Project Stakeholder Management

23 May, 2016

People tend to resist change and they definitely do not like surprises – in the workplace at least. Given that projects are the agents of change, Project Managers need to be aware of these human traits and ensure that the people who can affect or be affected by projects are aware of the outcomes of the project and are given opportunities to express their concerns.

Getting these people, or stakeholders as they are formally called, involved early in the project can provide great benefits. For instance, if the project is to build a road from A to B and there are towns or individual dwellings along the way, wouldn’t it make sense to ask these people what they would consider the best route? Being asked for their input makes the stakeholders feel part of the project and may yield vital information, such as boggy patches in particular areas, or locations of protected nesting sites.

Similarly, a project to develop version 2.0 of a software package would benefit from talking to end users of version 1.0. Generally speaking, users are delighted with bug fixes and improved performance, but object strongly to user interface changes. This reflects our innate fear of change. If I am an expert on using version 1.0, changes to the interface could reduce me to novice status again. This is called learning anxiety.

In order to inform and to reassure stakeholders, the first thing the Project Manager has to do is identify them. If the organization has done this sort of thing before and has an established customer base, Stakeholder Registers from previous projects can be invaluable. If this is a totally new venture, the Project Manager and the Project Sponsor need to spend some time brainstorming to identify the parties affected.

In large projects, where there are many stakeholders, it is useful to categorize them into different groups. On Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam preparation courses, various mapping techniques are given, such as the Power / Interest Grid and the Salience Diagram. These seek to group stakeholders under different headings, in order to decide how best to manage them.

This Identify Stakeholders work occurs early in the project’s lifecycle. It is useful to consult with certain parties in the creation of the Project Charter – the residents in the previous example for instance – so this work is part of the Initiating phase of the project and needs to be done before formal project planning begins.

When we get into the planning phase, the Project Manager needs to decide how to manage the identified stakeholders. If we have categorized the stakeholders using one of the grid techniques, this task becomes one of planning how to manage each of the different categories. If the number of stakeholders is small – say the project is to produce a single component for a single customer – then each stakeholder can be considered individually in the plan.

For our stakeholders, what we are planning to do is to get everyone to a “desired” level of support for the project. The levels the Project Management Institute suggests are: Unaware, Resistant, Neutral, Supportive and Leading. Ideally, we want all our stakeholders to be supportive or champion the project in some way.

Those who are unaware need to be informed. The old adage: “Let sleeping dogs lie” does not apply here. If a stakeholder is unaware of what is going on and finds out about it from another source, the Project Manager has no control over the way the news is broken. As we mentioned at the beginning, people hate surprises and will instinctively resist something that they feel has been inflicted on them. However, if the Project Manager arranges for the stakeholders to be involved early in the project, s/he can present the benefits of the initiative and stress the positive aspects rather than the drawbacks.

Resistant stakeholders that do not have much power are often disregarded. This is a mistake, because these people may be so upset by the project that they begin campaigns on social media and attract unflattering attention. Making the effort to convert these people to at least a neutral position is time well spent. Unfortunately, neutral stakeholders can be dangerous too, in that they might, one day, jump off the fence and decide to resist the project.

This is why the Project Manager needs to Plan Stakeholder Engagement and then execute this plan in the Manage Stakeholder Engagement process. It is important to open two-way channels of communication with the stakeholders and an effective tool for this task is the Issue Log. Sometimes called an IAD Log (Issues, Actions Decisions), this is a way for stakeholders to voice concerns and for the Project Manager to detail how these concerns were addressed. If the Issue Log is working effectively, it can be the case that another stakeholder will address an issue instead of the Project Manager.

Having a mechanism for dealing with issues is good, but the Project Manager needs to spend time with the stakeholders. Some will be happy will regular progress reports, but others prefer face-to-face meetings or regular telephone communication. The Stakeholder Engagement Plan needs to specify which engagement approach should be used for each stakeholder, or category of stakeholder, in the Stakeholder Register.

Unfortunately, the Stakeholder Engagement Plan might not work very well. We might find stakeholders becoming resistant to the project and this needs to be addressed. If more contact, or a different type of contact is deemed appropriate, we need to update the plan. This work is part of the Control Stakeholder Engagement process.  Assessing how effective stakeholder engagement is requires good people skills. Often it is more gut instinct than hard data that suggests a stakeholder is unhappy with events. However, it is possible to assess effectiveness by recording the amount of contact with a stakeholder – if a stakeholder is not returning calls or commenting on progress, this can indicate that they are not happy with how things are going.

At the end of the day, effective Project Stakeholder Management is down to the Project Manager realizing that keeping stakeholders in the dark is not a good idea and that change is a scary concept for people. S/he needs to explain and reassure affected parties that the world will be a better place when this project concludes.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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