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Why Projects Succeed: Stakeholder Management Tools and Processes
By Roger Kastner

Recently I wrote about the importance of Commitment Management and the process of setting, managing, and delivering on expectations, and humbly stated that I think this is the most important of all project success factors. Because “success” is primarily a stakeholder perception, your project’s success depends on how well you manage their expectations. Sure, results are real and the product of the project is tangible, however, the way a Project Manager identifies and manages those stakeholder expectations and interests will significantly impact the stakeholders’ perception of success.

Successful Project Managers identify the interests and expectations of all primary stakeholders early in projects because this enables the Project Manager to ensure expectations for the project are appropriately set, managed, and ultimately met. In this post I will outline a couple of simple tools and processes that allow the successful Project Manager to ensure those interests and expectations are identified and kept in alignment with project realities throughout the project.

A “stakeholder” is commonly defined as anyone who is positively or negatively impacted by the outcome of a project. Depending on the scope of the project, and the creativity (and ego) of the Project Manager, the total stakeholder list can be quite large. For our purposes here, let’s curtail that definition to only the “primary” stakeholders or those individuals for whom the Project Manager should be able to reasonably identify interests, make commitments, and effectively manage expectations.

Asking for Stakeholders’ Interests & Expectations

In order to identify the interests and expectations of a project’s stakeholders, the Project Manager should meet with each of the primary stakeholders and do something revolutionary: ask them.

OK, it’s a little more than that, but not much. The successful Project Manager will ask each primary stakeholder to identify their interests and expectations for the project. Additionally, the Project Manager should first state why he or she wants that information. By asking for their expectations and stating one’s intent, the successful Project Manager is laying the group work for building trusting relationship with and amongst the stakeholders.

Stating Intent

In Stephen M. R. Covey’s book, Speed of Trust, the author suggests that one of the foundational blocks for building trust is to state intent, because when your actions and results align with that intent, others are able to connect those dots and your credibility increases.

For Project Managers, trust and credibility is truly the only commodity that matters. By building trust with stakeholders, the successful Project Manager will have an easier time with stakeholder management throughout the project. More importantly, when working through significant project challenges with stakeholders, the stakeholders will more likely be focused on the issues and not the Project Manager’s credibility.

If a Project Manager is not trusted by stakeholders, then the project will suffer what Stephen M. R. Covey refers to as a “Trust Tax”. This means everything will take longer and therefore be more expensive. For example, the Project Manager may need to provide evidence for simple project performance metrics in order to respond to challenges from the stakeholders, or additional analysis and options may need to be provided when triaging change controls.

So, when the Project Manager states intent as to why he or she is collecting the stakeholders’ interests and expectations of the project, the stakeholder will be more likely to provide that information so that the Project Manager may better advocate those interests and manage those expectations.

Expectation Matrix

Stakeholders will not only have expectations of the Project Manager, but inevitably of each other as well. A great artifact for helping the Project Manager identify and publicize stakeholder expectations is the Expectation Matrix. This matrix identifies the shared or common expectations held between the Project Manager and all other project stakeholders.

All identified primary stakeholder are listed on the X axis and then repeated in the same order on the Y axis. Map the expectations of each stakeholder group by starting on the X axis and move right and up the matrix. Once all the expectations are collected, the Project Manager should review the matrix again with each stakeholder to ensure awareness and alignment of expectations for you and others.

This matrix is also a great framework for identifying the communication needs of each stakeholder and therefore becomes the basis of the project Communication Plan.

Accountability & Responsibility

When meeting with stakeholders and stating intent, the Project Manager should also spend a few minutes discussing accountability. Why, you ask? The successful Project Manager will talk about accountability because there’s a perception that Project Managers should be held accountable for the ultimate success or failure of a project.

That view of accountability is too simplistic in my book, as all projects are made up of a system of contributions from multiple parties: team members, stakeholders, and sponsors. You could even extend that list to other groups such as end-customers who provide feedback that drive the project initiation or vendors who supply resources or marketing who creates demand and excitement. Ultimately, a successful project requires contribution from all involved, and therefore, joint accountability should be discussed between the Project Manager and primary stakeholders.

No one should be held accountable for things that are not clearly identified as an expectation of them. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Project Manager to ensure that all stakeholder expectations, realistic or not, are identified. A Project Manager cannot accept, address, or clarify any expectations if he or she doesn’t know about them. Conversely, if the Project Manager intends to hold team members accountable for their performance on the project, the Project Manager must set clear expectations with each member.

The tried and true method for identifying accountability on a project’s deliverables is the RACI chart. The RACI chart is a matrix that lists team members or key stakeholders on one axis and lists major deliverables on the other axis. RACI stands for:

  • Responsible – the person(s) who performs the task or deliverable;
  • Accountable — the person who is accountable for the quality of the task or deliverable;
  • Consulted —the person(s) who provide input into the task or deliverable; and,
  • Informed – the person(s) who are informed about the task or deliverable status.

For each task or deliverable, an “R”, “A”, “C”, or “I” is assigned to the corresponding stakeholder or team resource

The RACI is a great tool for setting clear expectations, but there’s a problem with one of its common “best practices,” which is to list only one “A” per task or deliverable. However, this again is trying to get to the “single throat to choke,” i.e., the one person who will receive the credit or consequences for the outcome of the task or deliverable. However, I’m just not aware of a project task or deliverable where one person can claim sole accountability. So go ahead, put multiple “As” on a deliverable where it makes sense, just be sure to explain why.

Summary

The declaration of project success is often impacted by the perceptions of stakeholders; therefore you cannot have a successful project without effectively managing stakeholder interests and expectations.

To effectively manage stakeholder expectations, the successful Project Manager must balance art and science, and the tools and processes listed in this article can help with science. In my next post, I’ll discuss more of the art of stakeholder management: the strategies for dealing with stakeholder challenges. Until then, give the Stakeholder Matrix a try on your project and see if you are able to uncover any undisclosed or misaligned stakeholder expectations between now and then.

What Do You Think?

Would love to hear what you think about Stakeholder Management and whether you agree or not on its significance to successfully managing projects. Additionally, if you have any tips or tricks you want to share, please join the conversation and post a comment.

Reprinted with permission from Slalom Consulting – © 2011 Slalom Consulting

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects. You can read more articles from the series on “Why Projects Succeed” here.

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