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Is Your Project at Risk Due to Poor Stakeholder Relationships?

Strategic Execution Training

Have you ever been involved in a project where there were too many misunderstandings and disagreements about scope and priorities and where it was a struggle to gain buy-in and traction for important decisions and you found it difficult to influence your stakeholders throughout the project?

Some stakeholders were not engaged, information wasn’t flowing to those who needed it and internal politics were getting in the way of effective collaboration. At times people didn’t show up for important meetings, and when they did, they spent more time questioning old decisions than providing support for the project.

Poor project stakeholder relationships and communication are serious issues that contribute to project failure. In one of their Pulse Reports, the PMI reports that high-performing organizations rate effective communication to all stakeholders, more than any other factor, as having the greatest impact on successful project delivery. This might be why some people say that the primary role of project management is communication. Effective communication and strong stakeholder relationships are intrinsically linked. It’s hard to imagine that communication can be effective if relationships are dysfunctional. Strong working relationships are a prerequisite for successful project delivery, not least on major projects with many interested parties. The question I have for you is whether your project is at risk due to poor relationships and inadequate communication. If the answer is yes, it may be time to improve your project stakeholder management skills:

Project Management TrainingIt’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming someone else for a poor interpersonal relationship and for not understanding your messages. You may, for instance, believe that the project sponsor or client is too demanding or doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the documents you send, that there are too much office politics and general tension, or that people have difficult personalities.

We have probably all fallen victim of that way of thinking. But the truth is that project managers and leaders share the responsibility for creating a harmonious and dynamic stakeholder group. In his book, Wayne Strider describes this in a very honest way:

I believe there is no such thing as a difficult person. There are, however, lots of people with whom I have difficulty. That does not necessarily mean that they are difficult people. ‘NOT!’ you may say. Ten years ago, I might have agreed with you. But I have learned some things about myself since then that have changed my mind. One thing I have learned is that the difficulty is often more about me than about them.[i]

A constructive and engaged project sponsor and stakeholder group can have a tremendously positive impact on a project. People who are fully bought into a change initiative will help shape, support and promote it and are much more likely to label it as a success. With the backing of powerful allies, it will be significantly easier to steer the project in the right direction, make decisions, resolve issues and avoid conflict.

For several years PMI’s Pulse Report has confirmed that having an actively engaged sponsor is a top driver for project success. UnfortunatelInfluencing without Authorityy, they have also shown that fewer than two in three projects have sponsors who are actively engaged.

The good news is that as a project manager and leader, you have the power to influence how the project sponsor shows up. By deliberately working towards it, you can encourage the sponsor’s active involvement. Most sponsors haven’t been trained in how to steer a project, so you need to help them and you need to openly explain what their role is and what you need from them. Through your questions and conversations, you can influence them to endorse innovation, to promote a culture of learning, to make timely decisions and to think strategically. Major initiatives and complex projects must be driven out of strategy.

As such, there should be ‘line of sight’ direction through the organization, from the very top of the executive leadership to each member of the project team. All executives, team leaders, and team members must share a clear understanding of the decision that led to this initiative and any subsequent decisions made to ensure the success of the project.

What would the impact be on your project if there were complete transparency around the decisions made at the top? And how much time and effort could be saved if these decisions were always sensible and timely? You have to focus your efforts and relationships on those decision-makers who can help you create clarity and move the project forward. If your relationships with senior executives are poor, they will negatively affect decision-making, execution time and the success of the project.

Classic stakeholder analysis tools will help you understand who your stakeholders are and to focus on those that pose the biggest risk to the project. Instead of using the traditional two-dimensional power and interest matrix, use a 3-dimensional cube to see the full picture. The axis of the cube are as following:

  • Power – is your stakeholder strong or weak? If they are strong, they may have enough power (or influence) to stop the project and determine its direction.
  • Interest – is your stakeholder active or passive? If they are active, they are more likely to engage and be actively involved in the project.
  • Attitude – is your stakeholder hostile or helpful? If they are hostile, they have concerns about the project and could cause a threat to the project.

The riskiest stakeholders are those with strong power, high interest, and a negative attitude. Focus your attention on this group and analyse the situation as you would any other risk. Your job is to lower the likelihood of the relationship blowing up or the stakeholder blocking the project.Project Leadership

When you manage to change the attitude of a powerful stakeholder so that they become supportive, you will put in place one of the most important prerequisites for successful project execution. With a group of powerful, interested and helpful stakeholders, you will be off to a flying start.

Some of the best remedies to strengthen relationships are to use your emotional intelligence and draw on your knowledge about the client’s universe and the underlying business drivers. The better you understand the context within which they operate the easier it will be for you to build strong interpersonal relationships. But the opposite is also true.

The more effort you make to build trust and connect at an interpersonal level, the easier it will be to uncover your clients’ vision and take joint ownership for delivering value to the business. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the threat that poor interpersonal relationships pose to your project.

[i] Strider, W (2002) Powerful Project Leadership, Management Concepts

For more information about how to improve your Stakeholder Management Skills and Leadership Skills, please visit our  next Influencing Without Authority Course (19-21 June – London) and Project Leadership and Communication Course ( 4-6 June – London )


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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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