Engaging stakeholders – meeting the challenges

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

On projects, what are the biggest challenges of dealing with stakeholders? Kevin Ruck and I were invited along to speak at the Project Management Institute (PMI) London Chapter recently and were keen to hear about the stakeholder challenges attendees were facing. It is a topic I discuss in my bookCommunicating Projects” published by Gower. This is what people said and some tips that might help:

Challenge 1: Stakeholders have multiple priorities, are constrained by time, opportunities are limited.

Stakeholders are more likely to make time if they perceive the project as relevant to them and there is a clear purpose to the engagement.

What might help:

  • Think carefully at the stakeholder identification stage –ask if a stakeholder really needs to know right now. Making the engagement relevant is as much about timing as message.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the engagement. Positioning it as just awareness and support is a bit vague and won’t figure highly on someone’s agenda. Think about what you want the stakeholder to do for the project and make this clear.
  • Join up your engagement with other projects and programmes. This not only makes good use of everyone’s time but also helps to tell a much more coherent story about how the project fits into the wider organisational context.

Challenge 2: People change all the time – both stakeholders and project team members.

Unfortunately, this is something we have to live with and there is no “silver bullet”. We have to ensure we devote enough time to revisiting our stakeholder lists and ensuring they are up to date. In my view, this is why projects need dedicated communication resource to help with this.

But why not turn it into a positive?  A new stakeholder is a new opportunity to engage.   Try and get to them quickly before they get too busy or start to build their perception of the project on the views of others. They may have fresh experience and ideas that could help you too.

It’s important to keep good records of stakeholder relationships which help when there is a handover. Of course, remember to be careful what you write – never put anything on a stakeholder document that you wouldn’t want that stakeholder to read!

Challenge 3: It seems a lot of effort when it is a short project

It is possible to over engineer the stakeholder process with lots of complex analysis and monitoring. It’s all a questions of change impact. I would judge the need to engage stakeholders by the level of change. If the change isn’t significant then design the engagement accordingly.

Here again, look at joining up messages and activity with other projects that have the same stakeholders. It makes sense all round.

Challenge 4: Engaging in a virtual world

Meeting face to face is always good but not so easy when people are remote. Of course, technology enables us to talk face to face no matter where we are but there are other things we could try;

  • Could you nominate someone in a remote location to work with stakeholders there?
  • Perhaps there is an opportunity to work with other projects that share your stakeholders.
  • As we have said above, make the best use of contact time by being really clear about what you want from the stakeholder and understanding what they need from you.
  • Find out what events, meetings etc. that stakeholder attends, there may be an opportunity to get involved.

Challenge 5: There is so much information to gather about stakeholders

This is another illustration of the need to have someone on board to manage engagement activity. Having said that, make sure that you aren’t collecting information for the sake of it. Think about what you really need to know and cut out the rest. You need their name, role, where they sit in the organisation and contact information of course. You need to understand what they want from the project and be clear about what the project wants from the stakeholder. You can then build a simple engagement plan and keep track progress against it.

Challenge 6: Finding shared interests/common ground

If someone has been identified as a stakeholder then it would usually be because they have an interest in the project. If there is no common ground then are they a relevant stakeholder?

One of the skills of stakeholder engagement is to be able to put oneself in the stakeholders’ shoes. Think hard about what will matter to them – if you can’t think of anything, then reconsider how important they are to the project.

A further challenge that came up was that very often project work isn’t in someone’s objectives. In this case, the task is to make it relevant and find common ground. With a bit of creative thinking, can you link the project to objectives that they do have?

What challenges of stakeholder management do you face and can you offer some additional tips and advice? Be great to hear from you!