A project wouldn’t be a project without stakeholders.
All projects, even the small ones, impact different people, teams or organisations.
So, there will always be a variety of stakeholders for you to work with. Each with a different interest in the project. And each with a different ability to impact it.
The Association for Project Management (APM) note that stakeholder engagement and management are the most important elements for a successful project delivery.
Given the pivotal role of stakeholders in a project’s success, this post explores the top five tips to manage stakeholders.
Tips to Manage Stakeholders
1. Get to Know Them
The best way to do this is to establish a personal relationship with the stakeholder.
Yes, you can speak to other people or read up about the stakeholder. But, nothing beats talking to them first hand. Ideally face-to-face or over the phone.
How do you get to know a stakeholder?
Well, just start a conversation. Asking them what they’re doing at the weekend is an easy ice-breaker. But, you shouldn’t stop there!
You want to find out:
- What worries them?
- How do they prefer to work?
- What are they passionate about?
You can ask them these questions directly but, if you listen and observe them, you’ll soon see the answers for yourself.
As you talk with your stakeholder you’ll start to build a picture of them.
In addition to getting to know your stakeholder personally, you can also rely on second-hand views from other people.
People will often give you their opinion about a stakeholder. Whether you ask for it or not!
However, you need to be careful not to rely solely on other people’s opinions. As with many areas of project management, you should form your own view.
This may, or may not (!), match other peoples’ views.
2. What’s in It for Them?
Every stakeholder is unique and will bring a different perspective to your project.
So, you need to begin by understanding your stakeholder’s point of view. This will be the basis for how you work with them.
There are two important questions that you need ask about your stakeholders:
What Is Their Interest in Your Project?
A stakeholder’s interest in your project will be driven by what it means for them. Positive or negative.
Will your project give them new tools or new products? Or will it create more work and headaches for them?
When you put yourself in your stakeholder’s shoes it becomes a lot clearer what your project will or won’t do for them.
How Can They Impact Your Project?
As well as having different interests in your project, each stakeholder will also be able to impact it in a different way.
The impact, or power, they have could be helpful or not so helpful.
Whilst ‘Power’ conjures up the image of a Greek god sending down lightning bolts it’s actually much more subtle!
A stakeholder’s power can come from their seniority in an organisation, their control of budgets or because they’re a respected expert. All of these, or a combination of them, can help or hinder your project’s delivery.
Projects have better outcomes when stakeholders have been involved.
A stakeholder mapping tool is a good way to capture each stakeholder’s level of interest and power for your project. There are a variety of templates for this. However, a simple one to use is the Power/Interest grid.
Once you’ve understood your stakeholder’s level of interest in and power over your project, you can identify the best way to work with them.
Avoid the Elephant Trap
You will get caught if you make assumptions about your stakeholders without validating them.
A common mistake is to assume that because two stakeholders work in the same team or department they’ll have the same interest in your project.
Always treat stakeholders separately until you’ve validated your assumptions.
3. Keep Talking to Them
You need to nurture your stakeholder relationship.
You may have done a great job in getting to know your stakeholder. But, stuff happens. Things change.
The stakeholder’s priorities, workload or even their position may change during your project.
You need to be sensitive to that.
How do you do this?
Well, keep talking to them!
You will hear things via the project or the company rumour mill. But, to ensure you understand what has changed and what hasn’t changed you need to have regular catch-ups with your stakeholder.
Don’t assume that everything you’ve heard second or third-hand is accurate!
If there are changes you’ve heard about, you should clarify them with the stakeholder.
How formal should your catch-ups be?
This depends on the relationship you have and how they like to work. Some will prefer regular meetings more than others.
If your stakeholder is not keen on regular catch-ups, you can drop them a short email or hold a brief call to find out if they have any concerns. Also, this gives you a chance to clarify points about the project.
The key here is to be interested in your stakeholder’s world.
4. Help Them to Help You
Manage. Engage. Influence.
Many different words are used to describe how a project works with stakeholders.
In fact, all of these words and more describe the relationship that you need with your stakeholders.
Think of it as how you can help them to help you.
Your relationship is based on what it means for your project. So, use that relationship to help deliver your project successfully.
I think of the process to persuade or influence a stakeholder as like growing a plant.
Prepare the Ground
Firstly, you need to prepare the ground for planting.
This means having a relationship with the stakeholder that you can use.
The great news is that if you’ve followed Tips 1-3, you’ll already have done this!
- You’ve got to know your stakeholder.
- You understand what’s in it for them.
- You’ve kept up the dialogue with them.
Plant the Seeds
To plant the seeds you need to raise the topic or issue with the stakeholder.
This could be an idea or a change or something that you’d like the stakeholder to do for the benefit of the project.
You’ll notice that you need to plant several seeds i.e. you’ll need to discuss the subject several times with your stakeholder.
Wait for It to Germinate
The reason you have to plant more than one seed is that often they won’t germinate the first time.
The idea will fall on deaf ears. The stakeholder will be too busy to listen to what you’re saying. Or they may need time to think it through.
So, it’s important to continue to plant seeds until one takes root.
You can try this in different ways:
- Use your regular catch-ups.
- Write a brief note to recommend your idea.
- Point to examples from other projects or organisations.
The important point to remember is that the outcome is what you’re trying to achieve. How you reach that outcome is not so important.
Watch It Grow
Finally, once your proposal has taken root you can watch it grow.
You’ll have a great sense of achievement to watch a stakeholder take your idea and champion it with others.
5. Build Trust
That’s the best description of an effective stakeholder relationship in one word.
When your stakeholders trust you they’ll be more receptive to what you say. Equally, you need to trust your stakeholders.
But, how do you create trust?
It takes time to build up trust. The best ways to do this are:
Do What You Say You’re Going to Do
This may seem obvious. And it is!
But, you’d be surprised how much this affects trust in a relationship.
Saying what you’re going to do, and then doing it is a simple step to take.
In the worst case, where you’re not able to do something your stakeholder expects, tell them!
Be Honest And Straight
You want to present your project in the best light. But, you need to be clear and accurate with your stakeholder.
If you’re not, that’s a quick way to lose trust!
Deliver Good News and Bad News
This is linked to ‘Be Honest and Straight’.
Every project has a mixture of good news and bad news. However, if you only share the good news with your stakeholder they will not get a true view of the project.
Stakeholders can make or break projects. So, how you work with them can be decisive to your project.
You should build an individual relationship with each stakeholder. Get to know them and what’s important to them about your project.
Have a regular dialogue with them, in a way that fits with their work style. This allows you to use the relationship to help the project succeed.
Finally, gain the confidence of your stakeholder to have the most effective relationship.
What’s your experience with stakeholders been? Share your tips to manage stakeholders in the comments below.