Why Projects Succeed: Stakeholder Management Challenges

Why Projects Succeed is a blog series in which Slalom Business Architect Roger Kastner sheds light on key factors behind the art and science of successful project management and invites readers to discuss how they apply across different environments.

Slalom Consultant Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects

Last post, I outlined some tools and processes for identifying the primary stakeholders’ interests and expectations. This time, let’s discuss what successful Project Managers do when finesse and art is required to handle stakeholder management challenges.

Challenges

In my experience, there are three major sources of Stakeholder Management challenges:

  • Unclear Stakeholders – those who do not clearly articulate enough or who are not open and honest about their interests and expectations
  • Unidentified Stakeholders – those who were not identified early in the project
  • Unreasonable Stakeholders – those who do not embrace what some refer to as “reason” and ”the laws of physics”

In all three instances I rely on the advice of a couple of my literary friends: Stephen M. R. Covey and George Bernard Shaw. Read on, it will be clear what I mean shortly.

Unclear Stakeholders

Now there’s a big difference between a stakeholder who does not articulate their expectations well and the stakeholder who is not totally open about their expectations. But the impact is the same: you are unclear about their true expectations of the project.

Case 1: Inarticulate stakeholders

The successful Project Manager will address the inarticulate stakeholder issue by using the Stakeholder Expectation matrix that I referred to in the last blog article. The Expectation Matrix allows the successful Project Manager to “read back” to the inarticulate stakeholder what the PM heard about the stakeholder’s expectations and how those expectations will be communicated to all the other identified stakeholders. At this point, when the project manager seeks confirmation, the inarticulate stakeholder is very likely to see the discrepancy between what they meant and what was written, and the PM and stakeholder should use this opportunity to clarify and document the correct expectations

If the stakeholder doesn’t catch the misunderstanding at this point, then yes, those incorrect expectations will be carried forward into the project, because the inarticulate stakeholder will have signed off on the wrong expectations. Later, when the stakeholder identifies that there’s an issue, the successful Project Manager will (first, scratch their head, and then) ask the inarticulate stakeholder to refer to the stakeholder-approved matrix and ask for their help in identifying a reasonable corrective action to re-align any new expectations with the approved baseline expectations.

Case 2: Less than candid stakeholders

Why might a stakeholder be less than 100% open and candid about their expectations?

There can be many reasons for this.  When a stakeholder is intentionally unclear about interests and expectations, the stakeholder may have issues based upon prior experiences. Maybe the stakeholder has previously had a less than stellar experience with a Project Manager due to issues with credibility or capability. Maybe there are organizational issues in play. If one group does not have open and honest communications with the other group, the stakeholder may be modeling that behavior.

Regardless of the cause, the successful Project Manager can prevent this from occurring by taking a cue from Stephen M. R. Covey’s Speed of Trust and using one of the building blocks of developing credibility: stating intent.

By stating intent, the successful Project Manager clearly identifies to the stakeholder why he or she is gathering expectations and how that information will be used. When this is done correctly, the stakeholder will understand the PM’s motivation, connect the dots between the expectation gathering efforts to the benefits to the project, and see how this enhances the probability of meeting the stakeholder’s expectations.

One more trick to convincing stakeholders to open up is to tell a story of when a project was negatively and significantly impacted by not correctly identifying stakeholder interests and expectations early in the project. That might be exactly what happened between the specific stakeholder and PM previously and even more reason to prevent it from occurring again.

“UFO” or “UFS”?

Have you ever received an email in ALL CAPS or a screaming voice mail where the sender demands to know why they were not aware of a presentation to senior management, or not invited to a project kickoff? If this has happened to you, as it’s happened to me, welcome to Project Management Area 51.  You’ve just been visited by an Unidentified Furious Stakeholder (or “UFS”).

Admittedly, when this has occurred to me, I assumed full accountability for the oversight and made every attempt to ask for forgiveness, then met with the stakeholder to identify expectations and necessary corrective action. Then I open up Stephen M. R. Covey’s Speed of Trust for a quick refresher on the steps to re-build trust, and I go back to stating intent and delivering results, thereby demonstrating integrity and rebuilding credibility.

The process for identifying all relevant stakeholders should be a simple one. There are the usual suspects:

  • Sponsors
  • Project team members’ resource managers
  • Dotted-lined or matrixed managers
  • Associated program and/or portfolio managers
  • End-customers or their representatives

As you complete the Stakeholder Matrix with the persons just described, you should also ask the stakeholders being interviewed if there’s anyone else who should be included as a primary stakeholder.
Then when you ask the identified stakeholders to sign off on the matrix, you should state that their signature also indicates they agree that all stakeholders are identified.

If at any point an Unidentified Furious Stakeholder should pop up and come at you, of course you should apologize, but then pull out the matrix and have an up-front conversation with the UFS about why his or her colleagues were not aware of them also. If done correctly, this will not be perceived as a “cover your butt” move. Instead, this will be seen as enforcing joint accountability, because you are pointing out that not only did you miss this, the other stakeholders missed this, too, and the UFS, also, somehow was not able to make their relevancy to the project known. As long as you are not defensive and you state intent, your actions should be received as helpful.

Unreasonableness

Every time I encounter a difficult or unreasonable stakeholder, I think about this gem:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
– George Bernard Shaw

While these types of stakeholders might make the workplace uncomfortable, I have to thank them and their kind for sliced bread, bottled beer, and my 60-degree lob wedge with laser-milled groves (that’s a golf club that makes the ball go ridiculously straight up in the air, great for hitting out of some really unfortunate places, like where I usually find my golf ball.). Working with an unreasonable stakeholder often creates the opportunity to be a part of something great because of what my friend, Mr. Shaw, has identified as the root of progress.

Dealing with unreasonable stakeholders on a daily basis, though, can make it hard to remember that you may be changing the world.

In my experience, the most effective way for dealing with unreasonable stakeholders is:

  • Be open to their suggestions (or demands).
  • Maintain awareness of the approved constraints of the project and the impacts of those demands.
  • Present options back to them.
  • Let them decide from the given options.

In other words, the successful Project Manager will remain objective and aware of all commitments when contemplating requests, and will allow the unreasonable stakeholder make a decision based on those options provided by the Project Manager.

If the stakeholder is asking for a change to scope, the appropriate response would be something like…

“Would love to make that happen. In order for the project to accept that change, we will need one of the following:

a) more funding for additional resources;
b) remove an equivalent piece of scope;
c) add time to our launch date and need more funding; or,
d) delay the request until the next release.

We will need a decision from you on that as soon as possible since impacts of the decision may change. Can you give us a decision by end of today?”

In order to do this, the successful Project Manager will need to evaluate and understand project impacts before providing options for evaluation, so the successful Project Manager will not agree to nor reject any requests until they are able to adequately evaluate the request.

Never say no to an unreasonable stakeholder, but give them the information and impacts of the request and let them make the decision. If they still want to defy the laws of physics, then the successful Project Manager will turn to their pre-defined escalation path and rely on the relationship they have cultivated with the project’s executive sponsor to bring sanity and restraint to the project.

Summary

Success is in the eye of the stakeholder, and stakeholder challenges can definitely impact project delivery if not managed correctly. When the Project Manager works to improve credibility and trustworthiness, the payoff is better relationships with their stakeholders. Although the PM should take proactive steps to prevent unidentified stakeholders from popping up, assuaging the unidentified stakeholder requires sincere apologies and a quick ramp-up to foster their support. And the unreasonable stakeholder is rendered reasonable when they choose from the options that support the Project Manager’s ability to keep scope, time, and cost in balance (and it helps if the Project Manager remembers that the guy who invented air conditioning was probably thought of as jerk by his colleagues, too).

What do you think?

Would love to hear what you think about Stakeholder Management and whether you agree or not on its significance to successfully managing projects. Additionally, if you have any tips or tricks you want to share, please join the conversation and post a comment.

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About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

One Response to Why Projects Succeed: Stakeholder Management Challenges

  1. Pingback: Why Projects Succeed – Stakeholder Communication Best Practices « The Slalom Blog

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