Department Director. CIO. Director of Finance. Director of a sister department. Regulatory agencies. Procurement department. Employees’ union. Client advocates. IT provider.
These were typical stakeholder entities involved with IT projects on which I served. Each entity had its own goals and objectives for the project outcomes – some overlapping, some at odds with other stakeholders. Some stakeholders were powerful and insisted on being directly involved in the project; some were along for the ride.
Regardless of the degree of involvement or influence, IT Project Managers have several constituents that they need to satisfy.
In previous articles, “Recruiting the Right Stakeholders Will Make Your Project Successful” and “Stakeholder Analysis – A Practical Example from a Successful Project” I focused on recruiting the right stakeholders for the project and, most importantly, the right primary stakeholder. Often, the Project Manager is not given the opportunity to recruit her own stakeholder representatives; nonetheless it is now time to develop the Stakeholder Engagement Plan.
In my opinion, the PMBOK® Guide (Project Management Institute, 2017, pp.516-522) is vague on this topic, even from a pure process aspect. Therefore, I am offering several definitive and practical ideas on how to establish a Stakeholder Engagement Plan both from a process and people aspect of project management. Mostly my focus is on the people aspects of developing this critical sub-plan within the Project Management Plan.
The following 9 distinct strategies are ones that I have personally used to develop effective Stakeholder Engagement Plans:
- Plan communication strategy. It is my personal opinion, born of experience, that the reason stakeholders don’t get fully involved in IT projects is that they don’t know how to. Or, if they do get involved, they are often viewed as an intrusion. The Project Manager must engage them correctly from the outset with a comprehensive, intentional communication strategy. On several of my projects, the primary stakeholders understood the mandate for the project, but they were not aware of the incredible complexity and challenges of the project. It was critical that that they became more fully informed so that they could actively contribute when and where needed. Once understood, the communication strategy with regard to purpose, scope, and approach for their involvement was documented within the Stakeholder Engagement Plan.
The touch points with the stakeholders should also be defined in the plan. For example, during the procurement aspects of the project, frequent communication with the procurement stakeholder are absolutely necessary. Once the IT provider is selected, communication with procurement all but stops. At that point, they are no longer required to provide input, but they often request informal status updates.
- Define roles and responsibilities. Each IT project must have a governance process; however, that is NOT the stakeholders. Good project governance defines the project management structure as fully responsible for project execution, while clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders. Just as scope is defined for any given project, so too are scope and boundary of stakeholder engagement. These should be articulated clearly in the Stakeholder Engagement Plan.
Project Managers rely on stakeholders for input and/or reinforcement of certain project decisions, but not in typical day-to-day project activities. Stakeholders are exceedingly valuable when requested to handle material issues. Often I relied on them for assistance with decisions that were above my “pay grade.”
For example, on one project the primary stakeholder felt that she could not make any decision unless she understood every detail of the policy item or functional requirement leading up to the decision, She would ask a barrage of “why” questions that quite frankly did not enter into the equation. It took some time, but she finally trusted us to take care of the minutiae while assisting us with the major decision that was outside of our purview.
Alternatively, on another project, the stakeholder representative from the employees’ union attempted to instruct the project team of how certain functionality was to be implemented. We politely but firmly informed her that such decisions were outside her scope of responsibility.
- Consult with potential stakeholders. Many Project Managers feel that once the roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders are documented and the communication strategy defined, they would involve the stakeholders only if there are major decisions or issues to be dealt with. However, defining roles and responsibilities and the communication strategy is just the beginning of stakeholder involvement.
The Stakeholder Engagement Plan should include the need for formal and informal meetings with the stakeholders to identify their legitimate concerns and interests. The Project Manager should seek to understand the stakeholders, listening to them, consulting with them on major project decisions. Such intentional interactions go a long way to manage stakeholder engagement. Investing this time up front with the various stakeholders will help to understand the stakeholders’ behavior in project situations. It will also help inform the Project Manager’s day-to-day decision-making.
People want to be heard, and that includes the stakeholders. Giving a voice to their concerns such that they realize that they are being heard will help ensure their active/proactive participation in the project.
- Plan stakeholder task assignments. Just as the project plan is developed with tasks, timelines, and resource allocation, so should tasks, timelines, and effort allocation for stakeholders be included in the plan. By this point, stakeholders have a deeper knowledge understanding of the project, have been alerted as to their roles and responsibilities, and have had their concerns and interests understood by the project team. To keep stakeholders engaged, they should also have project tasks assigned to them.
For example, six months prior to implementation the primary sponsor may be tasked with organizing her field operations staff for training. Similarly, the CIO may begin to negotiate the just-in-time delivery of the new technology infrastructure. Such tasks should be reflected directly in the project plan and reviewed in status meetings.
- Plan compromise. As noted earlier, the different stakeholders have different objectives and goals for the outcome of the project. Some of these will be in conflict. The Stakeholder Engagement Plan should include strategies for handling the divergent expectations and priorities of the different stakeholders.
For example, many of the projects that I worked on were required to follow strict federal guidelines (in this regard, several federal agencies were stakeholders). Local client advocates (also stakeholders) attempted to have some of these mandates eased. We solicited the assistance of the primary stakeholder to work to a satisfactory compromise with the client advocate representative.
Not every stakeholder will get 100% of what they expect from the project, but every stakeholder can participate in determining what is in their best interest while maintaining the best interest for the overall project.
- Develop relationships with stakeholders. Stakeholders are often seen as interested parties that are utilized as-required for consultation or decision-making. However, there is much more to be gained in developing relationships with key stakeholders. Developing relationships results in developing trust; and where there is trust, there are better working relationships. Through this, stakeholders gain confidence in their project team.
As such, the Stakeholder Engagement Plan may include such items as involving the stakeholders in weekly status meetings, engaging them in key strategy sessions, and perhaps meeting in informal settings outside of project responsibilities.
- Involve stakeholders in risk management. Project managers tell me that this point is a given. However, when questioned further, I often learn that they call on the stakeholders when they need to be bailed out of a tough situation or they need help with a decision that is not part of their project management responsibilities. Stakeholders (especially the primary stakeholder) are interested in any and all project risks that could materialize as threats to the success of the project. The Stakeholder Engagement Plan must include the process by which the stakeholders are invited to be part of the risk management process. Sometimes that only requires them to be kept informed; sometimes it means they must be directly included in managing the risk.
Project Managers are not always good at anticipating project issues. It is imperative that they are always scanning the project horizon and immediately involve the stakeholders when they notice something. As an example, I noted on one project that user acceptance testing was approaching and the client was not prepared for their part in the testing process. I immediately alerted the primary stakeholder. We immediately formulated a plan to identify, train, and fully prepare her team for their testing responsibilities.
In my early years as a Project Manager, I often solicited stakeholders to help eliminate roadblocks. For example, a hardware supplier who was dragging his feet on delivery became fully cooperative when the CIO contacted him directly. Likewise, a policy analyst who was ignoring my calls about a specific issue responded immediately when contacted by the department director.
- Define project success. Project success means different things to different stakeholders.
For example, on one project that I worked on, the union stakeholder representative stated that success meant that no staff member would lose his or her job when the project was implemented. The primary stakeholder defined success as staff members having a system that would help them keep on top of their daily workload with accuracy. These appeared to be different definitions, but when we showed them how their goals were aligned, the cooperation between the two stakeholders was much stronger.
- Incorporate feedback. Every project has cadence, particularly in regular meetings and status reporting (e.g., weekly status meetings, monthly status reporting, and quarterly project reviews). Involving various stakeholders in this regular feedback mechanism allows them to understand how their contributions are being used to affect the project. Not only does knowing that the stakeholders are involved in the project help improve accountability for the project team, it also improves accountability for the stakeholders themselves.
Planning stakeholder engagement is just an extension of planning the project itself. Helping stakeholders understand the value of their contributions and involvement in the project keeps them positively engaged. Formalizing this engagement as part of the Stakeholder Engagement Plan will go a long way to help ensure project success.
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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