Do we engage stakeholders effectively?
We know that building strong relationships drives projects. As project complexity increases, dedicated roles for interfacing with stakeholders are necessary. Management resources are assigned to systematically identify, assess, plan and implement actions designed to engage with these stakeholders. The rest of the project team may to some extent breathe a sigh of relief; that base is covered.
There is a need to engage and nurture these relationships, or escalate issues, at a senior level. Project professionals do that. Stakeholders value assured leadership and often want to be ‘talking to the boss’. Setting and monitoring the trajectory for key stakeholder engagement is among a project sponsor’s leadership responsibilities to ensure the work is governed effectively, and delivers objectives that meet identified needs. Along with the project manager’s responsibilities for project planning and review, these factors are the ingredients for overall project success.
But do we truly understand what is required in a project or programme to keep all stakeholders satisfied? Do we recognise when we end up spending a disproportionate time on some, and not enough on others? Experience suggests that formal stakeholder management may be seen by some as a bolt-on and outward facing.
But we know we must account for all individuals or groups who are involved in the work, or affected by it. This means emphasis on managing stakeholders internally, from interfacing activities, reporting, and business-as-usual and governance functions. Meanwhile, managing external stakeholders, particularly the public, can be even more intensive; via social media, they have a greater voice. The planning process has been democratised. The public has a greater sense of entitlement.
There is rarely a simple solution for one stakeholder – but you don’t want ambiguity. Embedded, continuous feedback and two-way communication is critical. Simply regularly sharing with colleagues understanding of, and relationships with, key stakeholders has significant merit. A governance, planning or procurement decision benefits from consideration of the impact on stakeholders, and, as appropriate, sharing back when a request has or has not been possible to address. We might assign a stakeholder lead as a single point of contact, ensuring they advocate for and have the backing of the core team. We must keep monitoring the effectiveness of that relationship, knowing when to stand back, or when the stakeholder lead must be substituted or replaced for the good of the team.
We should consider how we assess stakeholders. Typically, stakeholders are mapped using their influence (or power) in ratio to their interest. Those with both high influence and interest are proactively engaged. We aim to keep them satisfied and pre-empt their needs, or show consideration to and inform those stakeholders who may be dominant (high) in either influence or interest, respectively. Those with smaller areas of influence and interest are also monitored and kept informed. This works, but I wonder whether it is adequately applied in the dynamic cauldron of project delivery, when there are changing contexts and complex interrelationships between stakeholders. Frequent reassessments are necessary. Is there an acceptable way to downgrade our attention, when they want ours? One useful progression is to consider the stakeholder’s power, legitimacy and urgency, and assess what effort should be taken to deal with their priorities, which can distract us.
Stakeholders affect outcomes. We often wish to align all stakeholders with our goal. Seasoned professionals know that this is not always possible, so we do deploy damage limitation and containment approaches. It is important to assess all the needs and wants of identified stakeholders, as well as determining the degree of alignment with our goals and objectives. Can we be more effective with what we do with that knowledge? We must never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with people. They have hopes and fears and their own objectives.
Some approaches to stakeholder engagement I have successfully used throughout my career that apply to projects, programme or portfolio management include:
- Learning not to dominate: nurturing the relationship to achieve outcomes, while still quietly achieving ours.
- Breaking actions into smaller steps; to build positive momentum that helps create enduring relationships.
- Recognising that there is an optimum time to engage, when a stakeholder is at their most receptive. If necessary, we can use influencing and persuading skills, and meet the stakeholder on their terms.
- Looking ahead and providing future options, can help to alleviate angst or acknowledged failures.
- Immersing the team in stakeholder concerns and understanding their language helps build empathy.
- Credibility and reliability can only be achieved when actions are fulfilled and fed back. You need the support of the team to do so – and this is really where project effectiveness kicks in.
Ultimately, engaging with stakeholders must focus on what they believe and expect, for us to plan and deliver accordingly.
Project professionals must be authentic, confident and sincere, appreciating that stakeholder engagement is a purposeful activity to realise the benefits of the overall endeavour.
Can we be more effective? Absolutely.