Third in my series of Projects Gone Wild and how to rein them in: Stakeholder Engagement.  In earlier posts, I’ve discussed the impact of planning and change management on project success.  Turning to stakeholders, most of us know that a project stakeholder is any person or entity (company, organization, etc.) who “may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project” (PMBOK, 2013).  Everyone from project managers to users, development team to functional managers, media to vendors, and shareholders to senior management can be stakeholders.

The Standish Group’s latest Chaos report cites the number one reason for project success is user involvement.  Proper interaction with stakeholders involves excellent communication and provides valuable insight into risk tolerance, minimizes scope creep, and nips issues in the bud before they negatively affect a project.

While every wo/man may be created equal, not every stakeholder is.  Stakeholders vary in their ability to affect a project and commitment to it.  They vary in their level of support or opposition.


As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Knowing who does not support a project is at least as important as knowing who does.

Therefore identifying your project stakeholders and their level of interest and influence is critical when determining your level of engagement with different stakeholders.


Starting Off On the Right Foot

Approximately 70% of projects fail to achieve their objectives (APQC, 2014).  In the IT world, typically either the IT department is pushing upgrades onto business owners or end users are seeking out technological advances.  When business owners are searching for technological advances to ease their workload or streamline their processes, typically not everyone is on board.  How many times have we heard the protest, “but we’ve always done it this way?”  So from the start of most projects, stakeholders almost inevitably begin with varying levels of interest and support.

Nearly 80% of project teams say business stakeholders do not effectively participate in requirements development (Bone and Eklöf, 2015).  Encouraging ‘outside the box’ thinking and seeking active stakeholder involvement in defining their needs is crucial. Focus groups, questionnaires, and interviews are excellent ways of getting stakeholders involved and building rapport and trust.  Renowned author and organization management expert, Dr. Steven Covey (2009) believes there are 13 behaviors that build and maintain trust, including creating transparency, clarifying expectations, practicing accountability, and delivering results.  Engaging stakeholders early and often is simply critical for project success.

Smoothing Sailing with Shifting Stakeholders

In my experience, one of the most common risks projects face is changing stakeholders.  It is inevitable that some personnel change may occur over the life of a project.  This is even more prevalent on large, long term projects.  This occurs so frequently that it is accepted as unavoidable and often not even recognized as a risk to the project.  When project players change, be it on the IT development team, project management, or business stakeholders, the project momentum slows, and sometimes is blown off-course completely.  To minimize the impact of this:

  • Encourage specific roles and responsibilities, especially with business SMEs
    • Folks need to know their time, effort, and voice matters
  • Emphasize the importance of regular involvement
    • If project team roles are taken on top of other duties, oftentimes team members are overwhelmed and their participation ebbs
  • Outgoing team members should transition knowledge to their replacements whenever possible
    • Most new staff simply don’t know what the goals or plans of the project are.
  • Break large projects into several smaller projects or project teams
    • This prevents the common issue of having large meetings during which many people are sitting idle or multi-tasking for large portions of the meeting (wasting others’ time is simply disrespectful).  Smaller gatherings, with more narrowly defined focus, are more efficient and encourage productive conversation.

Value Gap Due to Poor Stakeholder Involvement

Value gap is the difference between the delivered business value and the intended business value.  This occurs primarily when stakeholders:

  • are not engaged in defining requirements
  • have limited development team interaction (shout-out for agile dev here!)
  • are not properly engaged in the transition plan and execution from development to operations

Merely installing a product (new process, latest technical solution, etc.) without implementation (winning over users, training them, changing habits) produces a gap between expected and delivered value.

In other words, value gap equals project failure.

Engaging Senior Management

Engaged business owners become champions for the project.  As a PM, use this to your benefit and have that momentum roll up-hill.  As many as one-third of projects fail due to disinterested senior stakeholders.  Project sponsors provide resources and support and are accountable for enabling success.  That means they are responsible and accountable on several levels, i.e., they bear the risk.

C-suite execs have a lot on their plates.  Keep upper management informed but not overwhelmed.  Ensure they understand how your project aligns with the company’s strategic vision (give them their elevator speech).  Limit their status reports to the relevant facts, e.g., schedule, milestones, funding, and performance metrics.  Make sure the bigwigs of the organization have no hesitation in knowing the value your project brings and where it stands.

The following are all critical elements of engaging stakeholders for project success

  • Communicating clearly, early, and often
  • Establishing rapport by trustworthy actions that produce results
  • Minimizing stakeholder change and its impact
  • Responding to needs while being respectful of scope, and
  • Fostering commitment at various levels