Shifting from stakeholder management to stakeholder engagement

In the latest edition of the PMBOK, there was a small but significant change in the language around stakeholders. Instead of Stakeholder management, the focus of a project manager is stakeholder engagement. What does this change mean?

Defining management

When I think of management, I think of control, of guidance, of constraints. Indeed, when I Googled “management definition” I got the following result “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.”

To me, the key word here is controlling. Even the notion of dealing with stakeholders conjures up images of difficult conversations, and unreasonable demands. When we engage stakeholders there is much more of a sense of give and take, and exchange of information, and sharing of perspective and insights. Stakeholders are no longer to be kept at bay or at arms’ length. They are to be woven into the fabric of the project at every stage, and their input is to help guide the project to success. This is quite a mindset shift.

There are four pertinent balancing tests to think about with stakeholder engagement.

 Who are they? Also, what do they want?

This is more than gathering a list of people who have an interest in the project or program. This is also the process of understanding what motivates them, how interested they are. How will they be affected – positively or negatively – by the project outcome?

Also, what they want is multi-faceted too. What do they want from the project? What do they want in terms of involvement in the project? How do they want to communicate? People have different levels of interest in the project, different reasons for that interest and different ways of absorbing and processing information. We sometimes forget that!

What is their organizational role? And what is their sphere of influence on the project?

This is an exploration of where they sit in the organizational structure – more than seniority or job title, this considers their networks and contacts within the organization. For example, I worked with an operational manager who had great influence over the decision making of the CIO. Knowing that helped me to position my discussions with him to take account of what the next conversation would be – the one with his friend, and consequently what my next conversation would be – with my boss the CIO.

Considering each stakeholder’s sphere of influence looks at the networks this stakeholder has, and any special responsibility they have been given for this project that extends beyond their normal formal – and informal – role. For example, in one organization, an individual had been given a special responsibility on the project to review all procurement agreements because they had experience of this in a past position.

How can they help? And how might they hinder?

Every stakeholder has ways that they can help projects be successful. Moreover, those ways are not always obvious ones. Sometimes they have special knowledge, they know the context of the project, the history of past change efforts or know what the real goals are of the organization. Other times they know the right people, have a great understanding of corporate culture and have that special way of getting difficult things done. They may even have a really good understanding of customer behavior and can help the team make good design decisions.

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