No matter how well a project appears to be travelling, it can be quickly derailed by poor management of stakeholders.

Of all of the skills that make a project manager successful, the one skill at the top of the list is one they can’t teach you at school: How to manage project stakeholders.

No matter how well a project is progressing, it will become quickly unstuck if stakeholders aren’t on board – either failing outright or requiring some heroic effort from the project manager and team to get it over the line.

So why is stakeholder management so challenging and how can you be successful in this greyest of areas within project delivery? It helps to understand firstly what stakeholder management actually is, why it can be so difficult, and key strategies that facilitate success.

A Potted History: Stakeholder Management

Stakeholder management is obviously the ‘management’ of stakeholders but what does this really mean in practice?

It’s a good question. Here’s a brief sideways take on what stakeholder management can mean:

  • The ability to keep everyone happy and on a similar page
  • The art of making people do things they don’t necessarily want to without them knowing it
  • Getting your own way even when the other person thinks you have not

Stakeholder management can be all of the above or none of it. It is almost impossible to quantify or define because every stakeholder is different and every situation with a stakeholder will, like a breaking wave, be completely unique in some way, shape or form.

Thus the ‘what’ of stakeholder management is almost impossible to encapsulate in a single, clear-cut, simple way, that will talk to all situations.

Not convinced? Well, the long-term ‘gold standard’ for project management discipline, PMBOK, did not deem to elevate stakeholder management as a stand-alone knowledge area until its 5th edition released approximately five years ago. Prior to this point stakeholder management was somewhat of an afterthought buried under the heading of communications. We can only speculate but perhaps the original authors got stuck on the definition too and simply put it in the too-hard basket for another day.

So, how about we just settle on stakeholder management is the on-going interactions and dealings with anyone who can (and probably will) at some point knock your project off course unless you ‘manage’ them and the myriad of potential situations effectively to the on-going benefit of the project.

There. That was easy…

That’s Not a Stakeholder. This is a Stakeholder.

Project managers with any decent amount of experience will have come across a stakeholder at some point that has been near-impossible to manage. Worst ever? Probably not. After all, some poor souls are – as we write – trying to get projects delivered with key stakeholders that have first names like Donald, Boris, and Vladamir …

Can you imagine the conversations on scope, much less governance?

You see, in the world of stakeholders, there is always some poor project manager who is worst off. Cold comfort, perhaps, but comfort nonetheless.

The key to managing your stakeholders is thus accepting that sometimes you will be confronted with the near impossible, and the most important action is getting on with getting to know them inside out, which really is the key to good stakeholder management.

Know Thy Enemy

And the enemy they are. Think about it: how much easier would project delivery be if you were given your scope, budget and resources and sent on your way to deliver without any stakeholders to manage, placate, cajole, reassure, influence and the myriad of other emotions that have to be dealt with?

But ultimately, here’s the rub: To be a good stakeholder manager you have no choice but to get as close as possible to your stakeholders as you can. The more difficult the stakeholder? The closer you need to be.  You must understand what motivates them, where their real interest in the project lies, what their triggers are (both good and bad), how they perform when under pressure, how what might be perceived as bad news is best presented to them, where their allies exist, and where their foes will be found within the business.

The more you know about your stakeholders, especially the challenging ones, the greater the chance you have of being able to understand their behaviour and thus ‘manage’ them effectively to the overall benefit of the project.

Because you see all stakeholders are unique so for every 1001 stakeholders you may encounter in your career you could conceivably need 1001 strategies to manage them effectively.

Unless of course, their name is Donald or Boris … in this case best start looking for another job because your days could well be numbered.

As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose project strategy.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...