Three experienced project professionals at APM’s Change Changes conference gave their hard-won advice on how to manage your stakeholders. Below are their top tips.
1. Get creative
“You have to be creative — to find ways of being inventive to get to your stakeholders,” said Charlie Smith, Senior Programme Manager at NATS, who is responsible for its airspace change portfolio.
“We had a big airspace change that was taking place prior to COVID-19, but we had to do our public consultation during the pandemic. Normally for public consultations, we will go to various town hall events across the geography of that airspace, so we can talk to as many people as we possibly can.
“There's a lot of apathy about stakeholder engagement with the general public, and we don't generally get very good footfall. During COVID-19, we couldn't stop the project.
“We wanted to keep going, so we started to think about how we could do that consultation in the digital sphere, so we created a digital town hall, and we found very quickly that we were getting four times as many people to the consultation as we did with the physical consultation.
“That’s been a massive step forward for us to move into that digital world, to take advantage of those tools available to us to find a new way of engaging those stakeholders.”
2. Bring clarity for your stakeholders
Nicky Hibbs is a Senior Project Manager at Heathrow Airport who looks after all its airfield projects, water and civil infrastructure.
“When you're in a room with stakeholders and they've all got conflicting priorities and different levels of risk appetite, remember that typically people aren't there to say ‘no’. It's just that they've got a blocker.
“So be clear what you’re asking for and tell them when you want their decision. Ask: what is it between now and then that's really going to help you, or help me to help you, to get to that ‘yes’?
“It comes down to you needing to mitigate the risk to the lowest level that they're comfortable with to be able to say ‘yes’. Ask them what the non-negotiables are for them, versus the nice-to-haves, so that you can work them through that decision.”
3. Invest the time upfront in understanding your stakeholders
Nukey Proctor is Head of Service Delivery at consultancy firm Methods.
“What is always important is investing time, ideally upfront, in really understanding who your stakeholders are. This may seem elementary, but it is often overlooked when engaging in big programmes of work,” she said.
“Take the time to understand what they care about, the optimal routes of engagement and the reason why they should care about the things that you are talking about. You cannot really manage what you do not understand.”
4. Create a mixed level of knowledge in your team
“In 2021, I was engaging in a critical programme of work for one of our clients and one of the techniques that I used was trying to ensure that we had a mixed level of knowledge within the team,” said Proctor.
“We balanced out those who already had historical context and had worked with the organisation within our project team alongside those who were completely new, who would come with fresh ideas. That mix of perspectives influenced the way in which we undertook stakeholder engagement throughout the work.”
5. Be a storyteller — and a salesperson
“With stakeholder management you need to be a bit of a storyteller to be able to convey the story of where you want to get to and the outcomes you want to achieve,” said Smith.
“You also need to be a bit of a salesperson so you just take them on that journey and convince them it's the right thing to do, because many of your stakeholders will be supportive but they'll want to do it differently or want to achieve a slightly different outcome to you.”
6. Don’t underestimate your stakeholders
“Don't always believe what they first tell you,” warned Smith. “We often talk about stakeholders being supporters or saboteurs, so you really need to get to a point where you build that relationship with the stakeholders to understand truly what they might want from your project or might need.
“You need to have supportive stakeholders, so you really need to get to understand them personally and what their organisational needs are — and the impacts on them of whatever it is you're trying to do.”
7. Create an open, honest culture
Advised Hibbs: “We make mistakes and it's about being honest. When things aren't going right, check in and ask: what can we do? What more do you need? How can I help you get there? Don't assume you know because it can change day-to-day. Keep checking in, building the trust, because that really helps to develop the project in the right direction.”
8. Use your sponsor
“Use your sponsor,” said Hibbs. “As project managers, we're there to maintain the schedule and move the project in certain directions, but if you need someone to help, to change the risk appetite or make a big business decision, we've got our sponsors there to help us through that.
“Use them to help drive the benefits and the outcomes.”
You may also be interested in: