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Why you should engage people, not manage them

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We recently launched the first in our Body of Knowledge-inspired book series Engaging stakeholders. The reason for this was twofold: stakeholders is a universally popular project management topic that applies to project professionals across all disciplines and sectors, and the engagement aspect marks a significant shift in thinking to what has gone before.

The previous edition of the APM Body of Knowledge talked about managing stakeholders, whereas the latest iteration talks about engaging and influencing stakeholders. It says: ‘Stakeholders, those individuals or groups who have an interest or role in the project, programme or portfolio, or are impacted by it, cannot by definition be ‘managed’.’ We need to think instead about how we engage and influence stakeholders to do the right things, the seventh edition goes on to say.

Taking up the challenge, Elizabeth Harrin told the Project Management Office Hours podcast why she put people over process at the heart of her new book Engaging stakeholders. She says it’s arrogant to think that we can predict how people are going to react and behave, and try to manage that, especially with people you don’t even work with. Far better, she suggests, is to achieve real results through a partnership approach. In other words, figure out how we move on “from this mentality of we can manage other peoples’ behaviours because we filled out our stakeholder engagement plan”.

One of the barriers to progress is the fact that it’s always been done the same way. Stakeholder management, like many other processes, has long been part of the project management discipline. But the world has moved on. APM’s Body of Knowledge 7th edition recognised this, promoting topics, themes and examples of further reading to give readers different options to navigate often messy project contexts. And now Engaging stakeholders picks up the baton. “I’m hoping that we’re shifting people’s mindset,” says Elizabeth. “To understand that people we work with have agency over their own actions and we need to partner with them.”

The move to a more facilitative way of working also provides the springboard for the second, soon-to-be-released, book in our inspired series. Project leadership by Gordon MacKay describes the changing nature of project leadership in response to a rapidly changing world. “A lot has changed since project management as a profession started and where we’re at now... the environment we deliver in is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” he says, speaking on the panel of the latest APM podcast, How to be a great project leader. COVID-19 is a case in point, and when you factor in the changing dynamics of organisational structures and advances in technology, it’s easy to see how all these things have impacted the leader’s role.

Dealing specifically with the big shift from management to engagement, as described in the Body of Knowledge 7th edition, Gordon says that the project leadership function now is not simply to engage with all stakeholders, in the project and extended project team, but to get all individual stakeholders to engage in the process as well as with each other. “As anybody involved in delivery will know the challenge is getting people in different disciplines to talk to each other.” The project leader performs a vital function in this respect, “establishing collaborative communication between and with each other across the whole integrated project team”, he adds.

On the question of how you do that, he says the ‘new’ leader is required to step outside of the immediate bubble of the delivery team, to first identify, then engage with key stakeholders that often span multiple organisations and delivery partners. “That’s a real challenge because we’re moving from ‘hard’ skills, like command and control and telling people what to do, to a situation where you quickly need to build rapport with a diverse range of stakeholders…and understand their needs and get them onboard.” Key to this, he adds, is having the knowhow and emotional intelligence to ask, ‘How do I correlate and align their interests with mine?’ As well as recognising that it often pays to delegate and empower subject matter experts to make decisions as part of integrated team setup.

Fortunately, both books provide practical advice to help project professionals achieve their goals. Elizabeth in Engaging stakeholders gives tips and advice in a dedicated skills builder chapter, including a deeper dive into the top ten interpersonal skills and behaviours. While Gordon offers nine steps to project leadership, as part of a tried and tested Triple Catalyst Model (Insight, Foresight, Vision). For anyone who wants to know more, Engaging stakeholders is available to buy from the APM Bookshop and Project leadership is set to be released in early spring next year. For anyone who wants a one-line take-away in the meantime: “It’s about people,” that’s really engagement in a nutshell, Elizabeth says.

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