stakeholder engagement
October 31, 2017

Stakeholder Engagement – lessons for leaders from project management

By Paul Laughlin

At the end of another month, there is just time for one more post on stakeholder engagement.

The change of term from stakeholder management is deliberate. As we welcome back frequent guest blogger Tony Boobier.

In this post, Tony shares his relevant experience from the world of project management. Which stakeholders matter? How do you find them? What is the difference between stakeholder engagement & stakeholder management?

Over to Tony to explain all & offer his advice…

There’s already lot of information about stakeholder management in project textbooks. It’s a function that is recognised as a key part of a project framework, but sometimes overlooked or inadequately attended to.

Stakeholders are people who have a genuine interest in the outcome of a project, and play a central part in its implementation. In the same way that their active support can ease implementation, their opposition can create a real barrier.

Five types of Stakeholder

They can generally be categorised into five key types:

  • The sponsor, who takes responsibility for funding the project, managing the politics & providing leadership;
  • Those who are blockers;
  • Those who allow the project to proceed – even if they don’t necessarily offer help;
  • Those who are helpers and offer real support and assistance;
  • Those who take responsibility for parts of the project, the ‘do-ers’.

Sometimes this type of categorisation is unclear. Some stakeholders offer support, without providing constructive advice. Others provide support at face value, but block the project behind the scenes. Others support the project verbally. But they undermine the project in the way that they communicate with their own subordinates.

Stakeholder mapping – is it outdated?

It can often be helpful to map out theses stakeholders using more detailed analysis. From this you can understand how best to move them from one position to another, so that they play their ideal roles.

But how best to carry out that analysis? Graphical mapping can be done on individuals. Often by scoring them against the level of their influence and power, relative to their involvement and commitment.

But there is a shift in this thinking. We are increasingly moving from stakeholder management to stakeholder engagement. That is, the involvement of stakeholders in shaping a project so as to meet multiple complex needs. This requires much earlier engagement by the stakeholders. They can help shaping of the project, as distinct from them being given the project spec and inviting them to ‘get on board’.

Stakeholder engagement – start with interviews

Earlier engagement is most easily done by a series of interviews. Individual stakeholders discuss the overall objective, rather than the modus operandi. In my experience, the format is that all the interviewees are asked the same set of questions. But they respond according to their individual views.

From their answers it is usually possible to do three things:

  • Identify the ‘key players‘ in terms of the types mentioned above
  • Correspond their answers to pre-configured scoring levels, to allow more accurate stakeholder mapping
  • Shape the project in such a way as to optimise help and support, as well as to placate blockers

But perhaps the most important part of the interview process is to gain early engagement. Participation, rather than the stakeholders feeling that something is being done ‘to’ them. This is part of an emotional contract. That is, providing reassurance that their feelings are important and they are being consulted. Evidence is that companies with emotionally engaged employees outperform those without it, by as much as 200%.

Stakeholder engagement – taking a wider view

Beyond this, companies should also consider whether they have identified all the stakeholders. It’s especially important to identify all key influencers. Prudent businesses should consider use of intranet and social media to gauge opinion. Where appropriate, this can help identify strong opinions on important matters.

But all the above also needs to carry a caveat. As we increasingly move towards a new paradigm of working, as part of the ‘Big Data’ agenda. Not everyone is well-informed, about the business environment, and perhaps a need to change. Some may be excessively influenced by ‘hype’. Some might feel protective about their own position. A clear example is the perceived threat of automation and artificial intelligence projects. Some may simply not want to reveal their lack of knowledge in public.

Stakeholder engagement – it’s people management

A stakeholder manager needs to identify the nature of stakeholders. Their individual concerns, at a time of relative uncertainty and business volatility. This becomes increasingly a critical success factor in the successful implementation of projects.

Time spent at this important stage is well spent. Getting off on the wrong foot often leaves a project and its management in a defensive role. You have to justify decisions, at each stage of the process, and this absorbs time and energy better spent elsewhere.

Stakeholder engagement – how is it working for you?

Thanks to Tony for that useful experience from the world of project/change management. I hope the read across for insight leaders is obvious. As stakeholder engagement is also critical for us to impact our businesses & influence culture change.

What do you think about the importance of stakeholder engagement? Are interviews and emotional intelligence helping you as much or more than mapping?

As ever, we are interested to hear your views. Here in comments boxes or on social media.