Six key steps to… decision-based stakeholder engagement
Posted by Adam Lyons on 14th Mar 2018
So often we start stakeholder engagement from the ‘wrong end’ – ie ‘identify anyone who is affected by or interested in the project’.
We’ve heard that a thousand times. But, in my experience, what generally happens is that we end up with long lists of ‘everyone and their dog’, and even after the usual analysis we realise that we can’t possibly engage with so many different groups of people.
Too often, too much data swamps our good intentions, and stakeholder maps are drawn and consigned to the bottom of a drawer, while people just get on and do their best.
Try asking this instead: ‘What decisions do I need from stakeholders for my project to succeed?’ In short, start with the end in mind – what specifically do we want our stakeholders to do?
Typical decisions that are critical to the success of our project include:
- Resource allocation – usually funding and people; and, depending on the type of project, perhaps accommodation, cranes, power generators, etc. Will we be given them? When?
- Regulatory/statutory-body approval – eg planning permission, access to infrastructure networks. Will they be timely?
- Suppliers’ decisions to bid for work – will we attract the right companies?
Here, in navigating these decisions, is the end purpose of our engagement with stakeholders. This gives us a sharp, clear focus for what we do next.
So, let’s look at the six key steps to decision-based stakeholder engagement.
Identify the key decisions required to secure the success of the project
We know that these key decisions are the things that really matter to us, because we’ve already documented them. They are represented as:
- milestones in our plan – ‘design approval’; ‘receive supplier bids’;
- causes in our risk log – ‘specialist engineering resource not made available’; ‘regulatory approval delayed’;
- decisions in project calendars – ‘go/no-go gate for contract let’; and
- assumptions – ‘project accommodation and computing is available’.
Tip: the timing of the decision is often as important as the outcome; delay is typically what kills a project.
Identify the people who will make the decisions
Here we need to avoid the trap of just identifying the organisations, or even the roles. It is people that make decisions, with their own unique personal history, view of the world and ways of operating. Engage with the person, not the role or the organisation.
We might think that we know what concerns a finance director and what questions they will ask. But what if that person was previously a plant manager? What if that person has had their ‘fingers burnt’ by a project like this one before? We need to work with the individual.
Identify their key advisers
Decision-makers are usually senior people. Some of these people will give our decision personal attention, and some will be up to speed on all the detail required. Others will rely on trusted advisers to make the evaluations that they will then act upon.
We need to understand who has influence and engage with them also.
When decisions are being taken, remember the power outside the room too.
Understand stakeholder concerns
As a project manager, we have worked long and hard with our team to come up with a solution and an approach. We simply don’t have the time to go back over things if we are going to hit the deadlines and stay within budget. Consequently, we sometimes see the people raising concerns as ‘blockers’.
But wait a minute. What if they do have an insight that we missed? What if we don’t have all the answers? Early engagement gives us the opportunity to gain their insights without delaying the project.
There are no blockers, just people providing advice for free. They might be saving us a whole lot of work further down the line.
This is why the often-used approach of categorising people as ‘supporters’ and ‘blockers’ really does not help. All too easily we can fall into the trap of engaging with those that agree with us and neglecting the very people who could help us by bringing an alternative view. Hands up those who can honestly say they don’t avoid the ‘blockers’ – it’s better to view them as ‘critical friends’.
The problem with not talking to people is that you end up making assumptions about what they think. The only way you really know what people think is by asking them directly and actively listening. So, try the following approach:
- Meet your ‘critical friend’ where they can give you their honest view (so possibly not in a group; a one-to-one generally works best).
- Ask them what their concerns are around the specific decision.
- Play back the concerns to them in the meeting so that they can correct your understanding if you haven’t got it right.
- Capture their solutions to the concerns as well (even though you may propose an alternative solution later on).
- Follow up with an informal note after the meeting to restate what you understood as their concerns and proposed solutions.
- Log the stakeholder concerns in a project log.
It may sound very formal and structured, but if we manage other aspects of a project, such as risk, change and issues, in this way, it does make sense to manage our stakeholder engagement equally well.
Address the concerns
Now we have a log of concerns, we can start putting in place actions and action owners to address them. It is sensible to go back to the stakeholder and agree with them that the actions will indeed address their concerns. We can’t make assumptions.
Examples of types of action we might take are to:
- provide requested information;
- brief a trusted adviser; and
- make a change to our plans.
Finally, we need to know whether we are on track with our stakeholder engagement. Will we get the decision we need when we need it? We measure delivery progress, risks, benefit realisation and costs. If what gets measured gets done, why aren’t we measuring stakeholder engagement?
A good approach is to ask the stakeholder: ‘If you were taking the decision today, how likely would you be to say “yes” on a scale of one to five?’ That way, you are making the question very specifically about the decision in hand.
Ask this question as a prompt to understand their concerns in step four. If they score less than ‘five’, ask them what it would take to move them up to a ‘five’. Again, this forces a discussion about specifics.
After taking action to address the concerns, ask the question again. If the stakeholder scores less than ‘five’, we are back into step four and understanding their concerns again.
In conclusion, we start our stakeholder engagement at the ‘right end’ by understanding what we need our stakeholders to do. We then work with them to get them to the place where they can do it.
Richard Peel is a project management professional with more than 25 years’ experience, working as a coach and consultant