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Stakeholder Management (or the Importance of Being in Charge)
By Diane Ellis

I turned down a job just recently. Oh sure – the deadline was impossible, there weren’t enough people (or the right type of people) in the project team to do the job, the scope of deliverables was poorly defined, and it was over 3 hours away from where I lived. But none of that was the reason I turned down the job, even though I was asked to name my own price. The problem was the Project Owner.

As I work as a contractor, before I take on a new Program or Project Management role, I try to get a feel for the stakeholders involved. In this case, I went in for a 3 week stint to prepare their overall program plan. This brought me into close contact with all the key players in the project, from the project owner, to the sponsor, to key stakeholders in other departments and the project team.

As I said above, this project had lots of challenges, but none more so than the Project Owner. This guy (let’s call him John) had absolutely no project management skills, and was smart enough to recognise this and therefore hire a contract Project Manager with the necessary skills.

However I noticed during that 3 weeks that John was a very hands on Project Owner – and I mean hands on. He would wander out of his office, ask how some piece of the project was going, then advise the project team member what they had to do and when. Now in many instances, the interim Project Manager was standing right there. John didn’t ask him – he went straight over to the project team member – asked them – and then gave them work to do.

How would that make you feel as a Project Manager?

And this Project Manager was no dummy (perhaps not assertive enough…), but he had no control over John. John had been in the organization longer, was a senior executive of the company, and no business analyst or marketing specialist is going to say no to an executive! It made for very tricky status meetings when people tried to explain why they hadn’t done what the Project Manager wanted done, because they were too busy doing work for the Project Owner.

So – the time came for me to go, and the Project Owner called me in to try to talk me into staying on as the Project Manager. He was shocked that I wouldn’t stay – it was a great project, good team, name your own price! But I asked just one question which made him stop in his tracks – who would be in charge if I stayed on the project. John thought it would be him.

I pointed out that John had no project management skills, had recognised this enough to realise he needed a Project Manager, and yet would not give the Project Manager the authority needed to do the job! I asked him if he thought I could do his job? His answer, unsurprisingly, was “no”. And yet, I pointed out, you’re telling me you can do my job? I left.

But it isn’t always that bad. I have to say that is the only time I have ever given up on stakeholder management. No matter how bad a Project Owner or senior manager can seem to be, you can usually manage them if you use the right approach. However, in this case, with everything else stacked against the project, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk to get involved.

So – how do you manage unruly stakeholders?

I basically break it down into where they sit in relation to the project. Are they the owner or sponsor of the project? Are they a senior stakeholder from another department? Or are they a project team member or working level stakeholder from another department?

If your unruly stakeholder is your project owner or sponsor, then you need to set some clear boundaries with this person and with your team. Agree up front on a regular get together to review and discuss status with them. The more hands on they are, the more often you should schedule this – the more information they get from you the less they need to bother your team. You need to make yourself the go-to guy.

Also put in place formal reporting like a regular weekly written status report with dashboard indicators, key issues and risks, schedule and budget status.

Invite them to key stakeholder sessions – get them to present to executives. You need them to feel like they are involved, but you still need to be in charge and manage what they are saying. And make sure your team feels comfortable to let you know when they are approached to do some “special tasks” for the project owner or sponsor so you can nip it in the bud.

And be honest with this person. If you put all these steps in place and it still doesn’t work – tell them. Ask them if there is something wrong with your performance that they feel the need to go directly to your team. Quite often these people don’t realise the impact their actions are having on the project.

If your unruly stakeholder is a senior stakeholder from another department (like the Marketing Executive or the IT Manager) then it’s a little trickier. It can be difficult to suggest a one on one with an executive you don’t report to. What I do instead is offer to brief them and their senior department heads regularly on the status of the project. This makes it more inclusive (and less like you are just trying to manage this executive), but it still gives them an opportunity to get a better insight into the project than they would normally.

Make sure they and their department heads know they are welcome to raise issues with you at any time, and that you are happy to involve anyone in their department they would like.

If your unruly stakeholder is a project team member or working level stakeholder from another department the first question you need to ask yourself is what degree of influence this person has. If this person is someone that other team members listen to, or someone who can influence how their department views the project, then you need to sit down with this person and find out why they are doing whatever they are doing (whether that be bad mouthing the project, complaining about the amount of work to done, etc).

This requires good people management and listening skills to be able to get to the heart of the problem. I once took over the management of a project that was in trouble, and immediately ran into a wall of non-cooperation from the IT Department. I tried talking with the IT Manager, but it soon became apparent he had no influence over his own team. I tracked it down to 1 business analyst who was hugely influential as she had been with the company for so long. When I sat down with her to find out why the IT Department were being so reluctant to work with us, it turns out this woman was good friends with the Project Manager I had replaced.

Once we sat down as adults and discussed my role, how I came to be on the project, and what I was trying to achieve (which was NOT to damage the reputation of the previous manager), things improved!

So you see it is vitally important to be able to find the REAL cause of the issue. Never be afraid to sit down with people one on one and be honest with them.

The key with all stakeholder management is communication. Make sure they get enough, at the right time and from the right people. And good luck!

Diane Ellis has been a Project and Program Manager for over 25 years, and has recently released a new simple guide to project management called Project Management Made Easy. You can learn more about Diane and her new book, as well as sign up for a free course on Troubleshooting the Most Common Challenges Project Managers Face, at http://www.ManageThatProject.com

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