Shifting From Stakeholder Management To Stakeholder Engagement

by Ruth Pearce

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. We’re discussing what management is and stakeholder management vs engagement role. 

What is 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.” Management is also often thought of as the leaders in organizations that are responsible for strategy and guiding teams.

To me, the keyword 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, an exchange of information, and a 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.

Stakeholder management vs engagement roles

Initially, when looking at stakeholder management vs stakeholder engagement roles, they’re often seen as the same thing, but there are differences. Stakeholder management focuses on skills that ensure that stakeholder interests, requirements and expectations are met in projects, while stakeholder engagement focuses on communication and project processes like developing strategy and addressing issues.

4 pertinent balancing tests to think about with stakeholder engagement

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 and 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 a stakeholder, and what is their role? Do they have a 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, look 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.

The other side of the coin is how they might hinder. The most obvious way is by not being available when you need them, but there are subtle ways that stakeholders can create a drag on a project if they don’t feel appropriately engaged and connected. They may push for conflicting projects or pull resources away from your project to a pet project of their own.

What is the most appropriate form of engagement? And does this change during the project?

This may be the single most important consideration in stakeholder engagement. The first part of this equation is to ask:

How do they want to be engaged? What is their interest and commitment to the project, and how do they want that commitment reflected?

I have had stakeholders who were willing to be contacted at any time to offer advice, an opinion or just to be a sounding board. They have come to lunch and learn, shared insights into customer needs and desires, and shared the organizational vision. They have been project advisors, mentors, and coaches – they are like gold and, in some places, like seeing a Unicorn!

At the other extreme, I have experienced stakeholders whose role has been to give final approval on big decisions and to ensure that the project continued to align with organizational objectives. They did not want to be engaged day-to-day, and their interest was one-way – what the PM and the team could do for them. They wanted cogent communications that laid out decisions based on facts and figures. Understanding their expectations is one side of the equation.

The other side is sharing your expectations. You notice I say “sharing” and not “setting.”

By sharing and inviting feedback, it has been possible for me to change the role of a stakeholder. By explaining how I see them supporting the project, why we see them that way, and why we want them to engage in that way, it is often possible to craft a role for them that goes beyond their initial expectation.

This is also a great time to use some strengths-spotting. It is often the case that people do not really appreciate what they bring to the table or how they can use it to the best effect. I have experience as a stakeholder whose greatest strengths were kindness and teamwork. When he was first assigned to the project as the “Business Owner,” he was at a loss as to what he could bring. He felt he had little expertise in what we were trying to do, and his initial request was that I just keep him updated once a week with whatever dashboard I had been using for his predecessor. We had a conversation, and it was clear that he was skilled at connecting with people. As we explored his interests and his strengths, it quickly became apparent that he could provide context for the project team, connections to valuable resources throughout the organization and would show up and give the team moral support when things got tough!

Choosing the mode, frequency, and content of communications with stakeholders is key. Evaluate every medium. Maybe it is a dashboard, an email update, a weekly meeting, or a phone call at a pre-arranged time. Or maybe it is a Vlog – a videoed update that you can put in a shared location for people to access at their convenience – a newsletter that is available for download, or a weekly lunch and learn. Find out what works for your stakeholders, and be prepared to communicate in many ways.

When thinking about the stakeholder management vs stakeholder engagement roles, consider whether the stakeholder management role will remain static throughout the project. Have a regular check-in during longer-term projects to make sure the stakeholder list or matrix is current. Review the methods and level of communication periodically to keep things on track.

As project professionals, we often spend a lot of time considering our process, and yet experience and research show the biggest return on investment is from the people. Spend time with the people, and the people will make your project the best it can be.  


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