Keys to Project Success: How to Leverage Stakeholders Pt. 1

Posted by Sean McGrath on 12/11/15 11:04 AM
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Key Project Success Factors

Stakeholder management is make-or-break for successful projects and productive change.  In this two-part post I’ll explore a few key factors for project success that can really help Project Managers, Program Managers and even functional leaders as they tackle stakeholder management.

Project Managers often feel that they can’t sway others’ opinions.  This belief can be laid partially at the feet of standard project management methodologies.  Each has a set of procedures centered on a project planning tool – almost always an Excel template.

Teams populate the numerous data fields and produce any number of interesting two-by-two charts.  The project team is meant to hunker down, identify all project stakeholders and rate them on the tool’s matrix.  Once that is done, the team can then view the two-by-two charts, see where their stakeholders fit, and… then what?

This is the time when all too many teams and managers either commiserate that “this will be tough,” or end the meeting quickly to put that matrix in a dusty virtual drawer, never again to see the light of day.

There Is a Better Way

I have applied and coached a very different, deceptively simple approach.  The first part of the approach involves gathering a small group of trusted, knowledgeable advisors – NOT your project team – to help you evaluate your stakeholders.  With those advisors, evaluate all stakeholders to identify supporters, detractors and neutral parties.  Finally (I cover this in Part Two of this post here) develop an action plan which leverages your positive stakeholders to sway the neutral and negative ones.

Nearly every project methodology I’ve run across tells you to gather your project team members together to evaluate stakeholders and develop an action plan to help them through the change your project will bring. 

In my experience however, it is extremely unlikely that the folks on your project team will be at all capable of doing this.  The folks on your team are likely to be technical, linear-thinking “doers” – the people who know the current-state process inside and out, know the systems involved, and also know best practices in the industry to help you improve/implement/do whatever it is your project will set out to do.  They do not tend to be creative solvers of people-problems, and they often are not the most organizationally influential people.

I suggest that what you really want is a team of trusted advisors – people (most often managers) who are observant, intelligent students of the unique corporate culture with which you are dealing.  These people should have these traits in common:  well-connectedness, an ability to get along with anyone, and discretion.  The stakeholder map and action plan you are about to generate would be terrible things to have just anyone look at. 

Nobody needs to find out that your team has ranked them as Project Impediment #1. 

As a side note - once you have formed this team and seen how effectively they can advise and guide you, you’ll probably informally gather this team to help you with various different projects and programs throughout your tenure at your organization.  I find that my team of trusted advisors within an organization only changes membership when I start work with a functional area where I haven’t spent much time before.

Building Your Project Stakeholder Map

After you have gathered a team of trusted advisors, go ahead and dust off that Excel template and rate your stakeholders’ attributes.  Within the various methodologies and templates there are a million attributes for consideration, but there are a few I strongly recommend.  The most important are:

  1. Positional Authority
  2. Organizational Influence

The first is the authority a person has based solely on the organizational chart.  The second is a measure of their personal leadership skills, regardless of his or her official job title.  You’ve met the VP who lacks all ability to inspire, and sets his people on meandering death-march after death-march towards impossible, undefined or ever-changing objectives.  That’s a solid example of high Positional Authority and low Organizational Influence. 

Likewise, you can imagine the middle manager whose team is happy, high-performing and always smiling or laughing – the middle manager who often sits in on leadership meetings at the VP level because of her acumen and mature perspectives.  That manager is a great example of a medium level of Positional Authority and very high Organizational Influence.

The goal is to sway hearts and minds in the most efficient way possible. 

Using these two attributes to evaluate your stakeholders allows you to identify people who can either help or hurt your cause regardless of where they stand in the organizational chart.  The VP with super-low Organizational Influence might not need to be the focus of attention – nobody is listening to him anyway.  The middle-manager who is often tapped for high-profile initiatives on the other hand – she might be worth some thought and effort.

Another attribute to consider is a simple yes/no decision on whether or not you really need this person’s support for the project.  Use of this attribute is another way to whittle down the level of effort needed to effect your change.  For example, you may not need the buy-in of a particular group of stakeholders if you have their common boss as a supporter.

I also recommend more standard attributes such as the relative impact of your project on each stakeholder’s job, as well as his or her current level of support for your project.

The output of this process so far looks similar on paper to the standard change methodologies – you’ll have stakeholders rated and ranked, and you will be able to see where to focus change efforts.

However, the quality and analysis behind the work will be far superior just because of the minds you were able to tap to create it.  A key aspect of this is the identification of who amongst your stakeholders are truly influential to the others.

Head Over to Part 2

The next steps are compassionate analysis of stakeholders, development of action plans, and a few out-of-the-box thoughts on how to carry those actions out.  You can read more about that in Part two of this blog post – thanks for reading and let me know what you think!

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Topics: Project Management, Communication