The myths of stakeholder management

Project stakeholder management has borrowed many of its concepts from other discipline areas. This cross-usage of wisdom is helpful but its application in projects is still to be proven and bedded-in to the way we do things.  After all, it’s only in the last few years that stakeholder management has been recognised in project management bodies of knowledge.  In the meantime trial and error application has resulted in a number of myths about its application to projects.

 Myth: We manage our stakeholders

It is common to see this term used in project management literature.  Both the Project Management Institute and The Association for Project Management refer to managing stakeholders in their BoKs.  The related areas of Business Analysis (e.g. IIBA BA Body of Knowledge) and Change Management (ACMP) are more circumspect about the use of this word management in the context of stakeholders.  The ACMP’s Standard for Change Management completely avoids the term and differentiates between “Develop the Communication strategy”, Develop the Sponsorship Strategy and the “Stakeholder Engagement Strategy” as separate if related processes.

Management implies the control and organisation of resource and this emphasis encourages a focus on the engagement of internal stakeholders; those groups which are within direct or indirect control of the project manager.

Stakeholder engagement is different to stakeholder management:

Stakeholder engagement implies a willingness to listen; to discuss issues of interest to stakeholders of the project; and, critically, the project has to be prepared to consider changing what it aims to achieve and how it operates, as a result of stakeholder engagement.  Adapted from Jefferey (2009)

The extended stakeholder management process


Myth: It’s all about communications…

On a random review of twenty projects in an IT department it was encouraging to find that every one of them had some form of communications plan.  There was evidence that the plan was being used and that on at least some of them a variety of innovative techniques from social media to telephone messaging were being exploited.   What was also obvious was that in 18 of the 20 projects reviewed, the communication plan had been developed specifically for the execution and hand-over stages of the projects.  The communications plan was a detailed breakdown of how users and other impacted & interested stakeholders would be communicated to and trained during the transition to the operational environment.

For many project managers the development of this plan, in these latter stages is what they mean by stakeholder management. However, stakeholder engagement planning should start right from the beginning of the project and puts the stakeholder at the center of the way the project is structured and delivered.

Purposeful communication


Myth: Stakeholder management will solve all conflict and relationship problems

Firstly stakeholder management is no cure for poor social engagement skills or low emotional intelligence.  The two are often confused by line-managers in their desperation to find a solution to ‘difficult staff’ who are consistently involved in conflict with peers and clients in the workplace. “Let’s put them on a stakeholder management course” won’t work.  Secondly, some conflicts are healthy and necessary and some simply won’t go away but have to be factored into the way the project is structured and conducted.

Myth: Everybody is a stakeholder

The PMBoK definition of a stakeholder is:

An individual, group or organization who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity or outcome of the project (PMI,2013).

Broad in its focus, it has great value in prompting managers to think more widely.  However, this generality of definition reduces the utility to the user of the term – not everybody can be engaged with as a stakeholder.

It is helpful, when considering which is the appropriate management strategy to use to differentiate two groups of stakeholders:  ‘role-based’ and ‘agenda based’ stakeholders Role-case 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.   While the management of stakeholders may be applied, in some circumstances for role-base stakeholders, it is rarely an appropriate strategy for agenda-based stakeholders.

Myth: We know our stakeholders

On any project of any size and complexity it is unlikely that the project manager will know, let alone understand, all the project stakeholders.  Too often in capturing data about stakeholders, assumptions are made and inadequate exploration is performed to really get a view of their varied perspectives and agendas.

Myth: Some projects don’t need stakeholder management

The level of stakeholder engagement necessary will vary from project to project but the stories we have gathered suggest that it can be a big mistake to assume from the start that a particular project does not need to address stakeholder engagement.

“It was just a technical upgrade”.  “It was a like-for-like replacement”.  These phrases were common in some of the IT cases we listened to.  What they often translated into were “Don’t disturb the stakeholders; they needn’t know about the project”.  The trouble is that stakeholder positions change as the project progresses.  Disinterest can rapidly turn to violent opposition if not anticipated.  In this presentation we introduce the stakeholder-neutral to stakeholder-led continuum of project types.  How do we recognize the stakeholder characteristics of our projects and how does that effect the way the project is structured?

Stakeholder neutral to stakeholder-led continuum

In conclusion

Stakeholders always feature in projects and there are certain types of stakeholders (termed here role-based stakeholders) that must exist if we are to have any project at all.  In this presentation we argue that the nature of the project and the mix of role-based and agenda-based stakeholders will ultimately impact upon the way projects must be structured and managed to be successful.

If stakeholders matter on your project then they must be considered in the way you choose to manage and structure your project.


Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Jeffery, N. (2009). Stakeholder Engagement: A Road Map to Meaningful Engagement, Doughty Centre, Cranfield School of Management

Worsley, L.M (2016). Stakeholder-led project management: Changing the way we manage projects, Business Expert Press

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