Have you ever been invited to contribute to an initiative? Attend a meeting? Complete a questionnaire? Been interviewed?
Then weeks later, you thought – what happened there? How was my input used? I wonder, was my input used at all? What happens next? It’s not a pleasant feeling – it’s almost a feeling of being duped. Experiencing this, you could be forgiven for being wary about giving your valuable time again.
The stakeholder journey – from engagement to close-down
The stakeholder management process has six stages and is cyclical– you keep repeating it throughout the life of the project. Like every process – its use must be adapted to the context of the project you are working on. And remember, each stage has a purpose, and you skip it at your peril.
Key point 1: Separate identification from analysis
To start, you need to think about who might possibly be stakeholders. The idea is to go broad at first, considering who could be a stakeholder now, and in the future. Stakeholders are more than just the people you know, or the people near to your project right now.
You may end up with an awfully long list. It’s in the analysis stage, we identify the candidate list of individuals and groups that we are really going to engage with. Think of it like the risk management process – you identify potential risks, prioritise them and then focus management attention on the important ones. In stakeholder management, rather than risk exposure, we use terms like salience. Who are the important stakeholders to focus on given our understanding of their power, legitimacy, and urgency?
Key point 2: Know your stakeholders
The truth is that you may not know the stakeholders well. Even if you do, you may not understand their positions and agendas concerning this particular project.
If you are working on a project with new people you have not met before, you may have to spend a lot of time on this. Remember though – you don’t have to know everybody. You just have to know people who do! Good analysis draws upon the knowledge and understanding from a variety of people – that is also how you make sure you broaden your perspective.
By the analysis stage, all stakeholders should be named. It’s not – “the sponsor” – it’s Avuyile Selondo. Understanding the role is not interesting – it’s peoples’ personal views of that role and the agendas they have, or may adopt later, that matters.
What about groups? Some groups are homogenous – not many – but some are. Classic examples are lobby groups. They have a single purpose and can be dealt with like an individual. Others are heterogeneous – they contain individuals with varied concerns and agendas. How you deal with them is more complicated. What ‘conduit’ will you use into this group? A representative or a delegate? How you go about this is also important. There may be official representatives for the groups. Or you may have to create the representative role. Do you ask for a volunteer? Do you ask the senior manager to assign somebody? Do you select someone yourself? In stakeholder-sensitive projects, the group decides on their representative, clearly a risk-laden process, but one that cannot be avoided.
Key point 3: Engagement strategies are more than just communication plans
I often get to ask project managers about their stakeholder engagement approaches. They all say they are doing it, but when I ask them for evidence, mostly what I get is a communication plan! Don’t get me wrong – a communication plan is a form of engagement, but typically its focus is only on the transfer of information. There are other purposes for engagement: to persuade others, to influence positions, to motivate to action, to isolate opponents, to create energy. The more stakeholder-sensitive the project, the more complex the engagement becomes and the more varied the engagement approaches required.
Key point 4: You won’t get it right from the start
The stakeholder process is cyclical for a reason – you have to go round it several times. Partly because who gets interested and involved in your project changes over the life of the project and partly because stakeholders have a chameleon-like tendency to hide from you! Let’s return to our risk log analogy. Like the risk log, your stakeholder log is a live document that you will need to revisit, monitor, and amend. You will always need to review your engagement strategy in light of the changes in the stakeholders’ positions.
Key point 5: Every opened-up relationship must be ‘comfortably’ closed down
And finally – you do have to dis-engage! The cyclical model doesn’t show that or what to do to make it happen, so let’s examine the options.
When a project closes, what do the stakeholders need to know? Well that depends on their relationship with the project.
Role-based stakeholders are those who have an identified responsibility with respect to the project. Agenda-based stakeholders are those who have a ‘position’ with respect to the project.Worsley, 2019
Role-based stakeholders need to stop doing what they were doing for the project. That’s important – not least because the project is supposed to stop spending on them! But perhaps even more importantly, they need to be given feedback on their input, how it has made a difference, what they should do following the close of the project.
Agenda-based stakeholders are often more passionate and energetic about the project than role-based stakeholders. Unless appropriately channelled or dis-engaged, that energy may continue after the project – often in ways you don’t expect and, not infrequently, to the longer-term detriment of the project.
For groups: The delegate:
If somebody has been delegated to represent a group, then you may expect them to dis-engage these stakeholders. However, I think we have all had the experience where somebody has challenged us about a project and your first thought is, “but I told your manager about that”. Why didn’t they tell you! The closure of the project must ensure that adequate communication is getting back into the group, either via the delegate or by whatever means necessary!
For groups: The representative
Having a genuine representative of a group – somebody seen by the group as representing their interests – is a blessing. It can be beneficial to maintain that relationship beyond the end of the project to facilitate future projects. Indeed, many large organisations create project representatives in the business units to take on this role on an on-going basis. That means that the relationship between projects and the representative ought to be maintained outside of specific project activity. Beware though – just because that person was a great representative on one project does not mean that the stakeholder group will accept their representation on another project. Agendas will differ in their level of homogeneity within the group.
Great dis-engagement can turn even failing projects into a positive experience
A project to review and update job descriptions across a large company was abandoned after nine months due to changes in the operating circumstances. Over 300 staff and management had been involved in the project at some point. As a part of the project termination, the team put together a communication plan to ensure that every stakeholder that had been involved during the nine months received communication acknowledging their input and clarifying what was happening next. Despite not completing, this project was regularly cited as a success by managers across the company.
Communication must be followed through to a satisfactory conclusion, from the stakeholders’ perspective. Just because the project has moved on to the next stage, or has completed, does not mean that the stakeholder expectations have stopped. Every stakeholder channel that is ‘opened’ must be ‘closed’.
Louise Worsley is author of the book: Stakeholder-led Project Management: Changing the way we manage projects. The second version of this book is now available in e-form from Business Expert Press ($17.99)