Over the lifecycle of a project, there are many different people who will have an interest or involvement in it – including those who will be affected by it. These are the ‘stakeholders’, who may be internal and/or external to the organisation.
Project stakeholders are people or organisations who have a vested interest in the environment, performance and/or outcome of the project. In any change situation, there will be those who support and those who oppose it. During the lifetime of the project, stakeholders may also come and go, depending on the activities associated with the project. Key stakeholders, such as the project board, should (hopefully!) remain constant. Some stakeholders will be able to participate in the project in an advisory or assurance role; others will be important in assessing and realising the benefits, and yet others will have an audit perspective.
Power and influence
Don’t underestimate the fact that powerful and influential stakeholders can delay, deflect or even stop your project in its tracks!
It is vital for all the key stakeholders to ‘buy in’ to both the project’s objective(s) and its scope and plan, because they can either help or hinder the project. Stakeholders with power and influence can support the project in many different ways or they can delay, deflect or even stop it in its tracks.
It’s essential to understand stakeholder interests in the project. Stakeholder analysis should be done as early as possible in the project to improve the quality of the project planning by increasing stakeholder support and reducing opposition.
The objective of analysing stakeholders is to achieve a thorough understanding of their requirements and their interest in, and impact on, the project. The stakeholders’ positions (in terms of influence and impact) may be rational and justifiable, or emotional and unfounded, but they must all be taken into account since, by definition, stakeholders can affect the change process and hence the project.
The first task is to identify them all. One way of doing this is to have a brain-storming session with a whiteboard or flipchart. Don’t try to categorise them; just list them by name, position or organisational role – remember that they will be at lots of different levels and may well be external. Next, try grouping them – maybe into internal/external and then by reasons for their interest/involvement. Try to keep it simple, but don’t oversimplify it.
You can then use 2 x 2 matrices, with different elements on each axis, to see what they tell you. A commonly-used one is Level of interest versus Level of power (see below), but others include Can/Can’t influence versus Enemy/Ally, and Knowledge of the project (Aware/Unaware) versus Attitude to project (Oppose/Support).
Remember to be very careful with your matrices – they can be very sensitive documents if they get into the wrong hands!
If you do this well, you will alert yourself and your team to potential issues and problems and highlight where you need to put in effort – often straight away.
The level of stakeholders’ importance to the project and the potential of its impact on them will determine the level and type of stakeholder management activities you need to adopt. You need to be aware very early on as to who are actively or passively against the project and find a means to neutralise them or win them over. Likewise, it’s equally important to spot your influential supporters and equip them with good project information.
At the very least, you will need a communications plan. This is designed to ensure that all communications address each stakeholder’s particular interests, issues and needs. What you are trying to avoid is comments such as
Why didn’t you tell me...?
Nobody told us...
I didn’t understand that...
But we can’t do that then...
We didn’t know that...
So, think carefully. Have a look at any ‘lessons learned’ from previous projects to spot communication weaknesses. Go through your stakeholder list (see above) and prioritise it, identifying specifics – don’t treat all stakeholders the same. End up by specifying who needs to know what, why, when, how (and how much)? Make sure you are clear about who should be consulted, or at least informed, before, during and after any work/stage or phase takes place.
Also, think through the media you can use – for example what requires one-to-one communication, what needs one-to-a-few, what can be one-to-many? This will help determine where face-to-face meetings are important, what can be ‘work-shopped’ or what can be covered in a general email, on an intranet or in a newsletter.
Don’t rely on encountering people in the corridor or canteen – but be prepared to make good use of such moments anyway. Create distribution lists, set out communication milestones, ask for feedback to spot omissions and show responsiveness; and remember that ‘communication’ is a two-way process.
Communication needs to be clear and unambiguous (whatever the temptation to be otherwise!). So write down what the aims of your particular communication plan are to avoid taking your eye off the ball. Be clear about what your main messages are, choose when to communicate for maximum benefit and keep focusing on the key stakeholders. We all know the most annoying communications are those in which we are not given core reasons for things or those that arrive when the communication is too late to be useful.
How to minimise a stakeholder’s negative impact
Any change will generate opposition – active or passive resistors – but it will also probably take place in a political climate. So opponents can appear in the most unlikely places and roles.
There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to initiate a new order of things. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system, and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.
Step one is obviously to identify them. But step two is to be clear about what you are trying to do. At a minimum, you are trying to neutralise opposition; at best, you are trying to turn opposition into support. So it is valuable to recognise that this is a multi-stage process.
- You start with ignorance of the project and its intended outcome; here, you must decide who needs to be aware.
- Create awareness, choosing the right method. For key stakeholders, this may be a one-on-one meeting (and a presentation); for those marginally involved, it may mean a newsletter or briefing paper. Once aware, who needs to ‘understand’? You are looking for commitment!
- Create understanding of what the project involves and the benefits it will bring – again, choose the method. This may be workshops, presentations, roadshows or, where critical, one-on-one meetings (especially for the nay-sayers). Think long and hard about who else to invite with nay-sayers, as they may adversely influence others who were indifferent!
- Win support – be prepared to debate, give and take feedback and consult. Stay close to supporters – especially new ones – and keep them well informed. Keep working on opponents.
- Get involvement – include people in decision-making, consult them more deeply, show ability to compromise, share confidences, include them in collective problem-solving.
- Once people are properly involved, commitment is likely to follow.
A realistic assessment of who is on the project’s side and who is not is vital, but don’t leave it there. You have to work hard to win opponents over, otherwise they may kill the project – but don’t forget to retain the support of the supporters in the meantime!
When projects are in the public domain, you may come up against lobby groups. These can be for or against the project. They may be weak or powerful, but they should never be ignored. Again, in the public domain the media will take an interest – usually when things are going wrong. Good public relations is essential, and always remember to include ‘the public’ in your relations. Positive PR should be used wherever possible and you should remember that negative PR received during the project can go on to have a negative impact on the outcome, long after the project has delivered.
See also the page on Managing people outside the immediate team.