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Engaging Stakeholders: Principles of Stakeholder Management

As a project manager, the standard of your stakeholder management strategy will undoubtedly play a huge role in how your project plays out. Whether you are working on a multi-faceted programme with a board of stakeholders and sponsors, or a smaller project with only a handful, a strategy for engaging your stakeholders should be laid out from the start. 

Stakeholder engagement is often considered a small aspect of project management, when in reality it should be made a priority due to the effect it can have over everything else. Relegating stakeholder management to the side lines can result in a breakdown of communication or direction, and can spell disaster for your project. 

As a project manager, it falls to you to ensure your stakeholders are engaged in the planning and delivery of your project. In this article we will delve into the core principles of stakeholder management, and how you can apply them to your own strategy. 

Engaging Stakeholders Explained

First of all, let’s clear the air and rehash what stakeholder engagement actually is. Stakeholder engagement is the process of involving those individuals who hold a stake in your project. This can be a project investor or funder, representatives from involved organisations or sometimes just your own manager or team leader. 

Why is it so important?

We’re all used to dealing with people of differing communication styles. When your style clashes with one of your project stakeholders, it can be hard to engage them fully, and they might be less likely to get involved and deliver on what you rely on from them. 

Engaging your stakeholders ensures their involvement, and allows you to rely on them to deliver approvals, comments or anything else you need from them. So, how is it done?

Principles of Stakeholder Management

We’ve compiled a list of best practice key principles that you should adhere to when formulating a stakeholder management strategy.

1) Identify your stakeholders early in the process

As early as you can, you should take steps to identify who your key stakeholders are. This may not be as readily apparent as you think. While you are likely to be introduced to some key stakeholders, there may be other individuals who will also act as stakeholders from time to time.

Take the time to identify these people, and learn what level of involvement you can expect from them. The earlier you identify and introduce yourself to your stakeholders, the earlier you can start developing a rapport with them.

This head start will enable you to see things from their perspective from the starting line, and take the necessary steps to start out on the right track.

2) Establish a baseline for success

When dealing with multiple stakeholders, it can be challenging to keep them all on the same page and in agreement about the direction of the project. Each one may have slightly different views about what constitutes the project being a success. With this in mind, it can be helpful to establish a baseline for success.

What this means is laying out a set of goals or milestones that appease the perspectives of every stakeholder. Rather than focusing on keeping a select few stakeholders happy, this will allow you to spread the focus and ensure that all stakeholders are in agreement about the direction of the project. In order to do this effectively, you must…

3) Take time to understand their perspectives

In order to keep all your stakeholders happy without compromising the needs of individuals, it is vital to understand what makes each stakeholder tick. One may be focused on one aspect of success, while others may not consider it as important.

Understanding the perspective of each stakeholder will enable you to quantify their expectations, and ensure the work is done to keep them all happy.

4) Involve stakeholders in planning & scheduling

Nothing makes your stakeholders feel valued quite like getting them involved in planning. While an aspect of this is necessary to ensure their timelines are aligned with yours, the planning of specific milestones can also be done in cohesion with stakeholders.

Not only will this ensure that everyone is kept in the loop, it also helps stakeholders feel valued, and not just being accommodated.

Of course, some stakeholders may be happier to let you plan everything and report back to them with a schedule, which is also fine. One trick of effective stakeholder management is discerning who is keen to get involved, and who is happy to sit back.

Even if a stakeholder has not expressed a wish to be involved in planning, asking them beforehand states that you are taking their perspective into account.

5) Manage their expectations from the start

One of the biggest pitfalls in stakeholder engagement is setting unrealistic goals to appease stakeholders. Not only does this put undue pressure on you and your team, it also (usually) results in stakeholders being disappointed when these goals are not met. It is vital that expectations are managed to avoid excess stress and letting your stakeholders down. 

The term ‘managing expectations’ gives off hints of negativity, and indicates that you’ll have to tell your stakeholders that their vision of how the project will unfold is not possible. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Managing expectations can be made easier when you are the one who sets out the timeline for the stakeholders to see, not the other way around. If your stakeholders are very keen to lay down their expectations from the start, we advise speaking to your team to determine whether they are feasible before committing to them. 

6) Show confidence in your own expertise

While presenting to stakeholders can seem somewhat daunting – or even intimidating to less-experienced PM’s – always remember that you are the one with the expertise. There is a reason that you have been chosen to deliver the project; because you’re the one best positioned to do so. 

Don’t be afraid to push back to the stakeholders on things that you know are unfeasible. If unrealistic deadlines are being set, speak out. Prepare research to back you up, whether it be info from your team, timescales of past projects or public domain case studies. 

This skill is not an exact science, and some stakeholders will be more receptive to your expertise than others. As part of your wider stakeholder engagement strategy, it falls to you to identify which individuals are likely to accept your educated opinion on matters. Those stakeholders who are less likely to listen may require a one to one chat, to truly understand each other’s perspectives. 

At the end of the day, you both want this project to work, and should be willing to compromise with each other to make that happen. Other stakeholders may also be able to influence others, and yet again, it is your responsibility to know who they are.

7) Mediate inter-stakeholder disagreements

Inter-stakeholder disagreements are more common than you might think. As we mentioned earlier, stakeholders may have divergent (or sometimes even conflicting) interests. As project manager, ensuring your stakeholders communicate with each other makes the whole process go smoother. 

When stakeholders do disagree, it can be common for them to simply stop talking to each other. Recruiting the help of other stakeholders can be a great way to help bring stray individuals back into the fold.

Additionally, nothing unites a group of people quite so well as shared good news. If a deadline has been hit in advance, or a benefit has been achieved that both stakeholders have an interest in, let them know, and let them share that moment of success. 

To this end, it can be wise to prioritise addressing the interests of problem stakeholders. Giving these individuals something to celebrate helps to reaffirm their confidence in the project, and to remind them why they have a stake in the first place.

8) Treat stakeholders as people 

Stakeholders can be both a benefit and a detriment to the flow of a project. Some may have plenty of insight to offer, and always be there with a positive attitude. Others may have less to offer, and may rarely express positivity towards the project.

Some stakeholders may be more unpredictable, and might change their attitude more regularly than you would expect. 

The most important thing to consider when engaging stakeholders is that they are only human. They may not act in the most rational way 100% of the time, and may react impulsively from time to time.

A smart project manager understands this, and treats every stakeholder like an individual person. Not only does this help you anticipate the actions of each one, it also assists in building relationships with your stakeholders. 

9) Acknowledge their value of being involved

As much as it can be sometimes hard to believe, there is also a reason why every stakeholder is involved in the project. Whether it be funders or managers, each one has something to offer.

Collating this knowledge should be perhaps the first thing you do when planning your stakeholder engagement strategy, and will help you plan how to manage the relationship with each one. 

However, this goes both ways. Keeping every stakeholder engaged with the project is easier when each one feels as if they are appreciated. Even if one member of the stakeholder board does not provide any insight, that person should still feel valued. Their opinion matters, and therefore no stakeholder should feel as if they are being sidelined or ignored. 

A stakeholder management tool can help with this. Having a database where you can collate notes on each stakeholder can help you in getting a clearer understanding of how engaged each one is with the project. Based on their interactions or attitude, you can gauge whether any one stakeholder needs extra attention.

Engaging Stakeholders Using Verto 365

Verto’s collaboration with Microsoft Teams will help hundreds of organisations manage how they engage with stakeholders. By providing stakeholders with all the information they need under one roof, (in an easy-to-understand format) project managers can ensure everyone is kept in the loop. 

Project managers can use Verto 365 to create custom reports for each stakeholder, complete with impressive graphics and data, as complex or simple as you need it. By providing custom data that matters to each individual, you can keep your stakeholders feeling valued and engaged with your project. 

About the author – Laura Watts

Laura is the Marketing Manager at TMI Systems Ltd., working predominantly on Verto 365 and closely on the Microsoft partnership enabling the platform to be used in its entirety from Microsoft Teams. Laura and her family moved from London in 2021 and now live and work in Gloucestershire.

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