Planning and Executing Stakeholder Engagement
Thus far we have identified, documented, analyzed & classified the stakeholders of our project. Now, what do we do with all that information? How do we take the stakeholder register and turn it into a useful action plan? Said another way, how are we going to conduct our communications and interactions with each key stakeholder we’ve identified?
As we saw in the previous section, there are four basic categories of stakeholders, each with their own level of required engagement. Our job now is to plan the tactics for those stakeholders who require communications to and from us…
Three Basic Levels of Engagement:
There are many different ways to capture and implement a stakeholder engagement plan, but by far the simplest is to simply add the required engagement needs and tactics directly into the stakeholder registry for each individual stakeholder. This process begins with understanding in which classification quadrant the person or entity resides.
While there are four quadrants in the stakeholder grid, we can simplify this to three key levels of required engagement:
Low Power + Low Interest Stakeholders (low/low):
Those low power, low interest stakeholders that simply need to be monitored only require from you, well, just monitoring. They key is to not forget about these stakeholders. Their influence and/or interest levels can change with time, so your job is to stay on top of these evolutions. This begins with regular check-ins on a predetermined cadence. Depending on the particulars of your specific project, this frequency can range from every few weeks to months that you review and reassess their power and interest levels. This then might lead to changing your level of engagement with them accordingly.
High Power + Low Interest and Low Power + High Interest Stakeholders (high/low and low/high):
Next in the grid are the two mid-level stakeholder categories; i.e., those with high power and low interest (high/low), or low power and high interest (low/high). In addition to active monitoring like you’re doing with the low/low stakeholders, these high/low and low/high entities typically require more active communications. This means you need to proactively determine a communication plan for each. As a starting point, there are a few basic things that should factor into your comm planning:
Who. We’ve already established who the stakeholder is, but now we need to now who, exactly, should be talking to whom? Said another way, who are the official “Points of Contact” (PoCs) on both your project’s side and the stakeholder’s side. If you, the Project Manager, are not formally the PoC with a given stakeholder, you still likely want/need to know what’s being discussed. I recommend you be copied on all communications, or at least know where to go find the meeting minutes to catch up.
What. When laying out your communications plan for each stakeholder, you also need to understand what specific information the stakeholder wants and/or needs to know about your project. When in doubt, ask them. The key with high/low and low/high stakeholders is to keep them informed and/or satisfied; i.e., failing to do so can turn otherwise benign stakeholders into adversaries who feel negatively about your project.
When. Next is to determine the frequency of communications the stakeholder wants and/or needs for communications. Some stakeholders are okay with long intervals between interactions with you, while others need more regular contact. Again, when in doubt, ask them. Like the “What” field, above, the point of contacting these stakeholders at a cadence that meets their needs is to keep good stakeholders from turning into bad ones.
How. Finally, we need to understand how the stakeholder wants to interact with us. What method of communication is appropriate? And what format. Some stakeholders are fine with “pull” communications; i.e, they simply need a website or document repository that they can visit and gather information on their own timescales. Others need more active “push” communications from you, whether that be emails, telephone calls, formal reports, online presentations, or actual face-to-face meetings. Again, it depends on the type of stakeholder and their importance to your project’s success. They key is to identify these individual needs and then if possible accommodate them.
High Power + High Interest Stakeholders (high/high):
Finally, we come to the most important stakeholder category: those that have both high influence and high interest in your project. Not only must we regularly monitor these stakeholders (like we do with low/low stakeholders) and have a well-thought-out communication plan (as we do with high/low and low/high), we must also strive to take their engagement to the next level. We should proactively engage with these stakeholders.
“Proactive” engagement will usually mean different approaches for different high/high stakeholders on your project. But the bottom line here is you’re not just providing information to them; instead, you actively bringing them into discussions (and sometimes decisions) on your project. You are soliciting feedback from them. You’re asking for their advice. You are striving to make them feel like a part of your team.
This isn’t just smart management from a political point of view, it often makes sense technically, too. For example, a high/high stakeholder like your sponsor organization will often be comprised of ex-project managers themselves and/or subject matter experts. They’ve advanced to their current position by demonstrating success in their previous jobs. Tap into that experience base. Learn from them. Solicit their input; you really have nothing to lose, and a lot to potentially gain.
The Bottom Line:
An effective stakeholder engagement plan isn’t very difficult to implement, but it’s surprising how many project managers don’t actually implement one. Don’t be one of these PMs; determining and implementing the correct level of engagement with those outside entities that have an interest and/or influence over your project is paramount to success. You may not be able to directly influence the actions of your key stakeholders, but you must engage with them. Keep pro- and benign-stakeholders from souring on your and your project is a necessary duty of all successful project managers.