The 10 commandments of stakeholder engagement

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If you want your project to run smoothly, you need your stakeholders to be on board. Stakeholder engagement is a fine art and involves a combination of hard and soft skills. Here are the 10 essential rules of engagement for stakeholders.

  1. Take away opinions and problems from stakeholders, but don’t take their anxieties.

You can learn from stakeholder problems and perspectives, but taking on their angst can be counter-productive. “In the early stages of a project, I consult with stakeholders often,” says Vodafone project manager Sonia Aslam. “When it comes to the purpose, the scope, the risks and the approach, I always make sure the stakeholders are aware of that, of where we are as a project team, and if we have misrepresented it, can we get some further clarity.”

  1. Openness and transparency are important – don’t neglect them.

“[The project] is a collaborative approach between the project manager, the team, the stakeholders and discussions need to be open and relaxed,” Aslam says. “You need to be able to tap into the knowledge of your stakeholders and try to get as much information as you can out of them so we know what the issues are likely to be, but also have the right technical team in place so they can determine the solutions you can provide.”

  1. Effective stakeholder management is about good relationships.

Good project management needs good communication and real, meaningful relationships with stakeholders. “People often make stakeholder engagement a process, rather than making it a real conversation and really listening,” says project management consultant Ruby McCormack. “It ends up taking away the relationship side of things and can replace a real conversation about what’s going on. It’s good to be listening, and to ask a lot of questions and opinions about the project.

“Sending reports and regular check-ins every week are more process-driven, not communication; just a means to an end. You have to walk over and talk to that person like a human being as well.”

  1. Deal with difficult stakeholders in an effective way.

Project managers must understand the perspective of difficult stakeholders and manage conversations sensitively.

“They may ask for things that aren’t possible, and with them, it’s all about managing and approaching that conversation in the right way,” McCormack explains. “You need to be able to tell them no and tell them why. You do need to use the process to help you document those decisions and discussions so that they don’t come back to bite you later on.”

“Don’t burn your bridges. Remember that the stakeholder has a vested interest in the project,” Aslam adds. “He or she wants it to succeed as well. It might be just be that the way they communicate is very different to how you like to communicate. You should never take things personally – remember it’s about the project, not about you.”

Ultimately, people can be brought around to your way of thinking, or the prevalent way of thinking of the programme board.

  1. Understand and own the business case before kick-off.

Having ownership and full understanding of the business case for a project is as critical as relationships to managing stakeholders well. There are many stakeholders affected by the business strategy – it is crucial that the sponsor and project manager understand and own the business case.

“I do an initial meeting to understand who would be part of my project team, and the people who I need to satisfy – my sponsors, the chairman etcetera,” says Aslam. “The high influencers, the senior people who have a stake in the project – I need to keep them happy. Then I’ve got other people who need to know what’s going on because it might affect what they’re working on, or they might just be generally interested because the project might feed into the overall strategy.”

  1. Establish common ground.

Good stakeholder relationships can be founded by establishing common ground. You always have somewhere to start from – and somewhere to go back to.

“In my planning and identification stage, I identify potentially difficult stakeholders and watch them closely,” says Aslam. “I try to determine what motivates them, their influence and power over the project, and their interest in making it successful. By determining those three things, it makes communication with them much easier, because I’m tapping into something that is personal to them, which will pique their interest.”

  1. Manage your customers.

Gather together your customers and stakeholders and keep them as a rich source of knowledge for the project. A UPIG analysis – identifying stakeholders as users, providers, influencers or part of governance – can be a handy tool. Keep on revisiting the UPIG analysis to ensure it has the right balance of stakeholders.

McCormack explains: “As a project manager, you’re not expected to know everything about the project you’re managing. You can be given something that you’ve never had anything to do with. You meet your stakeholders and people involved in your project, whether actively as a primary stakeholder, or even just as what they call a subject matter expert. You can learn enough about it through your connections with people, and by asking the right questions. You’ll be able to add value in the meeting by asking interesting questions.”

  1. Be consistent.

Don’t say one thing to one person and another to the next. The message should be grounded in truth. You may not be able to deliver the message the stakeholder wants to hear – but you should find a way of delivering it constructively.

“Process does come in handy for documenting revisions or issues that people bring up where you might have collectively decided to live with them,” McCormack says. “They will help you manage the people who will turn around even though they agreed to it. There’s always a chance someone might completely forget what they’ve agreed to.”

  1. Get up close.

When you have the option, physically going into the lion’s den with difficult stakeholders can help firm up the project and reduce stakeholder ‘noise’.

“Where people shy away from engagement is when they feel afraid of titles,” Aslam says. “They’ll see the sponsor is the CFO, and they’ll become fearful of interacting with them. You have to remember that their title is just that – a title. That person is a human being, and sometimes they won’t be rational or predictable. But if you’ve got something to say, you should go and talk to them.

“Their opinion matters, so it’s critical to get that clarification, that buy-in, from them. If you don’t have that clarification, the project could go off-piste. If you engage with them, it will demonstrate to that person that you have the confidence to go and tell them if something goes wrong. That’s really important.”

10. Avoid surprises.

Stakeholders should be informed about what the response will be on the part of the project team if one of the risks on the risk register occurs. Mapping this out ahead of time avoids surprises and is a sign of a mature project.

“Sometimes, stakeholders don’t read any of the reports, requirements or email updates. For me, they tend to be the most difficult. They’ll often raise alarm bells and create fires where there is none. The stakeholders that don’t read the updates tend to be the ones that say ‘I didn’t know about that!’ when something happens or changes,” explains McCormack.

“With those stakeholders, you do need to set up regular touchpoints face-to-face with them. Make sure you pick up the phone regularly, or try to get a meeting with them when something comes up that you think they really need to be aware of. That’s one way to manage them.”

These lessons are, in part, drawn from an APM Corporate Partner roundtable. Find out more information about becoming a Corporate Partner.

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 29th Jul 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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