The Third Essential: Stakeholders and Communications

Thanks to the first and second essentials, we have by now established the reasons for doing the project. Next we need to consider the people affected by the project: the stakeholders.

Stakeholders are anyone impacted by a project, positively or negatively. That is a deliberately broad definition, as it encourages the project manager to think about executives, governance gatekeepers, team members, line managers, operations staff, customer services staff, and even… gasp!… customers.

Often when we loosely talk about stakeholders, it is actually the senior stakeholders that are meant. These are the executives directly involved in the project; typically members of the steering board.

There is a fundamental reason why stakeholders are important. It is that project success depends entirely on satisfying stakeholders. Stakeholders – and stakeholders alone – determine whether or not a project is successful. You may have thought that project management is all about delivering to time, cost and quality… but that is an illusion. The TCQ triangle is simply a proxy for stakeholder satisfaction; nothing more.

A project can meet its targets and yet it will be unsuccessful if the stakeholders are not satisfied. Conversely, a project can miss its targets, and still be successful if the stakeholders say it is successful. Accepting and working with this apparent paradox is the most important step in moving from being a project administrator to a true project manager.

Stakeholder management is one of the “soft” skills, which is short-hand for the people-oriented topics where ambiguity and uncertainty are part of the puzzle. This is in contrast to “hard” skills, such as being able to build a project plan in MS Project, that are deterministic and defined.

Junior project managers might typically devote 80% of their time on hard skills, and 20% on soft skills. For the most senior executive-level project managers, this is reversed: most of what they do on a day-to-day basis comes down to soft skills, and most of this is stakeholder management. Is it cause or effect? Is it that the top projects demand more in the way of soft skills, or is it that the project managers who concentrate on soft skills rise to the top of the profession? I think it is a combination of the two: the bigger the project, and the bigger the project manager, the more important it is to master stakeholder management.

There are many approaches to stakeholder management, but the one that I favour comprises three simple steps:

  1. Identify the stakeholders. List them, by name if possible, or at least by function.
  2. Categorise the stakeholders, using three tests: (1) How much power or influence do they have? (2) Are they supporters or detractors of the project? (3) Are they fully engaged, or disinterested?
  3. Manage the stakeholders accordingly.

Each possible outcome of the categorisation will lead to a different tactic. For example, someone that has high power and supports the project but is not engaged, needs to be brought in from the cold, as they will surely be an ally. Someone who is against the project but who lacks power needs to be converted to a supporter, or if not possible then they should be put in their place so as not to cause damage.

The Third Essential also covers communications for the good reason that stakeholders are the recipients of project communications. The task of the project manager is to plan the project communications in terms of who, what, how and when.

For example, a project status report may be issued formally to senior stakeholders on a weekly basis. At a minimum it is likely to contain information on project progress, planned next steps, and current risks and issues. Team communications are more likely to be verbal – perhaps in the form of a daily stand-up meeting. Informal communications can also be planned: how about a breakfast get-together with selected team members and senior stakeholders?

Stakeholder management and communications are both huge topics, and I have only scratched the surface here. Remember that the best project managers make time for stakeholder management. If this comes naturally to you, then great. But if not, then take time to practice the techniques.

Not all projects are successful in terms of delivering the entire scope. If the project manager is to escape with reputation intact – or even enhanced – then stakeholder management is the key skill to apply. 

About Russell Whitworth (Q2 Associates Ltd)

In pursuit of PM Excellence
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