You’ll be familiar with the idea of a project having a life cycle: work begins, is carried out, is completed and delivered, hopefully creating something that adds value to the organisation.
Stakeholders also follow a life cycle; you start out not knowing who they are, you bring them into the project and involve them, then their involvement in the project comes to an end (even if they continue to be involved with the deliverable or change outside of the project).
Managing stakeholders effectively throughout that journey makes it easier for them to engage with the work and contribute to the project effort.
There are four stages in the stakeholder life cycle, which I describe in my book, Engaging Stakeholders on Projects: How to harness people power and outline briefly below.
Stage 1: Identification
First, you need to identify the people who will be impacted or otherwise affected by the work you are doing. A stakeholder can also self-identify as someone who should be involved and put themselves forward for inclusion in the project work. This typically happens at the beginning of a project, but can happen at any time in the project or programme.
At this stage, you may not yet have any working relationship with the stakeholder. You will bring them onboard, share the project’s goals and objectives and establish what is required from the individual so that you can work together effectively in the most appropriate way.
Stage 2: Early engagement
As new stakeholders are brought into the project, you’re working out how best to interact with them. You’re establishing their communication preferences, learning about their management style and how they work.
It’s the beginning of your project-based working relationship. This is the time to be making a good impression. It’s also the time to begin to understand the people you’re working with. You can’t influence anyone if you can’t see things from their point of view. You’re finding out more about the environment they operate in, what matters to them, what motivates them and what concerns them about your project. It’s easier to influence and negotiate if you understand the context in which they work and how your project is going to disrupt that.
Supportive stakeholders will embrace the opportunity to work with you and be on board with the project during this time. Stakeholders who haven’t yet fully committed to the project, or those who are resistant to change will typically need more time spent on engagement activities. Work with them to understand their motivations and the sociopolitical context of their interactions with the project. This can help you tailor how you engage them to suit where they are.
However, it’s important to be aware that a stakeholder could stay in the ‘early engagement’ period for some time until they are fully able to commit to the project.
Stage 3: Mature engagement
At this stage, your working relationship and the project’s relationship with the stakeholders is based on your past interactions. You’ll know if the stakeholders are contributing effectively and championing the work, or whether it’s a little more of a struggle to engage them with the project. Your work together is informed by how you’ve collaborated over the past weeks and months.
What also may be likely is that the stakeholders might be fully embedded in the team. If they aren’t, the individual is at least aware of what’s expected of them and their responsibilities to the project at this stage. They’re aware of the project’s goals, working patterns, expectations and rhythms.
Hopefully, they’re fully contributing in the way you expect at this time. However, unsupportive stakeholders exist at all phases of your project and at all points of your interaction with them. You may come across individuals or groups with whom you have an established, but broadly negative, relationship. Understanding their levels of commitment allows you to tailor your engagement activities to try to influence their activity on the project.
Stage 4: Dissolution
Finally, the project comes to a planned or premature close and the stakeholder’s interactions with the project also end.
Following this, their position as a project stakeholder is wound up. For example, they sign off their project deliverables, or take delivery of the product.
However, an individual’s involvement with the project may be dissolved before the project formally completes - the stakeholder life cycle and the project life cycle don’t need to coincide. For example, a lawyer with a single activity to review contracts at the start of the project will no longer need to be engaged in the project after that particular task is complete. Their involvement with the project can be wound up before the project finishes. If you do need their involvement again, you may have to onboard them as a ‘new’ stakeholder, as the project may have moved on substantially since their last engagement with the team.
When a stakeholder’s relationship with the project dissolves, they can’t interact with the project any longer. Normally, this is because the project structure itself no longer exists.
However, stakeholders may have an ongoing relationship with the product, process, service or other output that the project delivered. You may personally continue to work with them on different projects or programmes, or as part of the wider portfolio. But the project itself is closed.
Project managers who build successful internal networks often find ways to stay in touch with key stakeholders even after a project has ended because they know the relationship will help with future support or projects.
For many more tips on how to engage with stakeholders throughout the project life cycle, take a look at Engaging Stakeholders on Projects: How to harness people power.