Why stakeholders really matter

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'll say it again. Stakeholder Management is one of the most critical skills for project managers to master. Not only do we need to understand who our stakeholders are, we also need to know how our project affects them - positively or negatively - and, crucially, whether they are supportive of the change we are trying to deliver.

It is also important to look at it from the other side, and understand the impact stakeholders have on the project. For me, there are 6 key areas where stakeholders can make a big difference to the likelihood of successful delivery.


 Identifying the rights stakeholders is critical to agreeing scope. If you cannot correctly identify your stakeholders, you will have incomplete, irrelevant or wrongly prioritised scope.
Let’s say your project is delivering a replacement general ledger system. Would your scope be a true reflection of the business needs without the involvement of the finance team?
Or maybe you are implementing a new HR platform - can you finalise scope without input from anyone in HR?
Sometimes, we involve the right departments, however we miss key contributors - did we remember to include a representative from that recently acquired business?
Take a moment to think about a time when you had to revise the agreed scope of your project because an important contributor has been identified late in the project…..
It is vital then, not just to get all the right stakeholders identified as early as possible in the project, but also to understand how, and why they need to contribute to your project’s scope.


This will also help you when it comes to transition planning. Projects, by their very nature, change something about the way an organisation works. So when we talk about transition we mean how is that change – say a new organisation structure, or a change to ways of working through digitisation – how is that change going to be implemented? More specifically, when will the new structure or system stop being something the project owns, and start to become part of day to day operations? Involving stakeholders in transition planning will ensure that they have early sight of how you intend to hand the project over – and can influence how that transition should happen. And here’s a tip - if they are a major contributor to defining project scope, you can more or less guarantee they have a deep interest in how you are going to transition your project to operations!


Stakeholders can also affect the way your project is perceived by other people. Lets take an example.
You’re managing a large project to implement a digital platform for onboarding new customers. You’ve spent weeks preparing a funding request to obtain additional resources that will enable you to accelerate the project. You need to do this now in order to beat your closest competitor, whom you’ve recently discovered is about to launch similar functionality. Perfectly sensible reason to ask for additional funds right? Unfortunately for you, there is a perception amongst some of your stakeholders that this is just another budget over-run. Over the past months, other digital transformation projects have seen major overspend against their approved budgets. And they are all talking about it in the boardroom. In fact, one of your key stakeholders, who sits on the main board, is openly critical of digitisation projects & regularly voices her concerns on how much money is being wasted by these types of projects failing to deliver. What do you think the chances are your funding request will get the green light from the approvals committee? On the other hand, if your project is well regarded by your stakeholders, and they believe that it will deliver the promised benefits, they will go out of their way to support you!


Stakeholders are also critical in gaining access to resources. Let's imagine we are 6 weeks into our 10 week project, and we urgently need someone from HR to review the latest version of the annual appraisal tool we are developing, to ensure it is in line with their policies. If we can’t get their sign off, delivery of the overall project will be delayed. But guess what? Since agreeing the project's scope, we’ve had very little contact with HR. They’ve not been attending catch up calls - but we never asked why…. Now we need their help, but we have no relationship with the decision makers there. If only we had included them in our stakeholder engagement plan….


Every project will encounter obstacles. This may take the form of lack of input from key subject matter experts, an  inability to hire key people, delays in software delivery, or simply  approvals taking too long and slowing the project down. As part of initial stakeholder analysis, try to establish which stakeholders can be called upon to unblock particular obstacles. This may not always be obvious! Understanding your stakeholder network can help you identify where key relationships between stakeholders lie - for example the testing team may have a long standing relationship with the technology vendor and may be able to influence the delivery schedule far better than calling on procurement. If your stakeholders are properly engaged and you know which ones to turn to in specific situations, you are far more likely to get their support in removing potential barriers to your project's progress.


And my final one - adoption.  The project is over when we’ve handed over our fully functional, thoroughly tested solution to the business right? Wrong! The project is over when the solution is operating as expected in day to day operations - and that means it is being used correctly, by the right people Now you may say this is simply a training issue - actually, it is a stakeholder management issue.
Remember those people who were going to lose their jobs through automation? Well they’ve got a bunch of colleagues who are still employed, and expected to use this new system. And they’re scared that if the new system works, they may lose their jobs to automation too….
These users are critical stakeholders - and we need to have a very clear plan as to how we will engage them long before implementation. It’s not enough to get their input at the beginning of the project, and then come back to them once you are ready to start training. Engagement with stakeholders must be planned throughout the lifetime of the project and, most importantly, tailored for their specific wants & needs

So to sum up.
Stakeholders can make or break your project.
Good stakeholder engagement can reduce fire-fighting, accelerate decision making, and reduce project risk.  
Which is why stakeholder management is one of the most critical skills for project managers to master. 
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