Do we adequately train Project Managers to engage stakeholders to carry out their responsibilities on the project? Do we help to equip them with the essential skills they need to effectively monitor stakeholder engagement? Or do we expect Project Managers to learn this through trial and error during project execution and hope for the best?
The PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute, 2017, p. 534) lists five key interpersonal and team skills that are useful in monitoring stakeholder engagement. There are undoubtedly others, but these specific ones will go a long way in keeping stakeholders fully interested:
- Active listening. Have you ever been in a conversation where it seems that the person you are speaking with is only half listening, concentrating instead on preparing his response? We all have, I’m sure. I have noticed this trait in many Project Managers. Perhaps it is because of the intensity of our role as Project Managers wherein we are expected to always be on the ball, always thinking ahead, always having an answer.
When dealing with stakeholders, particularly with senior level stakeholders, Project Managers must be vigilant in their conversational style. They must listen more than they speak. After all, they are seeking active project engagement on the part of the stakeholder. One way to understand what keeps the stakeholder engaged is through active listening.
What exactly is active listening? It involves behaviors such as the following:
• Acknowledging what the other person is saying. Good or bad, the Project Manager needs to listen to understand and respond accordingly. Does the stakeholder feel that the project is going well? Great! Thank her for that. Does she not understand her role and therefore avoids spending time on the project? The Project Manager should acknowledge that requests for her support could have been clearer. He should then ask how to better clarify what is expected of her on the project.
The Project Manager must remember that project delivery is second nature to him, but additional guidance may be required for stakeholders that are essential to project success.
• Clarifying and confirming what the other person is saying. This is an extension of the previous point. When the stakeholder asks a question or expresses a concern, an effective method to ensure that she is being heard is to restate her question or concern before responding. The Project Manager also knows that he understands her correctly and can respond appropriately.
Additionally, he should clarify that she understands his response before continuing.
• Remove barriers to the other person’s ability to understand. One barrier I have often noted is the Project Managers’ use of terminology without considering their audience’s (the stakeholders) understanding. They use project terms that may be unfamiliar to the stakeholder. It would be more beneficial for them to speak in the stakeholders’ own business terms and educate them in project delivery terminology as the project progresses.
Similarly, Project Managers must be aware of how they are being perceived by the stakeholders. Perceptions can create invisible barriers to the stakeholder’s willingness to understand and remain engaged. Does the Project Manager’s confidence in his ability to deliver come across as intimidating? Is he always right? Does he constantly interrupt? Does he appear dismissive?
- Cultural awareness. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my long career in IT project delivery was working with a variety of cultures. IT attracts skilled practitioners from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Each brings with it a richness of experience that adds to the project work environment.
In working with stakeholders, the Project Manager must quickly acclimate to the stakeholder organization’s culture. While the Project Manager expects the stakeholder to adapt to his team’s culture, it is more important that he and his team adapt to the culture of the stakeholder.
In my own experience, I have worked on projects in Alaska, Idaho, Florida, Hawaii, California, Alabama, Iowa, and a dozen other states. Not only did my team and I need to adapt to regional cultural norms, but also to the distinct culture of the stakeholder organizations themselves. Until we were able to do that, consistent, ongoing stakeholder engagement was more challenging to achieve.
- Leadership. Stakeholders are typically senior managers within their organizations. Most often they are accustomed to being the leaders of organizational initiatives. With IT projects, they are usually out of their element, and are therefore dependent on direction from the IT Project Manager.
Project Managers with strong leadership skills give legs to stakeholders’ visions, and help them see what is not only possible, but practical. They do not have direct control over stakeholders’ involvement in the project. In fact, stakeholders are often more senior within their organizations than are Project Managers within theirs. It is therefore incumbent on Project Managers to learn how to influence and inspire stakeholders to be fully engaged on the project, and to help ensure a successful outcome.
- Networking. On every engagement, there is a formal governance structure and one or more informal networks. The informal networks have useful information and are often open to sharing it. Project Managers who tap into these networks can keep a finger on the pulse of the organization and respond more quickly to situations as they come up. The networks reach stakeholders and can be used to influence their direct support of and engagement with the project.
- Political awareness. Just as a stakeholder’s organization has its own culture, it also has its own politics – some from within the organization, some from outside. In most of the organizations that I worked with, the prominent outside political influences were readily understood – they depended on the political party in power.
However, our project teams also dealt with advocacy groups, employee unions, sister organizations, financial sponsors, and the organization’s own customers. Each of these held various sway on project outcomes depending on the strength of its leadership and cooperation with the stakeholders. And in each such situation, Project Managers who took the time to learn and understand and work with these political influencers, the better the project results.
Similarly for politics within the organization. Who is the dominant stakeholder influencer? The CEO? CIO? CEO’s right-hand person? How do the various influencers interact? Who is likely to engage more supportively in clearing obstacles out of the way for the project to proceed more smoothly?
Interpersonal and team skills are people aspects of project management that Project Managers must learn and become good at if they are to be able to monitor their stakeholders’ engagement to deliver their projects successfully.
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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