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Your Best Tool for Controlling Scope? Stakeholder Relationships!

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin is editor-in-chief for PM Solutions Research, and the author, co-author and editor of over twenty books on project management, including the 2007 PMI Literature Award winner, The AMA Handbook of Project Management, Second Edition.

An interview with the experts from PM College

So long as there have been projects, there have been project stakeholders. Yet only recently have we seen stakeholder management rise to the top of project management’s most pressing concerns.

PM College instructors William Athayde and Ruth Elswick have recently been revising and teaching the PM College course on Stakeholder Management. I asked them to share some thoughts about why stakeholder management is so important, and how project managers – and organizations – can bridge the gaps.

Q: Why do you think the past few years have seen a renewed focus on the importance of stakeholder management?

Elswick: Obviously, the addition of Stakeholder Management as a Knowledge Area in the PMBOK Guide in 2013 has had a huge impact. But, even before that (and this may be why we finally saw it added as a Knowledge Area), whenever I would ask participants in PM College classes what their greatest challenges were, one of the top answers has always been “scope creep.” People struggle to get a handle on the requirements for projects.

Poor requirements lead to poor scope definition … voila: creeping scope! The root cause for this is simply not knowing who the key stakeholders are, and thus not being able to incorporate their input both early on and as the project progresses.

Another, more personal impact for the project manager is that, if you have a key stakeholder who is expecting weekly updates, and you send them monthly, their perception is that the project manager is not doing a good job.

So, knowing who the stakeholders are is the first step to defining their expectations, their roles, their communication preferences … it makes the whole project flow much more smoothly.  Poor communication leads to misconceptions on both sides. Everyone has to have a clear definition of what success will look like for a project. One customer may say schedule is the top priority. The sponsor may feel like budget is primary. Unless you know there’s an conflict early on, you can’t really manage the project to a successful conclusion.

Athayde:  Ruth’s answer is spot-on. I’d add that there’s research to indicate that a lack of sponsor involvement sets a project up for serious challenges.

Going back to your question about the drivers of renewed interest in stakeholder management, I think it goes along with the emphasis we see today on customer satisfaction. Project managers generally have multiple customers, both internal and external, but folks have not spent the time to develop good relationships. With good relationship management and communication, stakeholders come to appreciate your work more, and (again, I’ve seen research to back this up) they will tend to rate the project successful even when major challenges arise.

Then, too, today we see projects of increased complexity – for example, creating electronic health records can involve 5000 different locations served by one system – which makes for a very complex stakeholder group. Past experience has shown us that, unless end-users of a system are engaged from the first steps, the likelihood of a troubled or failed project spikes.

Q: The concept of controlling is very central in the PMBOK Guide® … but it seems to me that the idea of control is misleading when it comes to stakeholders! How do you approach teaching the “monitor and control” piece of managing stakeholders?

Elswick: Well, first of all, the language in the PMBOK Guide® isn’t about controlling stakeholders, it’s about controlling engagement. You control their expectations. You control how and when communications take place. But, as for controlling people … forget it! (Laughs.)

Athayde: Very true. The PMBOK Guide®, of course, has to use the word “control” in order to maintain consistency across the knowledge area chapters. Truthfully, often that word is out of place – there are so many factors beyond our control! What it really means is monitoring, adjusting strategies, keeping folks engaged, keeping morale and performance up.

Stakeholder Management is all about laying the groundwork. What expectations did you allow to develop? It all starts with defining roles, in establishing a shared vocabulary. For example, if I say an activity is eight hours of work, but the estimated time to complete is in three weeks – do they understand that it’s a matter of priorities and dependencies?

So much comes down to communication skills – and, not only the skills, but the sensitivity to the environment you are operating within. So many organizations punish the messenger … but bad news doesn’t get better with time. When you engage people with
you, to help manage the project you can help overcome an organizational culture that undermines early communication of issues.

So there’s a piece of stakeholder management that also relates to understanding your stakeholder culture. Is transparency valued? What professional background is the stakeholder coming from? A CFO is going to focus on money. An engineer may be more
concerned with a perfect product. Knowing these things helps you formulate how to engage.

Elswick: I always tell students – and I write this on the flip chart in great big letters! – that all stakeholders are tuned into the same radio station: WIIFM. What’s in it for them? That’s the song they are listening for when you communicate with them, and if they don’t hear it, they will tune you out.

You can discover this by questioning and probing. What do you need from them? What do they need from you, and from the project? What are their fears or barriers? You can’t manage if you don’t know.

Q: Is there a “skills gap” in the area of stakeholder management in most organizations, or for most project managers?

Elswick: A lot of emphasis has been placed on identifying and prioritizing stakeholders, and most project managers have those skills down. But once they’ve done that, what’s next? I focus on that part. The daily management: the influencing, negotiation, communication. They need to know how to handle conflicting priorities among key stakeholders. They have to be skilled in influencing without authority. This is where I see project managers fall down.  They feel: “What can I do? Nothing.” But that isn’t
usually true. If you don’t give up, there’s usually a way forward.

Athayde: Many of us who are older, as we were coming up in business, had the opportunity to observe the complete process of management. We went to meetings with the boss, we were in the back of the room watching and listening. We met people, and
often had a chance to debrief afterwards. I recall riding back to the office from a work site with my boss, asking, “why did you handle it that way?” It was kind of like a craftsman learning his trade as an apprentice.

Today, everything is electronic. You deal with just your bit of the chain. Personal interactions like that are rare. So unless we teach people how to reach out and seek mentoring, or engage with key stakeholders to learn something about their viewpoints,
there is a very big skill gap. People know what they know but they often lack a sense of context. The processes of stakeholder management can somewhat help to fill out the big picture.

… and that’s not all. Bill and Ruth have agreed to expand on this topic for the next four weeks in a series of blog entries covering all aspects of stakeholder management. Stay tuned!

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