I did some stakeholder management training recently and it was interesting to hear that many of the delegates have the same issues that I do at work. There seems to be some universal problems when it comes to dealing with people on projects… because we are dealing with people on projects.
Having said that, there are also some common misunderstandings about what it means to be a project manager and be working with people. I’ve been reading about these recently too. In Stakeholder-Led Project Management, Louise M. Worsley discusses some stakeholder management myths. The book is far more wide-ranging than just this topic but I thought it was worth pulling five of these myths out and giving you my take on them as these are the ones I hear most often from project teams.
1. Everybody is a stakeholder
First, there’s the myth that everyone is a stakeholder.
You might have been on a course that taught, and I’m sure I’m guilty of saying this myself, that everyone has the potential to be a stakeholder. But it’s not practical to be thinking that way as you can’t reasonably manage everyone in the bounds of your stakeholder activities. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to engage with everyone.
Instead, we need to be a bit more circumspect on projects. What’s realistic? How can you make time to prioritise the stakeholders who float to the top of the list?
Use your professional judgment to determine where you are going to spend your time and energy. You’ll burn out if you try to do the same level of stakeholder engagement with everyone on your stakeholder log, and you won’t get equal return on that investment either.
2. You can manage stakeholders
Worsley points out that outside of project management you don’t hear people talking about managing stakeholders. In the literature around business analysis and change management the focus is much more on engagement, collaboration, communication.
Management tends to be the term that’s used when you are organising and controlling resources, be they people, money or something else. Project managers do undertake stakeholder management, when they organise a meeting, to give a small example. But mostly what we do when we say ‘stakeholder management’ isn’t that. You can’t manage someone’s opinion or control their feelings about how the project is playing out for their team.
What’s a better phrase? Personally I prefer stakeholder engagement and that’s what I use when I deliver training.
3. You can identify all your stakeholders
It’s simply not the case, especially on projects that are complex, have a long duration or have any sense of scale. You can’t know all the project stakeholders at the beginning because some of them probably haven’t even joined the company yet, or been brought on as vendors or contractors. On programmes especially, as you don’t do long-range detailed planning, it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty that you’ve captured all the project stakeholders in a single log from Day 1.
There’s also an issue around whether you can understand the complexities of what the stakeholders are bringing to the table. If you’ve never worked with this particular industry or team before then it’s going to be a struggle to grasp what matters to these people. Even if you can identify them in that you can list their name, you can’t analyse what makes them tick, what their fears are and decide how best to deal with this to get a positive outcome for your project because you just don’t know.
This leads to challenges later. When you don’t have a complete understanding of the stakeholders involved it’s inevitable that you’ve missed someone out. You’ll have to plan how to deal with that when it happens (pop it on your risk register and don’t forget).
Equally, you run the risk of saying that you have identified everyone but all you’ve really done is come up with a generic list of common stakeholder roles and assumed the people on your project will behave like their textbook equivalents. Yes you have a project sponsor, but if he or she isn’t a robot then they’re going to have their own quirks and opinions and behave slightly differently to any other project sponsor in the whole world. Sorry.
4. It’s basically just communication
In her book, Worsley tells the story of reviewing several projects and finding they all had communications plans. So far so good. But she goes on to explain that the comms activity was linked to the execution and handover phases of the project. There was little in there that supported the project kickoff or engaging the project stakeholders early so that they could have a say in what was going on.
Even if you do manage to get the communications activity evenly spread out and working at every point in the project lifecycle, it’s not enough just to tell people what’s going on. Telling someone isn’t engaging them. Equally poor communication or communication to the wrong people at the wrong times can be just as damaging, if not more so, than no communication at all.
You need feedback loops that allow for conversation back into the project, with effort set aside for actually dealing with the feedback that you get. It’s pointless to gather feedback if you don’t act on it and it means you are less likely to get feedback in the future because your stakeholders will see that you aren’t taking it seriously or doing anything with it.
5. It addresses all the relationship issues on projects
If we do stakeholder management well and even throw in a bit of engagement we won’t have conflict on project teams and all these pesky office politics issues will fade away.
We are still working with human beings after all.
Stakeholder management activities and your communication plan are not substitutes for working as a team, collaborative practices or generally being a nice, trustworthy person.
And, as you’ll no doubt have experienced yourself, sometimes you need a bit of conflict in the team. It helps solve difficult problems, get ideas aired, challenge perceptions and formalise requirements. It’s wrong to try to eliminate all conflict on projects because working with a team of people who don’t have their own opinions is just as poor a working environment as one with too much conflict!
Read my full review of Stakeholder-Led Project Management.