You are a project manager. You care about getting things right. So you plan meticulously, identify threats and take steps to mitigate them. The only thing that can get in your way now is one thing: people.
What all experienced project managers know is that it is your stakeholders who will ultimately determine whether your project is deemed a success… or not. So you need to be equally rigorous in planning your campaign for engaging with your stakeholders, to learn from them, build their trust, and ultimately influence their attitudes.
So what are the components of a stakeholder engagement plan, and how can you determine the best strategy for each?
Identify the and Understand the stakeholders with whom you need to engage
In my previous blog, I discussed techniques that will help you to identify and analyse your stakeholders. For major stakeholders whom you choose to prioritise, you will probably want to create a detailed engagement plan for each of them. For others, you will want a plan that has several strands, clustering approaches and messages around groups of stakeholders with similar needs, perspectives or other characteristics.
Determine the message you need to communicate, and the right tone to adopt
For each stakeholder, the next step is to consider the message or messages that you need to convey. Over the course of a long project, you may need to build up a narrative that evolves as more information becomes available, or as the stakeholder’s attitudes shift. One tip project managers can usefully take from the political campaigning process is to devise a ‘message calendar’ – a week-by-week (possibly even day-by-day) schedule of the messages that you want to put out or the engagement process you want to pursue.
As important as the message itself is the tone of voice you adopt. Do you wish to be consulting or commanding, informing or instructing, requesting or requiring? With each stakeholder and at each stage in your engagement plan, the tone may be different. But it is vital that you determine the right tone before creating your message. This way, you can test out how it comes across before publishing. Let’s face it: how many of us have sent an email and not thought about tone, and then discovered the receiver reacted in a way we had not expected nor wanted?
Decide what medium will get your message across most effectively
One of the joys of project work is the vast array of options you have for how to communicate a message. Aside from the world’s best medium (face-to-face, communicating in a shared first language) and its worst (email) media, there are many to choose from. And your job is to select those that best meet the needs of your audience; your stakeholders. Don’t simply pick the most convenient to your team.
An early consideration in choosing media is the extent to which you want many stakeholders to get the same message at the same time (broadcast media) or for each stakeholder to get a highly differentiated message (narrowcast media). Some media, of course, can offer both options (for example, many web technologies).
You will also want to note that some media are better at informing and explaining, while others lend themselves better to consultation and involvement. Still others are well-suited to genuine collaboration and partnering.
A final consideration will be the nature of the message itself: what is the degree of emotional content (which suggests a personal versus impersonal medium) and what is the level of complexity and sophistication of your message, which will determine whether long-form or short-form approaches will work better.
Find an approach that will motivate the change you want to encourage
A lot of your stakeholder communication will be targeted towards encouraging a change. We shan’t consider the skills of influence and persuasion in this blog. But what I do want to suggest is that, in motivating a change, you do need, as a project manager, to properly understand the range of different motivators that you can deploy.
The range starts at the bottom, with the most fundamental motivators, the needs for safety and security. However, these motivators have something of the ‘if you don’t do this, something bad will happen’ flavor. Whilst aversive motivation is powerful, it is largely a bullying tactic and therefore one to avoid if you possibly can. I would say that this is even the case where something bad really can happen, as in the case of health and safety, or compliance, projects.
Of course, people like rewards and motivating with the promise of a personal gain or benefit of some sort will appeal to the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor. However, a lot of recent research shows that this is a poor motivator and fairly ineffectual, unless the person you seek to motivate is either craving the reward on offer in advance, or they feel no other reward is on offer.
Social motivation factors, like enhanced status, strengthened relationships, recognition by peers, and respect, are powerful and have integrity. And feeling of being part of a social group also creates other powerful motivators like preservation of reputation, loyalty, and duty. These motivators are powerful assets in a project manager’s toolkit – not just for stakeholder engagement, but team leadership as well.
Finally, intrinsic motivators are the most profound of all. This is where you lead others to doing something for their own reasons, pride, achievement, or a sense of contribution, maybe. The three most widely used in project environments are giving stakeholders a sense of control, making clear the underlying purpose and value of the project, and creating opportunities for stakeholders to learn, develop and become more capable. Once again, these motivators are also valuable to project managers in the team leadership role.
Set up your engagement schedule
What would a plan be without timescales? Schedule your engagement activities into your wider project plan. It is best if you treat this as a work-stream within a master plan, rather than a wholly separate activity. It is also wise to avoid integrating engagement activities with other activity works-streams, because in that way you risk mixed messages and mis-timings occurring between communications with different stakeholder groups who may, nonetheless, be in contact with one-another.
Allocate responsibilities for components of your plan
A dedicated work-stream needs a work-stream leader. If you are to take stakeholder engagement management seriously on your larger projects, then you will need a Stakeholder Engagement Manager. Whether you have one or not, like any other project activities, each engagement activity needs to be clearly allocated to a named individual. As project manager, you will inevitably be drawn into a lot of stakeholder engagement activities (this is not strictly true – see the box) so take care to ensure that you only allocate to yourself those stakeholder activities that only you can really add value to. In addition, stakeholder engagement is a great opportunity to fully engage your project sponsor in contributing to your project in high-value ways that less senior and well-connected people cannot.
Front-of-house and Back-of-house Project Managers
One nice model of project management job-sharing is not used as much as it could be. It clearly requires a great relationship, high levels of trust and immaculate co-ordination between the role-holders, but it can work magnificently.
This is the idea of two project managers who face in two different directions: one inward, to the team, and one outward, to the client and external stakeholders. The former, back-of-house PM may be a logical, detail focused, task-oriented and technical expert with a bent for administration. As long as their team respects them, they do not need to be a gregarious, confident communicator, if that role is filled by the front-of-house PM.
‘Who is the project manager?’ you ask. If you ask the team members, you will get a different answer to that you will get from the stakeholders. But working together can free each up to excel in one arena.
Create a mechanism to receive, evaluate, and act on feedback from your stakeholders
Have you ever sent a message and wondered if it had arrived? Or, if you know that it did, did it get opened? Or read? Or understood? Or acted upon? There are so many ways for our communication to go wrong that it is vital that you set up a way of gauging the results of your engagement process continually. You need to find ways to listen to your stakeholders, and hear their feedback. You will want to take that and consider carefully what it is telling you and, crucially, if you do this, you need a way to channel what you are learning from your stakeholders into your wider project decision process.
This is why we engage with stakeholders, rather than simply trying to ‘manage’ them. These are the people who will determine the success, or not, of your project. Their perceptions, insights, and ideas are the raw material from which you can turn a good idea into a successful outcome.
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.
His other books include ‘How to Manage and Great Project’.
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