As Project Managers we need to be constantly asking ourselves if we are monitoring stakeholder engagement well. Are stakeholders actively participating? Is our management of their involvement effective? Are they helping to progress the project as expected?
In previous articles, I described several distinctive processes for engaging stakeholders on the project. These included:
- establishing a stakeholder engagement plan (“9 Strategies to Plan Stakeholder Engagement”),
- understanding the types of stakeholders and level of engagement desired from them (“5 Stakeholder Types and How to Engage Them”), and
- methods to effectively engage stakeholders (“7 Methods to Effectively Engage Stakeholders”).
I discussed several techniques for managing stakeholder engagement in some detail:
- develop relationships with stakeholders,
- communicate regularly,
- use them in risk response,
- understand stakeholder behavior,
- be prepared to compromise with them, and
- anticipate their needs.
These techniques are useful in managing stakeholder engagement. But are we monitoring stakeholder engagement?
Project Managers should realize that this process within the PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute, 2017, pp. 530-536) is called “Monitor Stakeholder Engagement” for a reason. Project Managers do not “control” human behavior – and certainly not that of stakeholders. If there is any one group that is outside the control of the Project Manager, it would be the stakeholders.
But monitor they must. Project Managers must ensure that stakeholders remain actively engaged to help garner a successful project outcome. Yet how many times have I heard Project Managers breathe sighs of relief when a primary stakeholder acts mostly disinterested and seldom participates? No! This should never be. Engaging that stakeholder is paramount for the good of the project.
Techniques for managing stakeholder engagement noted above now become techniques for monitoring stakeholder relationships, continuing to anticipate their needs, ensuring that the agreed upon engagement plan is being followed, and updating the engagement strategies as necessary.
The Project Manager has several methods at her disposal. Note, there is little process involved (although Project Managers do love their processes). However, she must have finely tuned skills to deal with these most senior decision-makers and influencers. Dealing with the people aspects of project management when working with stakeholders requires more highly developed interpersonal and leadership skills than typically required to manage the project team.
The following techniques can help monitor and maintain stakeholder engagement:
- Review items from the Stakeholder Engagement Plan. This can be done as a matter of course by including items on each status meeting agenda that are specific to the stakeholder(s). Depending on the task or phase being executed at the time, different individual stakeholders may have responsibilities that need to be handled to keep the project momentum moving forward.
- Check in with stakeholders regularly. Does the project team truly understand the stakeholders’ needs? Are those needs being met? Are stakeholders’ questions being addressed adequately? Do stakeholders feel supported? Do they feel they are supporting the project as expected? Do they have suggestions for ongoing activities?
- Ensure communication is happening. Stakeholders are typically not part of the day-to-day project execution. Often, they receive their information through status meetings, reports, and project correspondence. The Project Manager must ensure that the information they are receiving is sufficient – not too little, not overwhelming. As noted above, a scheduled check-in at each status meeting will help the Project Manager understand if the stakeholders are completely up to speed.
- Be aware of overwhelm. This was briefly touched on in the previous point. Project Managers must be aware that stakeholders are human. Typically, they have significant organizational responsibilities, only one of which is the project.
I have worked on large engagements where the primary stakeholder was also a senior executive with extremely limited time. We were given a few minutes on their schedules weekly – more if requested by them. It was important to always be well prepared for the meetings. We needed to explain the request we had of them, quickly absorb their promised resolution, discuss as required, and leave. We did the “heavy lifting” for them, and did not overwhelm them so as not to lose their interest.
- Monitor conflict at the stakeholder level. This point also demands that the Project Manager be politically aware. Stakeholders occasionally have conflict situations that may spill over onto their ability to serve the project (e.g., changing boss, changing organizational responsibilities, changing priorities, constituent demands, conflicting project objectives with other stakeholders). While the Project Manager cannot get involved in these, she must be aware of such issues to make good project decisions.
- Lead. As noted above, stakeholders are not day-to-day players on the project. So, while they are typically very senior and take care of their project responsibilities, it remains the Project Manager’s obligation to set the direction, communicate well, and provide ample warning of upcoming requests. Stakeholders will respond, but they must be given specific, direct requests to help them manage their time and their responsibilities to the project.
- Educate. The Project Manager will do well to remind herself that stakeholders have day jobs. They are not IT specialists. They almost never understand project delivery (CIOs, CTOs excepted). It is therefore incumbent on the Project Manager to help the stakeholders to understand the process and stay engaged.
For example, a stakeholder request for a change in requirements will result in schedule, cost, and possibly resource changes. Many stakeholders that I have worked with did not understand this concept well. They thought that if we had such a large team, what could be the harm in adding some new rules or a couple of management reports?
- Negotiate. Sometimes a stakeholder is adamant that a change needs to happen. Additionally, he is unwilling to accept the need for additional time and money. Having educated him in project fundamentals, the Project Manager must be prepared to negotiate. Is there something the stakeholder is willing to give up or defer to a future time? Does the stakeholder have resources that could be added to alleviate work elsewhere? Would he be open to a different approach that would cut some effort?
Bonus: as long as he is negotiating, he is engaging!
- Make stakeholders aware of potential risk events. No one wants to be blindsided. If there is one major activity that stakeholders can engage in with great effect, it is risk mitigation. Stakeholders are often prominent within the organization and thus can move obstacles out of the way. But they must be kept in the loop.
- Keep the project plan visible and flexible. I have yet to be on a project where every task was executed in the exact order and timeframe specified in the original plan. As Project Manager, I had to stay nimble daily to ensure that the project moved forward as expected, even though not every task or activity did.
Stakeholders were usually oblivious to this. Most felt that if it were in the plan, then the work should follow the plan. The easiest way to keep the stakeholders happy in this regard was to put slack into the plan wherever possible – not to make the project easier for my teams, but to give them a better chance to stay on schedule.
- Have stakeholders meet the team. The Project Manager should take every opportunity to walk the stakeholders among the teams when they are at the project site. This puts names and faces of hardworking team members in front of the stakeholders. It gives the team members exposure to senior client management. When timelines get tight on the project, and overtime becomes necessary, stakeholders will remember that these are real people with lives outside of the project walls, rather than just cogs in a machine that work around the clock.
- Acknowledge stakeholder contributions. Stakeholders are in and out of the project. They take status. They help with risk events or project issues. They offer suggestions. And then they leave for their next responsibility. Project Managers are typically good at rewarding their team members. They need to extend their appreciation and accolades to the stakeholders as well.
These are the people aspects of project management that help ensure projects succeed with the help of engaged project stakeholders.
Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition. Newton Square, PA: PMI Publications, 2017, Print.
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