Managing Project Stakeholders Requires Leadership

Some years ago, I was peripherally involved in a community project. A non-profit in town was adding a substantial building on their large campus. Early on in the construction, neighbors started complaining because of parking inconveniences. Then, power problems started impacting a small group of neighbors. Scope creep gradually started as deficiencies in some older structures on the site began to surface. Fighting between volunteers on the community board ensued, as limited resources were being stretched, and programs had to be limited. It was clear to me that many of the problems on that project related to some inattention to managing project stakeholders.

When I hear or read about other project failures, they are often connected to inadequacies in managing project stakeholders. Often, it seems that stakeholder management is an afterthought. And for all of the improvements that we are making in technology, we still operate in a world where people do the projects.

I wrote about how blockchain might improve stakeholder management several weeks ago. In this blog, I want to talk about how managing project stakeholders requires leadership, and what organizations can do to improve. We need leaders with high emotional intelligence. We need people who will stand up for what is right and who aren’t afraid to ask why. Project managers need to be able to coach their teams, rather than swinging their perceived power around like a bully stick.

In this blog, I will outline some specific actions that team members and project managers can take, and how that relates to leadership. The temperament of the people on your teams is really critical. Bullies are not valuable team players.

Bullies are not valuable team players. Click To Tweet

Identify stakeholders.

This may not be as simple as it seems. Consider who will be inconvenienced during the project period. Consider who will be impacted by the project deliverables. Are regulators involved? Is the public involved? There will likely be the need to group the stakeholders in logical segments, in order to make it feasible to understand the wide-ranging impacts of your project.

One necessary ingredient of leadership is awareness. We will never be successful project leaders if we are simply unaware of the needs of our stakeholders.

Awareness is necessary ingredient of leadership. We will never be successful project leaders if we are simply unaware of the needs of our stakeholders. Click To Tweet

Document stakeholder details in a register.

Once you have identified your stakeholders, you need to record the data somewhere. In the absence of something more sophisticated, a simple Excel spreadsheet will do. I like to record some contact information, along with several other items:

  • Preferred method of contact — even when I tell people that most of their communications will come through email or meetings, I find it helpful to know what someone’s preferred method of communication is. That way, if I have something that is big, or a stakeholder who is likely to cause some trouble, I can make an informed decision about whether I want to make an exception.
  • Role(s) on project — I find it helpful, when using an Excel register to be able to filter the register — to identify everyone who is involved in certain areas. So, I often set up columns for each of the major categories of the project and indicate how each stakeholder is involved in each area. This provides a type of RACI (or responsibility matrix) and can help you craft a communications plan that works.
  • The stakeholder’s why — While I probably won’t ask every stakeholder why he/she is working on the project, I find that knowing the stakeholder’s why can help me decide how to direct project traffic. If someone is working on the project to develop skills, I will give them activities that will challenge them. If, on the other hand, the team member is going through a rough time at home, and is distracted by that, I may opt for easier activities.
  • Hot buttons — Many of the stakeholders on your project will have a limited number of special interests, or hot buttons. You just need to know what they are. As you interview key stakeholders, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what would concern you if you were in those shoes. And then, ask them what their concerns are, what their goals are, and what kind of background they bring to the project. You may find a wealth of insights to inform your work.

Actively engage stakeholders.

Decide on a plan for how you are going to engage with your different stakeholders. Are you going to have team meetings? Are you going to do some kind of focus group meeting with people who have a tangential interest in one small part of the project?

Should the implementation use regular standing meetings? Will the team periodically meet to decide on how to distribute work and better understand the financial position of the project, the risks, and the lessons learned to date? Using meetings to distribute work and get buy-in from team members, instead of simply assigning work on a spreadsheet reduces confusion and builds commitment to the challenge.

I’ve read many blogs and heard many arguments against meetings, but there is no substitute for a well-run meeting to build cooperation and accountability. A group meeting where the scope of each activity is discussed can eliminate a ton of confusion. What does each stakeholder understand his or her responsibility to be? Are these details documented clearly somewhere? They need to be.

Use a responsibility matrix.

A responsibility matrix, or RACI is a way of documenting the understandings about who is responsible for what. It typically lists all of the activities in the project, including project management activities, and documents who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed on each one. Some project managers prefer a RASCI — which adds ‘supports’ to the matrix.

Understand the information that is needed at which levels.

Determining what information needs to be disseminated to each person is a big part of your communications plan — and an essential part of project management. It’s important to get clarity early on about who is entitled to receive which pieces of information. How transparent are you going to be with the different stakeholder groups?

From a pragmatic standpoint, I recommend that stakeholders be categorized into groups that will be manageable. It is simply unmanageable to treat every stakeholder individually. I often document the communication needs and RACI details in one spreadsheet, instead of creating two documents.

Who is on the implementation team? You may or may not include different subject matter experts as part of your inner circle, but you need to know what pieces of information they need to receive.

There are going to be some people who need to know a lot. And there are others, who don’t care much, unless a change is impacting them. Few people want to know everything, and if you send them everything, they will tune out, and your important communications will be missed. Remember that we all must bear the burden of communicating effectively.

Even in more stable projects, where requirements are well defined, there is an evolutionary aspect to project work. Be aware that the decisions on who gets what information can change. Ask your project stakeholders to let you know if their needs change. Consider how the project is going, from the perspective of the different groups of stakeholders.

Use a documented change management process.

Most projects involve scope changes. You need a documented process for how you will handle change requests — from beginning to end. Read about how to do that here.

Managing project stakeholders requires leadership, high emotional intelligence, and a commitment to learn more about your stakeholders and document what you learn in a useable format. If you are looking for some project help, give me a call. Or sign up for my newsletter.

Writes on project management, leadership, team building, and value delivery. Imagining work management in the future. Smartprojex.com