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Why you need to engage stakeholders (and how to do it well)

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Early on in my career, I had a call from the post room manager. She was confused – and angry. Bags and bags of extra mail had arrived, she didn’t have the staff in to sort it and she had heard that it might be something to do with me.

It was.

I was happy that my project to in-source a service had been completed as expected. All the redirections were working – including the post. The only problem was that the post room staff had never been on my radar. I’d never considered the impact on them. And the impact was pretty big.

That was my first ‘real life’ lesson about the importance of stakeholder engagement.

What is stakeholder engagement?

Engaging Stakeholders on Projects book cover

Engagement helps drive action on projects. As it is people who do the work, engagement is, therefore, a contributing factor to getting tasks done on time, to the required scope, and at a level of quality that results in stakeholder satisfaction.

We define it like this:

The systematic identification, analysis, planning, and implementation of actions designed to influence stakeholders.

Essentially, it’s all about working with people to build support to achieve the intended outcomes.

Helping people take part in the project

So why do we bother? With a strong business case, people will do their jobs and contribute because it’s the right thing to do – right?

It doesn’t work like that. People are busy and your project probably isn’t a priority for them.

When you engage a stakeholder, you are helping them take part in the project and encouraging action-taking.

Engagement serves two aims:

  • It creates, uses and sustains positive interest in the work. Where stakeholders feel positively about projects and changes, engagement makes it easier for them to take part.
  • It minimizes or removes negative interest. Where stakeholders feel negatively about projects and changes, engagement helps understand their position and influence their perception.

Engagement is hard work. There is a lot of discussion and talking to do. It’s time-consuming but it’s worth it because people’s actions contribute to project failure, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.

You probably don’t need to be told of the risks of not engaging stakeholders. You might have even lived through a couple of tricky situations where lack of support from stakeholders caused things like these:

  • People don’t pay attention to the change, resulting in rework or benefits that fail to be realized.
  • People don’t do what you need of them, so projects are constantly delayed.
  • People don’t complete their tasks on time, to the required level of quality, to the approved budget, or perhaps at all.
  • People aren’t committed to delivery so projects drift on and on without ever achieving anything the business considers valuable.

These issues can often be addressed by spending more time on stakeholder engagement.

Beyond the interest and influence grid

For a long time, project management theory and practice focused on stakeholder management (when interpersonal relations were mentioned at all). There was a process to do: filling in a stakeholder register and plotting someone’s interest and influence over the project on a matrix. Or even plotting them out using a stakeholder saliency model.

Stakeholder ‘management’ implies that a stakeholder’s behaviors and actions can be managed – predicted, planned, organized, and controlled – which is both arrogant and inaccurate. Anyone who has ever tried to get anything done with a group of other people will realize that when humans are part of the equation, you can’t expect things to go as per the documented plan.

The profession has been challenging the terminology of ‘management as it relates to stakeholder behavior for some time now. The vocabulary and sentiment have gravitated towards engagement as a preferable model for building relationships and partnerships with the people who help you deliver the project.

Stakeholder engagement presents a significant change in how managers and teams think about the people involved in the project.

When stakeholders are to be managed, there’s the risk that they are considered resources to be moved, used, shaped, and controlled to our will. When you seek to manage and control behavior, you don’t let people have a say. They aren’t a partner in the change. Rather, they are someone the change is done to.

Successful projects are the ones where stakeholders want to take part, are supportive, are listened to, and where they actively contribute. Project professionals want stakeholders on board, championing the changes we are delivering, understanding and living the changes, and not simply tolerating our projects.

When managers choose terminology carefully and talk about engaging people on project delivery work, they elevate stakeholders to the role of a valued partner, instead of simply a ‘resource’. They become an equal; someone to work with instead of for.

Engagement forces us to think about people as individuals, with agency, preferences, interests, and needs. It elevates our own behavior so that we demonstrate leadership, motivation, coaching, influencing, teaching.

It might seem like switching ‘management’ for ‘engagement’ is simply a case of using one business jargon term instead of another, but if you reflect on what engagement means to you, you’ll see it is a deeper and richer term to express the relationship project teams want to have with stakeholders.

If you don’t currently use the language of engagement, your challenge begins today: stop talking about stakeholder management activities and switch to talking about engagement. Give it a week and see what difference you’ve managed to create in your stakeholder communities and project teams.

How to do engagement

Beyond shifting your language, what else can you do to demonstrate engagement?

The core aspects of engagement are:

  • Understanding stakeholder perspectives;
  • Building trusted relationships;
  • Taking action and influencing stakeholder perspectives to shape the work in the direction of the intended outcomes.

The formula looks like this:

UNDERSTANDING + ACTION + INFLUENCE = ENGAGEMENT

Understanding: Once you’ve completed stakeholder identification, look at how stakeholders feel about the project and the effect it will have on them. This is an emotional appeal (which you can think of as “winning hearts”). Consider how confident stakeholders feel that the work being done is the right work. This is a rational appeal (which equates to “winning minds”).

Action: Be reliable, trustworthy, respectful, consistent, helpful, professional and show gratitude.

Influence: Work with your manager and sponsor to influence up, your team and peers to influence the project, and people beyond your immediate team to influence out across the business.

We also need to consider what we are engaging stakeholders in and how much effort we need to put into working with each individual or group.

You will no doubt work with people who are motivated, whom you trust to get on with the work. You know they’ll follow through and deliver a good result. You can choose to let those areas propel themselves forward with minimal check-ins.

You might leave other individuals or teams to get on with things because you have no choice. Their work isn’t a high priority and your time is scarce, or you aren’t empowered to engage with them.

Another group might need more coaching through the work, more support, or oversight.

Set time aside regularly to take stock of how engagement on the project is going. Ask yourself:

  • What did I do this week that engaged our key stakeholders?
  • Did it work? Did they feel engaged? How do I know? Why do I think that?

If you feel confident that your engagement activities are having the desired effect, do more of what’s working. If you tried something and it didn’t work, stop doing it. There’s no point investing more energy in that right now if you aren’t seeing the benefits.

Projects, programs, portfolios, and changes are all easier when stakeholders are engaged but sometimes it will feel like you can’t plan the engagement, or it feels unnatural to try to ‘engineer’ a relationship with someone for the good of the project. When we work with people it can feel iterative, messy, uncoordinated, rushed, and stressful.

Don’t worry. Even if it feels awkward for you, your stakeholders will see someone who cares about their views, wants the best for the organization and the project, and who is trying hard to make a positive difference.

Finally, remember that you and the project’s stakeholders are people first, and project ‘resources’ second (or even third, fourth, fifth, or more). We all have good days and bad days; be kind to each other.

5 Easy Engagement Ideas

  • Say thank you: people appreciate being acknowledged for their work
  • Expectation mapping: review each stakeholder’s expectations for the project and check they can be achieved and don’t conflict with anyone else’s expectations
  • Invite feedback: Change your email signature to include a link to a project email inbox or ‘contact us’ form.
  • Be seen: Drop into working sessions like system testing and find out how things are going, getting feedback from people doing the work. Learning styles: Flex your communication approach to suit the learning preferences of stakeholders
  • Learning styles: Flex your communication approach to suit the learning preferences of stakeholders

A version of this article first appeared in the APM’s Project Magazine in 2020.

Want to know more about stakeholder-led projects? Check out our post here.

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