21 August 2009

How to Ensure That Key Stakeholders Are Sufficiently Aware of the Project

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. This post will highlight how best to deal with the sixth of these signs, a project where key stakeholders are not aware of the project.

Why is this a problem? This is a problem because input from stakeholders is required both for increasing the overall quality of the project results and for getting key recommendations implemented. Stakeholders can be defined as the people within the organization who are interested in the results of the project because they can be impacted by the conclusions and recommendations coming out of the project. Key stakeholders can include managers from specific organizational units (marketing, production, etc), but also unions (in the case of cost-reduction projects).

If the project team has not had any (or only very limited) contacts with key stakeholders it is very unlikely that all key issues that are important to these stakeholders have been included in the overall project analytics. In addition, it is even more unlikely that the stakeholders will have a positive opinion about the project and the project results as they will feel left out of the process and not listened to. As a result, it will be very difficult for the project team to carry out an optimal communication process in the end phase to create the buy-in necessary for implementation. This will mean that the end-phase is likely to be difficult and unpleasant, and that the resistance to the project conclusions will be high.

In many of my projects I find that this is one of the corrective actions that need to be carried out. The best way to do this is to plan a meeting with the project team (again). The key goal of this meeting is to discuss and agree who the key stakeholders are, and what their most important issues are. Based on this, the team develops a concrete plan to sit down with each (type of) stakeholder. In these stakeholder meetings the team should present the project (what are the key starting points, the issues that the project is dealing with, the overall goal, the key deliverables, and the approach) and what the team believes the potential interests of the stakeholder are.

Usually, I need to explain to the team that they must listen very carefully to what the stakeholder has to say. Key points that need to be understood by the team include what the stakeholders sees as the key issues, and how they believe that these issues should be dealt with. I highlight that it is important that the project team does not make any promises (explicit or implicit) regarding how the issues will be dealt with as this will seriously compromise the ability of the team to come up with the optimal answer. Rather, the key goal is that the team knows what the viewpoints of the stakeholder are, and that the stakeholder feels that he has been listened to.

Together with the sponsor, I typically plan a new meeting with the project team after they have seen the key stakeholders. In this meeting we discuss the viewpoints presented by the stakeholders, and agree what the team needs to do in order to ensure that these issues are dealt with in an optimal manner. In addition, an ongoing set of meetings is planned with key stakeholders. The emphasis of these meetings will gradually change from getting information to presenting and testing key hypotheses and possible conclusions and recommendations.

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