Finding ways to better leverage project stakeholders expertise

by Sylvie Edwards

Every Project Manager and project team must make better use of the stakeholders on their projects in order to gain key information to accomplish the objectives set before them. Too often, we are faced with less than willing stakeholders or even more likely less than engaged or performing stakeholders. Most of them often don’t understand their importance to the project’s delivery. It is clear that a PM must understand where these people are coming from and, most importantly, how to loop them into our processes so that we can better utilize them and their expertise.

In recent years, with the development around project management practices, we have seen the addition of a Stakeholder Management knowledge area (Chapter 13 – Stakeholders) in the body of knowledge from PMI. Originally, dealing with stakeholders was the domain of Communications, and it was hoped that having identified them and set communications strategies with them would be sufficient to get the work done. I do believe that this left a gap which meant that we told the stakeholders what was going on but really did not involve them as much as we could or get them to appreciate our need for them.

With the new knowledge area, now there is a foundation to ensure that we clearly set out a strategy not only for communication with our stakeholders but also for engagement or specifically targeted work that we need to get them to accomplish. What I wonder is if we are more successful at this?

The practices in this area talk about what can potentially be very involved in stakeholder analysis, with the development of a before and after state or view of stakeholder’s engagement, including cube graphics or matrices. In talking to several of my fellow PMs, there is often not the need, the time, or frankly the desire to go into a whole psychoanalysis of our stakeholder group. Some projects have also been plagued with the realization that some stakeholders don’t like to be labeled and that what ends up happening is that they rebel and go against what we are trying to achieve.

There potentially are hundreds of reasons why a particular stakeholder might not be as engaged as we’d like them to be. Let us look at four common reasons and some possible solutions we could take if faced with such a stakeholder.

 1. When a stakeholder has been assigned project work because of their expertise but is already overloaded with other work or projects.

In an environment where the resources of the project are often delegated by their manager and a PM does not necessarily have a say, this situation often occurs. This can be a real detriment to engagement. If the stakeholder perceives the work of the project to be non-essential to their performance or their value to their department, this will often cause issues at the project level. Time on a project schedule can often get impacted in this way. A person will work first and foremost on their department’s work and will leave project work for “spare” moments.

  • Possible Solution: As is the case with everyone else involved in a project, the PM must ensure that the clarity of the roles and responsibilities and their importance in the whole scheme of the project is clearly documented and communicated. Everyone should be evaluated for their performance at the same level, and emphasis on people being key to the whole process must be conveyed to them very early on. 

2. When a Stakeholder does not believe in the validity or benefits of the project.

In the grand scheme of things, stakeholders are often swept up in projects that might not be of benefit to them or, worse, putting their job at risk. This leaves a PM with a resource that can be negative and often quite voiceful.

  • Possible Solution: Here, our PM will need to clearly identify the goals, targets, and consequences of not complying with a schedule or producing a deliverable for the project. Not only should it be clear, but it should also be believable. Too many people think that the “punishment” will not come.

3. When a Stakeholder wants to gain something from their time on the project.

This scenario will often happen in new projects with a lot of visibility within the organization. Suddenly when you can’t find anyone to do the work for other more mundane projects, you have a long line of people wanting to apply, work, and be part of this new, exciting project.

  • Possible Solution: It is important to have a clear recruitment strategy as well as a good mapping and identification of skills and knowledge required for the work. Having to train people, back-fill the knowledge while running an implementation is never the best method, although it is often not a choice. Stakeholders wanting to get at the top of the line to be selected, gain new knowledge, and potentially position themselves well for future work still have to work at getting to this position, and once there need to keep up the performance and enthusiasm high.

4. When a Stakeholder gets assigned to the project without having the sought-after expertise and sees this as a great one to “kill” time.

Some people are there to be along for the ride. They have been assigned to the project with the belief that they can contribute when it becomes clear they can’t or won’t. Can’t is often due to a lack of expertise or skill set while won’t is often because of will or spite. Both people in this situation on a project can bring the entire team’s morale down.

  • Possible Solution: As early as possible, the PM needs to make a case for a more suitable resource. Waiting too long to deal with one of the stakeholders can really damage a team.

We could go on and on about the reasons why but truthfully, at the end of the day, everyone has a job assigned and a contribution to make. PMs who want a great group of stakeholders will need to ensure they clearly understand their roles and responsibilities as well as be aware of their impact on the project if not fully committed.

Regardless of what brings your stakeholder to the project, it is the role of the PM to ensure that they understand the background and compatibility of these stakeholders with the project and set some clear strategies and approaches to align them along the way.

Not all of them will start happy, not all of them will keep being happy, but all of them need to do their part for everything to come in as planned.


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