Stakeholder-led project management: Communication as information-seeking

The ‘six-whys’ of communication is discussed in a series of blogs. In this one, the focus is on communication as information-seeking.

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Communication as information-seeking

In information-seeking, the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘how’ questions are critical. Who should we be speaking to about what, and most importantly, who has the authority and expertise to answer the questions. This demands an excellent understanding of the stakeholders’ sources of power and careful thought on how to categorize and group stakeholders for the consultation process.

In Case 3.3: The presidential working group, discussed how a group of powerful individuals became a successful steering group. With stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds and discipline areas, the project manager identified the need to very carefully structure the consultation groups. Who should consult with who? What type of meetings should happen? How should they be facilitated? Who would be best positioned to facilitate the meetings and get the most from the stakeholders? As the project manager related, “We were very conscious that we would have limited time with these people. We had to make sure that every engagement was constructed to gain the information we needed and to ensure that the stakeholders felt the process of consultation was fair and sufficient.”

Extract from Case 3.3 :Choosing who to consult with and how

To bring to the surface the issues and create real debate, workshops and meetings were structured to bring together different agendas—actuaries with union representatives, financial experts with non-financial experts. As Kerrie commented, “Sometimes that means choosing the people you put in the room together carefully.”  For example, actuarial science is such a technical subject; we deliberately chose somebody who could perhaps empathize with the more strategic and socio-economic agendas of our external stakeholders—there needed to be at least some common ground. The person selected was a woman—a rather rare phenomenon in the world of actuaries!”

Sometimes it can be difficult to identify and isolate who really has the authority to advise and provide inputs to the project. In Case 5.3, the process of open consultation in the community seemed like a good idea, but the meetings were hijacked by groups with needs and agendas which could not be catered for within the project.

Deciding on which stakeholders have a legitimate input to the project impacts the scope of a project. By drawing a boundary around those with legitimate input, we define the extent of the project requirements space.

Case 5.3 Getting the right people to consult with

The Hangberg settlement project was a highly publicized example of a difficult community engagement. The city attempted to protect the integrity of a mountain fire break which was being compromised by the erection of houses and shacks within the fire break area. The result was a near riot. Why? The residents understood the purpose and the need for this obvious safety action, and people don’t normally act against their self-interest.

The project had attempted to create a positive stakeholder community, using participative planning in the form of an in-situ ‘steering group’ drawn from the Hangberg informal settlement community. The meetings were well-attended but often by groups from outside the area who wanted to use the consultation process to raise and lobby for the resolution of other problems in nearby areas.

The participative process was changed. Now, only members of the community who could prove they had a personal stake in the development plans could attend and voice their views. They were vetted to ensure that they lived in the area, and only then were they allowed into meetings and vote. A new steering group was formed from these people, and real progress started to be made on creating a genuine consultative group—real participation, real influence, and real stakeholders.

And if the wrong people are asked the wrong questions, or the timing of the consultation is too early, then there is a possibility of creating expectations which simply cannot be delivered. In Case 5.4, stakeholders were engaged with far too early in the project, and the lack of continued engagement resulted in them becoming disenchanted and generally negative about being involved in the project.

Case 5.4 Setting the right expectations for consultation

The development of the new website for a large retail company was a big event. Stakeholders were invited to the project launch meeting from across the company. The analysts, concerned that they may never get the opportunity to access so many people at once, decided to include some consultation workshops as a part of the process. Break-out sessions were scheduled into the half day agenda, and stakeholders were invited to give their views on the functionality and look and feel of the website. The sessions created real energy and excitement with lots of ideas put forward.

Three months later, following various delays, the project was still in initiation stage, awaiting approval of funds. To the stakeholders, the project became known as the ‘its-coming-later’ project. Six months on, the project was ready to re-start. The project team had considerable difficulty in re-engaging stakeholders who had lost interest, or, in some cases, were aggressively against the project due to what was perceived as the waste of their time and energy in the previous initiation.

Planning for information-seeking must carefully consider who should be consulted on what. Getting the right grouping of stakeholders and the selection of the consultation approach—both of these can make the difference between successful information capture and failure. Each engagement opens up communication channels with stakeholders. Plans must encompass how to maintain these channels and how, eventually, to close them down.

This is the third in a series of blogs being published on purposeful communication on projects.

Last blog: Purposeful communication

These are based on the book: Stakeholder-led project management: Changing the way we manage projects, Louise M Worsley, Business Expert Press (2017)

Available on Amazon.

 

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