Five Tips for Managing Stakeholders
Featured article by Diana Alt
I started my career as an IT Consultant, and early on I thought my #1 responsibility was getting things done quickly. I realized after my first few projects, however, that managing stakeholder expectations was actually the most important, and often most time consuming, part of the job.
I’m sure all of you can relate to this, so I wanted to share five of my favorite stakeholder management tips.
Tip #1: Find the Mystery Stakeholders Early
Ever start an engagement where the client hands you a list of stakeholders almost immediately? You know what the biggest mistake you can make with this list is?
Assuming there’s a complete and correct list of stakeholders.
When someone tells you who your stakeholders are, I suggest one of the FIRST things you do is schedule a meet and greet chat which includes this question: “Who else should we be talking to throughout this project, and why?”
Odds are good you will find out more people or teams to consider than were on the list you were originally given. This also helps you understand each stakeholder’s objectives, confirm that they agree on the project’s deliverables, and what their roles are. Address any discrepancies that you uncover early, and often.
Tip #2: Set a Communications Cadence With Your Stakeholders
One of the top time sucks for consultants and project managers is staying on top ad-hoc requests for project information. This can be very painful, but also very preventable.
At the onset of a project, define expectations for when and how you’ll communicate with your stakeholders and project team. This should be done with input from the stakeholders in question. While the overarching framework is key to project management and communication, it is NOT a one-size-fits-all approach anymore.
Additionally, the developers and product owner on your Scrum team will not need the same information that the Chief Technology Officer does, and the CTO doesn’t need to engage with your project as often as most other stakeholders.
EVERYONE will benefit from a communications plan that lays out when and where key information will be made available. Consistency is key.
Tip #3: Agree to Standard Communication Channels
One of my favorite tips I was given in my very first consulting job was to find out the communication channels my key stakeholders liked best.
At the time, I was working with someone who was addicted to conference calls for everything. He wanted to “pull everyone together” for ad-hoc conversations outside our normal communications cadence. It drove everyone bananas. It also wasted a lot of money.
My willingness to meet one person’s preference for face-to-face communication via a Zoom call or a desk visit and another’s preference for instant messages helps my stakeholders feel valued and heard.
If you’re working on a large program with dozens of stakeholders, I wouldn’t try doing this for every single person. Simply honoring the preferences of your top five stakeholders will go a very long way towards building great relationships.
Tip #4: No Surprises
You know when I like surprises? On my birthday. You know when I like surprises in my work? PRETTY MUCH NEVER, and neither do your stakeholders.
This means that you must commit to eliminating as many surprises possible on your projects. The more complex that the project is, the more need there will be for change and discussion on the original roadmap. Be sure to gather consensus in advance on how changes will be handled.
Make sure the right people know things are not going according to plan as early as possible. Bring your suggestions for addressing the problem to the table, and be open to other ideas, too. It’s also helpful to ensure the vision for the project is visible and discussed regularly, to further avoid scope creep.
Tip #5: Remember You are Dealing With People
Newsflash: People forget things.
- They forget where the weekly status report is stored in Confluence.
- They forget to log their time for the week.
- They forget to tell you of a material client requirement that changes the scope of your project.
When our back is against the wall on a high-pressure project, it’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all human. Don’t forget to empathize with your stakeholders and the team on the project.
Most people DON’T do things maliciously to screw up your project. When your stakeholders mess up, forget to tell you things, or get impatient with you – hold them accountable, but give them grace.
Your ability to put yourself in another’s shoes can be crucial to the success or failure of a project. Acknowledge their issues and frustrations. Remind them about whatever expectations were previously agreed to and ask how you can work together to get back on track. And, take their suggestions into account instead of ignoring them and imposing a new plan that only YOU like.
Every stakeholder you will work with on every project is a human, and dealing with a number of pressures, especially in today’s environment. Remembering that will contribute more to your success and your client's success than almost anything else you can do.
About the Author
Diana Alt is a connector and problem solver who loves to use the skills she’s gathered throughout 20+ years in corporate product development roles to help people manage their careers and business. Diana helps people get out of their own way so they can unleash their awesomeness on the world. She’s guided by the principle that work should feel GOOD, not like a long slow march towards oblivion. Diana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianakalt/