High Stakes – how and why to manage stakeholders

For those at the front line of project management, it can be very tempting to see the project as an end in itself but this can be a dangerous perspective. Projects are always done to meet the needs and expectations of at least one stakeholder group.

Successful projects require effective management of all the stakeholders [anyone who is involved with or affected by the project] and to do this you need to understand all of them: their needs, desires, expectations, contributions and most of all whether they win or lose as a result of the project.

This can be even more critical in “softer” change management situations but attention to stakeholder relationships is crucial in all projects.

Failure to take account of key stakeholders may result in a lack of attention to potential sources of opposition and resistance and may lead to late changes due to lack of consultation or involvement.

Many of the stakeholder groups will be easy to identify: customers, suppliers, regulators, functional departments etc but three additional factors need to be taken into account:

  1. Sometimes your customer’s customers and even their customers can be very important to understanding real needs and wants [you might apply this to suppliers as well]: This can be particularly important if you are part of an external Project Management team or contractor.
  2. Sometimes you need to consider specific individuals as well as the groups they are part of or represent
  3. Sometimes individuals will have different perspectives depending on how they consider the project. A manager might have a completely different view from their personal stance to that expected of his or her department and may not display this openly. These views may even be mutually exclusive!

[Aside: I was speaking to a client who is a director in a family business a couple of weeks back and he noted that business, family and personal issues may each be the top of his priorities on particular days. This suggests that his stance towards a project might vary on a day to day basis.]

You must identify each stakeholder and their aims; it can be very dangerous to uncover an unstated aim of a key stakeholder late in the project delivery process. This invariably leads to additional costs and / or delay.

[Aside: I remember taking the MD of a customer round a food production facility as part of the hand over process. He complained that the “Goods lift” was an inadequate standard for his visiting customers. A moment of panic for both me and my client’s Project Manager: fortunately we were able to show that the Marketing Director had signed off on the specification and had commented that his view was that Passenger standard here would have been seen as excessive by his customers.]

The management literature presents several models / frameworks for analysing stakeholder perspectives; I like to use a combination in a 3D framework covering [See Slide 1]:

Power – does the stakeholder have a source of power to wield over the project? This may be direct power or gained indirectly through influence.

Interest – Is the stakeholder going to be affected by the outcome of the project?

Stance – to what extent is the stakeholder supportive of the project?

These three factors allow you to assess whether they are valuable allies or dangerous enemies. This approach may also allow you to assess who it is worthwhile trying to enrol as a supporter of your proposals.

It can also be useful to examine the relationship between the effort required of an individual or group with their likely rewards [See Slide 2]. It is often the case, particularly in change management situations, that one group will be asked to take on much of the work but has little to gain and potentially much to lose. If their role and rewards are examined in this way, it often becomes very clear why they are less than enthusiastic participants.

It is vital that stakeholders are managed effectively and having a clear view of their perspective on the project is an important factor in your ability to do so. Knowing what is important to each group or individual will allow you to tailor messages to ensure that you get the maximum support through the project scoping, justification and implementation stages. You should also recognise that these messages need to demonstrate the benefits of the project to each stakeholder and need to be adjusted to suit the project stage. It is not sufficient to have one message for all and for that to remain constant throughout the project.

As always, the critical issue is that you have to think about the project from each stakeholder’s perspective – it is usually the things you haven’t thought about that catch you out.

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