5 Stakeholder Types and How to Engage Them

How do you plan the engagement of a project stakeholder who is simply unaware? Or worse yet, actively unsupportive? What if he or she is ambivalent?

On the other hand, how do you plan for the supportive stakeholder? Or the actively engaged?

In a previous article, Stakeholder Analysis – A Practical Example from a Successful Project, I described the stakeholder power/interest quadrant as a useful assessment tool in selecting potential stakeholders for an IT project. I discussed working with low power/low interest, low power/high interest, high power/low interest, and high power/high interest stakeholders, and how their contributions to the project can be managed.

Now overlay onto the power/interest quadrant an additional the dimension: the stakeholder who is unaware, or unsupportive, or ambivalent, or supportive, or actively engaged. Do you see the complexities that can arise when planning stakeholder engagement?

Describing the five characteristics of stakeholder engagement in relation to the power/interest quadrant (which would require the description of 20 possible types of stakeholders), is beyond the scope of this article. However, a discussion of the five characteristics is worthwhile to assist on the planning of stakeholder engagement.

1. Unaware. This stakeholder has likely been pulled from his day job to assist with the project. If he is a low power/low interest stakeholder, then there is no harm done. However, if he is a high power/high interest stakeholder (I can’t imagine this scenario as being very likely), he may be detrimental to the project. For any unaware stakeholder, the project team must establish an engagement plan to orient him to the project and its impacts on his organization. The higher power/higher interest the individual is, the more he will need to be educated about the project, and his roles and responsibilities defined.

We were developing a major system for a government department, and our main stakeholder became less and less engaged as the project moved along. In his mind the project was going so well that he felt he no longer needed to be involved. This proved to be detrimental later in the project, when we encountered difficulties that only he could influence. The project experienced a delay as we brought him up to speed and educated him on what we required of him.

2. Actively unsupportive. This stakeholder is a danger to the project as he actively resists its success. Such a stakeholder, regardless of his level of power/interest, can undermine the morale of the project and contribute to a lack of success. To engage this individual in a meaningful way requires time and patience to bring him around to support the project. The project manager may need to delve into the individual’s reasons for resisting the project to engage him in a positive manner.

I was managing a project for a state government department, when I began to notice the technical stakeholder representative becoming more and more negative and undermining of our efforts. I had developed a strong relationship with this individual over time, so his behavior surprised me. As I dug deeper, I learned that he had developed insecurities with regard to taking over the new system with new technology post-implementation. With only a few years until retirement, he preferred to keep the legacy system in place. Short of actual sabotage, he remained actively unsupportive. I finally documented the issue and requested the primary stakeholder to release him from the project.

3. Ambivalent. This stakeholder is neutral, neither supportive nor unsupportive. In some ways he is as damaging to the project as his actively unsupportive counterpart. When called upon to assist in his role as stakeholder, one is never sure if he will carry out his responsibility in a timely fashion, with due diligence, and for the benefit of the project. The engagement plan for this person may be a reminder to him of the overall benefit to his organization, and an appeal to his self-interest. Providing him with some quick-win activities to pique his interest in the project can be helpful.

On more than one project, I recall stakeholders representing the internal technical staff who were loaned to the project. The technical staff were on the project to assist the IT provider in understanding the legacy system for conversion purposes, and receive the knowledge transfer from the IT provider so that they will be prepared to maintain the system upon implementation. Nothing is more frustrating to me than having these individuals use the project as a free ride to do nothing. They typically didn’t badmouth the project, but neither did they promote it. They responded when asked directly, but seldom volunteered for any tasks.

We had one such individual on a high-profile project. His work hours were from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. If he was in a meeting that was running late, he would abruptly leave at exactly 4 p.m. When we asked that he be replaced, we were told that his seniority did not allow for that. In the end, knowledge transfer to his staff did not happen, and the IT provider received a large maintenance contract upon implementation.

4. Supportive. This stakeholder is well aware of the benefits that the project will bring to his organization. He attends meetings, participates in risk management and problem solving when assigned, and promotes the project within his organization.

The supportive stakeholder is my personal favorite on projects. Although 100% committed to his day job, he keeps a finger on the pulse of the project’s progress. He makes himself available to use his power and/or interest in helping to move the project forward. The engagement plan for this stakeholder is one of leaving well enough alone, and continuing to utilize him to help the project succeed as he is available.

On virtually every project that I have managed, I was fortunate to have supportive stakeholders. They ranged from the primary stakeholder to less influential stakeholders from ancillary organizations. These stakeholders helped the projects with such tasks as policy clarification with external entities, rule changes to help streamline usability, just-in-time training, acquiring meeting space, acting as liaison to sister stakeholder agencies or regulatory bodies, and any number of activities.

5. Actively engaged. This stakeholder is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he can be enthusiastically supportive, and even more effective than the previous stakeholder. Typically, this stakeholder is high power/high interest, and is able to provide leadership over and above being supportive.

On the other hand, because this stakeholder is accustomed to leading his organization in making decisions quickly, he sometimes inserts himself into the day-to-day affairs of the project, second guessing project decisions.

The engagement plan for the actively engaged stakeholder is to clearly define his roles and responsibilities. The Project Manager is responsible for the day-to-day running of project; the actively engaged stakeholder is not. Additionally, the Project Manager should plan project and risk management activities that are high profile. These will help keep this stakeholder actively engaged in areas he can be most influential.

On one of my most successful projects as part of the Project Management Office, our primary sponsor was the actively engaged type of stakeholder. So engaged was she in the project, then we established an on-site office for her so she could physically spend more time with the project team. As much time as she was able to give us, we were willing to utilize. She was able to remove obstacles and proactively helped to set us up for success.

Every project is different. Every project has its mix of stakeholders. It is up to the project team to establish a Stakeholder Engagement Plan that takes advantage of every type of stakeholder. This is not a process that is derived from a project management instruction book, but rather relies on the expert judgment and experience of Project Managers who are attentive to the people aspects of project management.


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