Don’t try to Manage your Stakeholders when you can Engage them instead

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way right up-front: the idea that you can ‘manage’ your stakeholders is just plain rude.

It is disrespectful to think you can manage people who, at the outset, owe you no loyalty, no duty, no respect, and certainly no obedience. You need to earn all of these. The term ‘Stakeholder Management’ seems to me to be outdated; an artifact of a time when project managers were optimistically naïve enough to believe that every aspect of a project could be wholly within their control.

Yet, we know we were wrong. I remember learning – and then subsequently repeating – that managing projects would be easy, if it weren’t for the people. So, shall we agree to put a stop to stakeholder management, then? Instead, let’s aim to engage our stakeholders with our project: to start a conversation that can benefit both them and us.

At a high level, the process of engagement is straightforward:

  1. Identify who your stakeholders are
  2. Analyze them
  3. Plan how you will engage them
  4. Put your plan into action and manage your engagement campaign
  5. Constantly review the outcomes of your engagement

Identifying your Stakeholders

Two tools represent opposite ends of a spectrum of approaches to identifying your stakeholders. At the simplest, a proximity map charts concentric circles with immediate, core stakeholders in the center, working outwards to the peripherally interest stakeholders beyond the widest circle. You could split your circle into two, to separate supporters and skeptics, or add a third sector for neutrals, for example.

For the most thorough approach, start with the project manager’s Swiss Army tool, the Work Breakdown Structure and, for each task, ask who is, or may be, involved in any way? This creates a Stakeholder Breakdown Structure, giving you an orderly way to create an initial register of stakeholders.


Ten questions to ask for each Task

  1. Who is involved in making this task happen?
  2. Who will observe the task in progress?
  3. Who will have an opinion about this task? … and whose opinions matter?
  4. Who has access to the resources needed for this task?
  5. Who needs to know about this task?
  6. Who can support or frustrate progress of this task?
  7. Who is affected when the task is being carried out?
  8. Who will evaluate this task?
  9. Who will complain if it goes wrong
  10. Who will be impacted by the outcome of this task?

Analyzing your Stakeholders

The next step is to understand whatever you can about each of your stakeholders. You need to know what their interests are, what position they might take, the level of impact they could have on your project, and something about the way they tick. Ultimately you need to figure out how you can maximize the value of engaging with each of your stakeholders.


Ten Questions to Ask about each Stakeholder

What…

  • … resources do they command?
  • … do we want from them?
  • … information will they want from us?
  • … do they want?

Who…

  • … are they? Where do they fit in their organisation?
  • … are they connected with?

How…

  • … do they like to receive information?
  • … do they like to communicate?

What if…

  • What risks do they pose to us?
  • What opportunities do they offer us?

 

Your job in engaging with a stakeholder is to understand and appeal to their concerns first and address their objections and resistance second. If you start by trying to ‘sell’ your project to them, then you do two things:

  1. First, you lose the opportunity to learn from them, to hear their ideas, and benefit from their insights. Often, your stakeholders know a lot that you don’t, and they can contribute new thinking to your plans or genuine concerns about risks. When they feel listened to, they are more likely to become supporters and advocates too.
  2. Second, you risk triggering a reaction to what you propose. And as soon as you get any form of objection, the stakeholder will establish a position. Psychologically, we feel obliged to defend our position or risk losing face. So the more you can build rapport before giving stakeholders something to push against, the more chance you will have of persuading them effectively.

You must be prepared to answer the difficult questions that arise, and to show integrity in the way you do it. Admit to the weaknesses in your position, rather than looking foolish in defending a weak case, and be prepared to change your mind – and your plans – if stakeholders mount a convincing case. Nothing is more likely to trigger disengagement or outright hostility than blind advocacy of a flawed proposition.

Use Established Networks of Relationships

When you start a new project with lots of new people and groupings to get to know, one of the most helpful things you can do is to start developing a sociogram. This is a chart of how each person is connected to others. Draw each person as a circle or ‘node’ and show links between people as lines. You can represent the strength of a relationship as the thickness of the line – thin medium or thick, with a dotted line indicating a tenuous relationship. Use arrows to indicate the main direction of influence.

Very quickly, you will start to see clusters of people that form groups; you’ll find the hubs – people central to a group – the connectors, people with a foot in two or more groups, and the outliers – people who are barely connected and therefore independent thinkers. This can be a powerful way to start to build your understanding of your stakeholders and plan how to engage effectively with them. It makes it easy to spot the hard to get to outliers and who the influential hubs and connectors are.

Another way to harness existing relationships is to inventory any existing connections between project team members and your stakeholders. Doing this allows you to make smart assignments of colleagues to develop relationships and engage with particular stakeholders. Also look for overlapping interests or backgrounds that will allow your team members to rapidly gain the confidence of stakeholders. This will help stakeholders to express their views more freely and, when it comes to time for influencing them, you will be better able to do so.

Plan how to Engage with your Stakeholders

There is a wide range of engagement strategies you can apply to each stakeholder. Each strategy balances your time investment against the value of that stakeholder’s engagement, and the level of collaboration against the degree of competing with them if they resist.

The chart below shows you over forty generic strategies to choose from. It is neither a prescription nor model. It is more of an indication of the flexibility available to you and a tool to help you in assessing your situation and considering which of your alternative approaches can yield the best results. Further to the right, you will need to invest more effort, whilst higher up the chart, your attitude to the stakeholders will be more positive.

Stakeholder Strategies

Stakeholder Strategies

It is tempting to take a purist approach and advocate that you keep your engagement towards the top right of the chart, but the reality of your situation may demand an alternative approach. The one thing that must not be negotiable is that, whatever you do, you must do it with the highest levels of integrity.

Ultimately, you need to develop a campaign plan: a plan that does two things:

  • It sets out the range of engagement activities you will carry out, when you will undertake them, who they will be addressed to, and the details of how you plan to execute and monitor them.
  • A campaign plan also needs to consider, stakeholder by stakeholder, what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it. Clearly with a large stakeholder group, some will be of lower priority to you and several low priority stakeholders can be aggregated to reduce the pressure on resources.

In a world of finite time and resources, you will always need to make judgments and compromises. But what is evident is that many project managers under-resource stakeholder engagement – particularly in the early stages of a project – and end up paying the price for this later on. They then see errors that could have been predicted, high levels of disengagement, active resistance, and even acts of sabotage.

When it comes to persuasion, there is much to be said [trail a future blog here?], so I will confine myself to four tips, based on the four types of motivation we each have for anything.

  1. The most powerful lever in you campaign plan is self interest – appealing to what each stakeholder wants most. Major intrinsic motivators include appeals to purpose and meaning, the need to be in control, and a desire for achievement.
  2. Almost as powerful is our need for social success, in the form of memberships of a group, relationships, and status. In this cluster is also the need to fulfill a sense of obligation to others.
  3. Less powerful, and usually less accessible to a project manager are the extrinsic motivational levers that many think of first, like rewards, pleasures and material gains.
  4. Finally, if they feel threatened in any way, stakeholders will be motivated by such fundamental factors as safety and security. Compliance requirements sit here for some, and as a sense of obligation and duty to others.

One thing to Remember

If I could persuade you to remember just one thing from this article, it would not be any of the techniques, tips or tools. It would not even be the subtle, but important, distinction between stakeholder management and stakeholder engagement. It would be simply one rule. When you remember and respect this rule, everything else that matters will follow.

Stakeholder Rule Number 1

Your stakeholders will determine the success, or not, of your project.

 


This article was first published on the ProjectManager.com website on 24 June, 2015.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan – www.theinfluenceagenda.co.uk – on which this article is based.

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton
His other books include ‘How to Manage and Great Project’.

Exceptional video training programmes, based on my best-selling live seminars.

The Effectiveness Academy
The Effectiveness Academy

 

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