Project management is one of the most sought-after, yet least understood skill sets in an organization. People know that when there’s a competent project manager around, things magically go more smoothly. More work gets done, superior results are achieved, and everybody feels less stressed.
But how, exactly, is that accomplished? People seeking to become project managers may find the career transition frustrating because of all the “soft skills” involved. These “soft skills” are among the most valuable in our field, and yet they can be the most difficult to quantify. That’s because these are skills that are best learned, not from a textbook, but from the school of life.
Most project managers know what it takes to build a solid project plan, create and maintain a budget, assign and track tasks, and identify and escalate roadblocks. These are skills you can learn from a textbook, at least in theory.
However, successful project managers know that it also takes a great deal of stakeholder management to drive the project to the finish line and obtain a high stakeholder satisfaction that can be measured with a Stakeholder Satisfaction Score.
So what exactly is “stakeholder management?”
There are numerous myths around stakeholder management that I heard throughout my career as a Project Manager. The most prominent ones that I heard even from project management trainers include:
Myth: Anyone Can Be Your Stakeholder
While this is technically true, it misses the point of stakeholder management. Technically, almost anyone you run into in the office or in the institution could have some stake in your project.
However, the key to successful stakeholder management is to identify the most influential stakeholders — those with the most to gain or lose from project success.
Start out by building a tight stakeholder matrix. This is the very first step to properly kicking off any project. When project managers add All The Stakeholders without classifying them, they risk losing sight of who the main stakeholders are, and how each stakeholder can actually impact the outcomes of the project.
Sometimes, these stakeholders may not even realize what their stake in the project is. A great project manager can subtly drive the point home by discussing the potential for gain — or loss — that they see in the project.
Reminding the stakeholder of what can happen if things go right — or if they don’t — can be a powerful motivator to get even the highest-ranking stakeholder on your side, making sure milestones are achieved in a smooth and strategic manner.
Myth: Communication and Rigorous Project Updates are Key
This is another myth that can technically be true — but which isn’t the best version of this idea.
Communication with the stakeholders is certainly key insofar as they need to be updated about the work status. Are there any risks? Is the project on schedule? Is there something they can do to remove roadblocks or expedite the process?
But your stakeholders don’t necessarily want you to be communicating at them. If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’re likely familiar with “email fatigue.” This is the effect that sets in when you get so many messages from one person or project that you simply stop reading them because almost none of them are relevant to you.
What your stakeholders want instead is to be engaged.
Instead of All The Communication, what you want to seek out is the most important and concise communication.
What is the bare minimum of communication and updates that will satisfy the team members and stakeholders? That’s what you want to go for. Perhaps that’s a mere weekly update to help orient everyone on Monday morning, or a monthly executive read-out to keep your high level stakeholders informed about the key updates, risks, and milestones.
If there is a delay or problem, that’s when you want to reach out to the delayed team members or stakeholders with additional communication. But spamming their inbox with daily updates will assure that your updates are simply ignored.
Here are five simple steps to fight these common myths and take your stakeholder management to the next level:
Step 1: Identify & DEFINE the Role of Each Stakeholder
Build a comprehensive stakeholder matrix and define the role, decision-making power, and level of engagement for each one of your stakeholders. This helps to ensure that the most important stakeholders are consistently engaged, without burning out either you or the stakeholders.
You will burn out quickly if you decide to give the same level of engagement to all stakeholders. You won’t get a Return on Investment for all the time and energy you’re spending, and you may waste the stakeholders’ time and energy as well if you are engaging them beyond their stake in the project or their ability to contribute.
Step 2: Know Your Audience & Adjust Your Communications
“One size fits” all communications are unfortunately a common mistake among Project Managers. Every team, industry, and project is different. The stakeholders’ personalities, schedules, and roles in the project may be different.
It is therefore important to create communication audiences “buckets” and adjust your messaging for each category. How often do you think the department manager wants to hear from you? What about the research team? The graphic designers?
Here are some easy ways to prioritize communications:
- Reserve whole-team emails for high level updates and acknowledgements, when there’s really something to celebrate. This will ensure that team members feel great about their accomplishments and prospects when they get these emails from you.
- Use engaging communication. This is a type of communication that doesn’t merely communicate “at” your team, but which also invites their response in a meaningful way.
- When you decide you must update and communicate with them, invite them to interact with the team in a way that gets their wheels turning about the project and shows that you value their contribution.
- Task-level project updates, escalations, etc.. Don’t include stakeholders on communications about a task that has nothing to do with them.
- Unless she has specifically asked to be copied, the department director probably doesn’t need to know what the graphic design team is up to. Neither do the graphic designers need to know what big-picture release strategy the department director is working on.
By following these principles to streamline your communications, you are increasing the chance that your communications resonate with your audience.
Step 3: Build Relationships
There’s not a lot that’s more annoying than a colleague who only comes to you when they need something.
While we all want to make the most efficient use of our time and energy, and few of us want to chat by the water cooler for an hour, it’s important that you get to know your team members and stakeholders as whole people instead of just bombarding them with demands for updates.
It’s easy for project managers to get swamped with their time-consuming daily tasks of documentation, project delivery, report building and task monitoring. If we’re not careful, we can get so swamped that we overlook the important-but-not-urgent task of building personal relationship building with their stakeholders.
Great managers know the value of going above and beyond to deliver stellar results — even if it means putting some urgent-but-not-important tasks on hold for a little while.
Taking a few minutes for an informal one-on-one with key stakeholders will help you improve your reputation and save time on stakeholder buy-in in the future.
Stakeholders are more engaged in the project and committed to its success when they can build a trust relationship with the project manager.
This will also give you a chance to get to know each stakeholders’ concerns, special skills, and communication style. On top of that, it will give stakeholders a chance to give you feedback in an informal setting before any concerns, delays, or miscommunications become critical.
Connecting with your stakeholders one-on-one in an informal setting may take only a few minutes per day, and it’s one of the best investments you can make in the success of current and future projects.
Step 4: Engage, Don’t Manage
When you build your team, it is very important for everyone in the team to understand the what but also the why of their work. What is the ultimate goal of the project? Who does it benefit, and how? Who is the target audience and final customer?
Engaging your team in getting invested in your end goal and owning the process and deliverable is crucial for increased accountability and team satisfaction. People are happier and more productive when they feel that their work is meaningful to others — so ensure that your team understands the big picture view of how the project will benefit the consumer, the culture, the company, and other stakeholders.
Research conducted by Gallup in 2017, showed that team engagement led to increased productivity and positive business outcomes, and decreased absenteeism and quality defects.
Project managers can use different creative ways to remind their teams of the mission and the stakes and ensure the continuous engagement of their project teams.
Step 5: Set Expectations Early & Keep Them Consistent
Stakeholders love it when they know what they expect during every step of the project lifecycle. This is accomplished by verbally setting out expectations, but also by practicing them rigorously. There is a real sense of security and reciprocity that builds among stakeholders when you are reliable, responsive, and consistently meet their expectations.
Make sure to engage your stakeholders in defining their expectations. Listen, watch, and adjust your engagement plan according to their feedback, and stick to that optimized plan. Needless to say, this includes doing what you’ve promised to do reliably and on-schedule.
Make sure your stakeholders know where they can get real-time updates from if they should want them. I like to provide a dashboard for all my stakeholders where they can see high-level updates about the projects they are part of. This saves time and limits the confusion around the project.
It also cuts down on unnecessary communications, and empowers all stakeholders to come prepared to your meetings!
Project Management for a Better Tomorrow
Project management is a skill that takes practice as well as study. But when it comes together, it can truly transform a team’s and firm’s potential.
The power of a good project manager is in maximizing the productivity and investment of each stakeholder and team member in the project throughout its lifecycle, and ensuring roadblocks are removed along the way.