How to engage with stakeholders

Business woman walking with four stakeholders along wide white corridor
Jane NicholsStakeholders can make or break projects or programmes. If they feel overlooked, not listened to or ignored, then your project will be in trouble – no matter how well you deliver in terms of budget, time and quality.

Just giving them what they want is not usually a viable solution, so how can this relationship be managed effectively?

Step 1: Find out who they are

It may seem obvious but the first step is to identify all the stakeholders, even those who are not immediately known to you. One way to do this is to think about them in terms of their likely interest and level of involvement:

  • Agenda-based: Stakeholders who tend to be found on the outside or outskirts of the project, who have a particular interest in the outcome and how it fits with their personal agenda. They can be disruptive and have the greatest impact on the success of your project. Ignore them at your peril.
  • Role-based: Being much closer to the project, they have a definite role or are part of the governance group, so often are easier to work with. You know about them and the impact the project may have on their role.

It’s also important to remember that stakeholders are all individuals – not groups. This means treating them as people, otherwise you risk overlooking the one person who could prove critical to the project. So, enlist the help of the Sponsor or Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) and trusted team members to drill down your list further to identify:

  • Sleepers: Those who have not yet woken up to your project or its impact
  • Lurkers: They know about your project and are always in the background
  • Spoilers: Those who have strong views but often choose their own time to interfere.

Step 2: Define their level of impact

The type of project and its outcome will determine the appropriate level of stakeholder engagement and how much time will be required to build and maintain a good relationship:

  • Stakeholder neutral: Small discrete projects, outcomes already agreed with stakeholders – for example upgrading training materials
  • Stakeholder sensitive: These involve sensitivities such as personnel changes and conditions; making them of particular interest to your stakeholders
  • Stakeholder-led: Game changing, heavyweight projects and programmes.

Step 3: Rules of engagement

Once you have this information, your engagement can begin in earnest and building trust should be a fundamental part of this strategy.

This means establishing open and honest lines of communication. Stakeholders need to know what is happening and what’s in it for them. Put yourself in their shoes and treat them as you would want to be treated.

Give them the space to participate and have a say in decisions that affect them. Their contributions will influence, although not necessarily change, the final outcomes.

Step 4: Continually review

Don’t expect stakeholders’ position and views about your project to remain the same from beginning to end. Someone who starts as an ally because it suits their agenda at that particular time may become a vehement opponent at some point. The world moves on and if you don’t notice, you and your project could be in trouble.

It’s all too easy to forget about the wider context when in the thick of project delivery, but it’s vital to think about your stakeholders every day and be vigilant about change.

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