Managers and project managers are often told that “engaging stakeholders” is critical to success. However, they rarely receive guidance on what it means or how to “engage stakeholders.” It is similar to when I started practicing yoga, the teacher told us to “release our sacrum.” I had no idea that I had a sacrum, let alone how to “release” it.
In this article, I describe tangible practices for working with project and operational stakeholders. While the article is written from a project perspective, the lessons are broadly applicable.
My previous article, Know Your Stakeholders, describes how to identify and understand them. Engaging stakeholders is the next step in the stakeholder management process.
Engage is defined as “involving someone’s interest or attention.” To engage stakeholders, we must understand their interests and communicate with them to address their needs. A valuable byproduct of this process is building productive relationships across the project community.
Effective communications are the cornerstone of stakeholder engagement. The Sender-Receiver Model provides important insights into the communication process and highlights the critical role of the message sender (e.g., the project manager):
- The sender is responsible for ensuring that communications are effective;
- The message and the medium should be calibrated and selected to optimize its effectiveness;
- The process is not complete until the sender receives affirmation that the message has been understood.
Ineffective communications may result in tragic outcomes. Reviews of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion found that poor communications played a significant role. The Morton Thiokol engineers, that built the rocket engines, knew that it was too cold to launch the shuttle; but they failed to clearly convey that information to the NASA program managers.
Selecting the best method requires understanding the intended depth versus breadth of communication and the richness of the communication channel:
- Electronic communications (e.g., email, website updates, etc.) are best when simple information needs to be broadly communicated, such as announcing the time for a meeting. However, email is ineffective for complex communications such as problem-solving;
- Face-to-face, telephone, and video conferences are preferred for complex communication and problem solving, but not efficient for transmitting information broadly.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review confirms that face-to-face is best for negotiating or solving problems.
What? Who? When?
Deciding what needs to be communicated, to whom, and when is a key aspect of stakeholder and communications management. Communications are a series of concentric circles from the project team to executive leadership and beyond. The content is similar, but the frequency and level of detail changes. Better engagement is an outcome of tailoring communications to the stakeholders’ needs.
The project team includes those working directly on the project. They should have a daily meeting to check progress, coordinate activities, and identify issues. The daily stand-up meeting is an effective and efficient way for achieving these goals.
Leadership includes the managers whose teams are working on the project. This group should have a regular weekly meeting. The objective is to create transparency, accountability, and coordinate resolution of issues that require their attention.
This meeting should be 30- to 60-minutes long. The project manager should address the critical aspects of the project:
- Is the project on track?
- Are there any critical issues? If so, what is being done to resolve them?
- Are there any significant risks? If so, what is the response strategy?
- What is needed from the leadership? If actions are required, the project manager should present the request.
Executives are generally most concerned with the project’s performance against the triple constraint—scope, schedule, and cost. Sending them a concise, weekly, or bi-weekly written status often fulfills this need.
Executives should also participate in a monthly meeting where status, special topics, and significant changes are discussed. Typically, these meetings are 30-minutes long.
Successful projects serve customer needs and delight them. Regularly meeting with customers, demonstrating progress, and soliciting their input keeps them engaged.
We should demonstrate our product by reviewing prototypes or work in progress as regularly as feasible. For software projects, this may be bi-weekly or more frequently. For construction projects, walkthroughs may be daily due to the high cost of change and rework.
We should meet with our customers at least monthly to review priorities and future changes. Creating and maintaining a product backlog is an effective tool.
Stakeholders are not created equally. We assess our stakeholders’ needs is to understand their required engagement level. I segment stakeholders into groups based on their roles and required engagement levels:
Primary stakeholders have the greatest impact on our project. The Power/Influence Matrix places this group in the high/high (top right) quadrant and includes project sponsors, major customers, and leadership.
We should meet with these stakeholders regularly with the frequency depending on their role and individual needs. In addition to the group meetings (e.g., steering committee meeting) we should meet with these stakeholders individually weekly or bi-weekly. Developing trusting relationships with this group through shared experiences and alignment of communication styles fosters these connections.
Secondary stakeholders are often those with high-power and low-interest (top left), or low-power and high-interest (bottom right). These stakeholders are important, but not as much as our primary stakeholders.
Our engagement with these stakeholders may follow two different patterns. We may engage them regularly but less frequently or less intensely as our primary stakeholders. For example, end-users may want less frequent updates or demonstrations. Or, we may need to work with them closely for a brief period on a specific issue. For example, early in the project Procurement, Legal, and Finance may have specific requirements that need to be addressed.
Stakeholders in the low/low (bottom left) quadrant require the least amount of attention. They should not be forgotten or neglected. Their engagement may be less frequent and broad communication methods (e.g., newsletters, website updates, emails, etc.) may be most the efficient. Consider segmenting these stakeholders so communications address their particular needs.
The Issues Log
The issues log is a primary tool for tracking items of interest or concern to our stakeholders. Actively maintaining the issues log helps us to better engage our stakeholders. Documenting, tracking, and responding to their concerns demonstrates empathy.
The issues log is often constructed as a spreadsheet or database and may include the following attributes:
- Issue. A description of a concern often constructed as a question;
- Stakeholder name. Identifies the stakeholder who raised the concern;
- Status. Open and Closed are the most common status indicators;
- Owner. The person responsible for resolving or addressing the concern.
- Date opened/closed. The open/closed dates can be used in tracking items; and
- Resolution. Documenting how the issue was resolved will be useful when questions come up in the future.
Effectively engaging stakeholders is a critical practice. It requires project managers to use the “soft skills” of the profession to address the needs of their constituencies. Data shows that projects with engaged customers and executives are far more likely to be successful.
© 2019, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC
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Related Project Management Essentials articles:
- 5-Point Project Status + 6 Tips for Effective Status Reporting
- Improving Communications with DiSC
- Know Your Stakeholders
- Stakeholder Management: A Key to Project Success
- The Daily Stand-Up: Best Practices
- The Importance of the Product Owner and the Product Backlog
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