Why is it so important to improve stakeholder management?
It’s a truth that we project managers often repeat: stakeholders are critical to the success of our projects. Yet how much of the average project management textbook, paperback or training course is dedicated to stakeholder engagement? Very little.
Too often, we honour stakeholder engagement more in the breach than in the observance.
Of course, the situation is more complex than this. The quality and extent of work done to engage stakeholders depends on the context, the project and the project manager. But my experience suggests three distinct tiers of situation.
Small projects are rarely run by full-time project managers. And many of the people that run these projects have little or no training in project management. They often recognise the need to engage their stakeholders. But there is a resigned frustration at the lack of tools and knowledge needed to do it in a structured way. On training courses, it is the section on stakeholders that often gets the biggest wow and the highest retention factor.
Larger organisational projects often do have a full-time project manager. They are usually trained; sometimes to a high standard. Some are project management professionals like most of the readers of this journal. Others are managers and professionals from other disciplines, with a lot of project experience.
What I have found is this: relative to their size, these projects pay less attention to stakeholders than smaller projects. And they also give them less attention than even larger projects. They often fall back on a small selection of simple tools.
Now I am all for simple tools; when applied vigorously, the results are excellent. But they rarely are. The effort is often piecemeal. The work is frequently delegated to junior team members, who get little support in their role. So the results are only as good as the enthusiasm and creativity of the work-stream lead.
On the largest projects, things are usually different. The need for first-class stakeholder engagement is well recognised. But project managers often see it as ‘something a bit different’. It is not part of their core responsibility of managing the project. They therefore tend to outsource it to a specialist communications agency or in-house team.
The consequence of these effects is that stakeholder engagement is something of a Cinderella discipline. But it shouldn’t be. Project planning, risk management and change control are all seen as skilled project roles. Each is an essential competence and a route to specialisation. For a well-rounded project manager, stakeholder engagement management should also be seen as vital.
What we need is more and better training – at all levels. But there is something else that we need.
Many people have – and continue to – refer to stakeholder engagement as ‘stakeholder management’. There remains a view that we need to ‘manage’ our stakeholders.
Many project managers feel their role with stakeholders is to corral them into obedience. They must gain compliance or, failing that, marginalise and overcome them. To me, this feels like a disrespectful throwback to earlier times.
Our projects affect lives, wellbeing and livelihoods. So we owe it to our stakeholders to be more respectful than that; to be ethical in our dealings. That’s why I launched my Charter for Ethical Stakeholder Engagement. This offers six commitments, which I hope you will join me in making.
You can sign the charter here.
This blog first appeared as an article in the Spring edition of Project Journal.
Other blogs by Mike Clayton: