Project Stakeholders

17 June, 2013

If you are preparing for the PMP® examination, you will be looking at the fifth edition of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and discovering a whole new knowledge area called project stakeholder management. If the Project Management Institute (PMI) is highlighting the importance of stakeholders in this manner, we, as project managers, should sit up and pay attention.

One of the first actions we should take as project managers is to identify our stakeholders. According the PMI, a stakeholder is: “an individual, group, or organization who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project” (PMBOK® Guide 5th ed, p.30). So, essentially, anyone associated with the project is a stakeholder and we need to be aware of their existence.

Probably the most important stakeholder is the project sponsor. The project sponsor has approved the project and should really act as a champion for the effort. It is important that the project sponsor maintains enthusiasm for the project throughout its lifecycle. If your company has embraced the cost-cutting zeitgeist, an indifferent sponsor is hardly going to defend the project when the axe is being wielded.

Another important stakeholder is one that we tend to ignore in our analysis: the project manager. Have you looked at how you perceive the project? Are you personally enthusiastic about the work? Are you getting the project team excited about the project and are regularly reinforcing the overall vision? It can really depress a project if the project manager is not 100% behind the work. Having said that, there are many projects out there that are difficult to summon up enthusiasm for, but it is well worth while making the effort.

This leads us nicely onto the project team itself. Do not forget that these are vital stakeholders: these are the people who do the work, so does it have meaning for them? Do they see this project as a way of developing new skills? Do they feel that the world will be a better place because of this effort? Or are they just doing this for a pay cheque? This is where the project manager can have a profound influence.

Customers and end-users are obvious stakeholders. Managing customers can be tricky, as we have a tendency to encourage them to dream up too many requirements. This is particularly true in the software world, where there is a desire to define the requirements clearly at the start, so that there will not be any changes down the line. This approach tends to lead to software with too many features and unnecessary complexity. If the project’s product or service is destined for the mass-market, it is useful to talk to many end customers, to get a holistic view of the market’s requirements. Listening to everyone’s requests can pull a product in too many different directions.

End users should definitely be involved in any project where there is a large user-interface component. Even if a project is furnished with comprehensive business process maps, a session with someone who actually does the work can reveal many exceptions to the rule. If process is so wonderful, why is a work-to-rule so disruptive? Involving the end users is critical in any automation project, because a manual system often allows a certain amount of discretion, whereas a computerized system is a lot less forgiving.

Once you have identified your stakeholders, then it is useful to create a power/interest grid to highlight their relative importance to the project.

This exercise is often carried out in a negative fashion. We tend to ask: what potential has this stakeholder to jeopardize the project? Indeed stakeholder management is often approached like risk management. However, it is useful to ask what can each stakeholder bring to the project and insure that their views and expertise are exploited to the full for the benefit of the project.

Another useful exercise is to decide the stakeholders’ attitudes to the project. A tool called the Stakeholder Engagement Assessment Matrix allows you to plot the current and desired attitude to the project. Five categories are given: unaware, resistant, neutral, supportive and leading. The likes of the sponsor and project manager need to be leading and everyone else should be supportive. It is tempting to be satisfied if a stakeholder is unaware or neutral, but this can lead to trouble down the line. Senior managers who have influence on budget decisions need to be aware of the goals of the project or they might happily vote to terminate it if cuts are called for. Environmental or regulatory groups might need to know what’s happening with your project because they have to potential to scupper it down the line. Indeed consulting the regulators or local interest groups early in the project can often lead to unexpected benefits: better alternatives have been discovered by learning from local knowledge and projects have been steered in a way that reduces the regulatory overhead by simply considering it earlier in the project.

In summary, stakeholder management is vital and you do not have to be a PMP® exam candidate to appreciate that. The important thing to remember is that the stakeholders are not necessarily obstacles to the project goals; treated properly, every one of them has the potential to contribute to the project’s success. You just need to recognize what they can contribute and tap into that potential.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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