeholder engagement into its own area, we can now see that communicating – in the sense of distributing information – is only part of the Project Manager’s overall stakeholder engagement task.

This is clearly seen by looking at the outputs of the Manage Communications and Manage Stakeholder Engagement processes. The main output from Management Communications is Project Communications. In other words, the Project Manager’s goal with this process is to inform the stakeholders of what is going on with the project. Compare this with Manage Stakeholder Engagement. Here we are looking at an Issue Log and Change Requests. In other words, communications is interested in disseminating information, but stakeholder engagement is more concerned with allowing the stakeholders influence the course of events.

Of course, good communication channels are at the root of effective stakeholder engagement. When planning the communications strategy for the project, the Project Manager must be cognizant of the preferences of the project’s stakeholders. This will determine what communications technologies should be used; it will also point out if money needs to be spent on communicating. For instance, a distributed team might benefit from having video-conferencing available.

However, our communications strategy might record the need for face-to-face contact with various stakeholders at regular intervals during the project. It is under the Project Stakeholder Management knowledge area that the nature of these face-to-face meetings is laid down. For instance, we might have a status meeting in the Project Sponsor’s office once a month. But we might also have to spend an evening in a corporate box in Thomond Park, wining and dining an important customer. So stakeholder entertainment might have to be factored into the budget too.

Another aspect of Project Stakeholder Management is getting the stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. A cynical Project Manager might justify this as establishing guilt by association but, if getting the project team involved in the planning processes aids team formation and identity, then getting external stakeholders involved in the planning processes will also foster a sense of belonging to the project.

For the Project Manager, asking stakeholders for input is all very well and good, but it is vital that mechanisms are in place to record both this input and the responses of the project team. This is where the Issue Log - sometimes called an Issues / Actions / Decisions (or IAD) log – comes in. Every suggestion or contribution a stakeholder makes needs to be logged and, more importantly, what was done with these suggestions recorded as well. The stakeholders need to feel that their suggestions are being taken seriously, or the suggestions will stop coming.

In the real world, a very engaged stakeholder can be a serious headache for a Project Manager. Regular phone calls and a flood of frankly implausible ideas can tax the diplomacy of the calmest Project Manager. Even worse is the situation where several stakeholders have jumped at the chance of contributing to the project and they all seek to pull it in different directions.

This can happen if you are too accommodating of stakeholders. It is better to learn what a stakeholder’s particular interests are and seek advice on those areas. Instead of inviting the stakeholders to attend the first risk identification brainstorming session, ask them to review the Risk Register that has resulted. Instead of asking for Risk Responses, ask them to review the responses your team has come up with. The important thing is to maintain the external stakeholders in an advisory role, not in a managing one – remember you are the Project Manager.

Effective stakeholder engagement is built on effective communications. However, the Project Manager needs to encourage useful contributions from the stakeholders, without losing control of the project. If you are studying for the PMP® exam at the moment, you need to be aware that Project Communications Management is about establishing effective channels of communication with your stakeholders and distributing project information to them. Project Stakeholder Management, in contrast, is about eliciting feedback and ideas from the stakeholders and managing their concerns, using the Issue Log and change control mechanism.

Velopi’s PMP® exam preparation courses cover Project Communications and Stakeholder Management, as well as the other eight knowledge areas. For more details of these courses, please visit our training page, or contact us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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