Sacred cows and furrowed brows: the gentle art of managing project stakeholders

Friday, November 13, 2015 - 13:54

By Hamish Williams

Even the most experienced of project managers will attest that some elements of a project are impossible to quantify and plan for. Finances, legislation and even the weather can all change drastically in an instant but no component of a project is more unpredictable than its stakeholders. Managing the long list of stakeholders involved in a project can be both time consuming and stressful but failure to do so can swiftly spell the end for even the least technical of projects.

So how do you juggle the attitudes and expectations of the many characters inherited while ensuring the project itself is completed on time and to a high standard?

A dialogue with the project sponsor is essential for gaining a clear understanding of the business goals and objectives of the project. Without this linkage, you may find yourself gathering requirements considered out of scope or promoting individual agendas rather than the organisation’s vision.

Many stakeholders are often too busy or stressed from tight deadlines to give adequate feedback about a particular project. Other stakeholders will assume their input isn’t required. Although some stakeholders may be difficult to get in touch with and/or reluctant to provide feedback, perseverance is crucial as the more diverse the information you can gather from stakeholders, the greater the chances of completing the project successfully.

Some stakeholders may have an inherent fear of how the project outcomes will affect or change their role. This is where the role of project manager becomes more about providing information rather than gathering. By providing a complete picture of the project to these stakeholders, you’ll alleviate any fears they may have which will also help to get them onboard with achieving the project’s purpose.

In order to gather a diverse range of ideas and perspectives, a project manager will need to deal with a diverse range of differing personalities. Some may not initially be willing to speak up at all. In the same way those that are too busy will require perseverance and encouragement, those that are generally shy or timid will require an equal measure of effort to ensure they are able to contribute their feedback.

Other stakeholders being too expressive and forthright can be a much bigger problem than those who are reluctant. While enthusiasm for the project should be encouraged, the project manager should be wary of stakeholders with ulterior or conflicting motives who may be trying to push their own personal and political agendas.

Politics exist in every organisation and can have a significant impact on project selection and their eventual success or failure. Many projects within companies are called ‘sacred cows’, a term used to describe a project sponsored by a high ranking executive. The level of interest can be described as how likely it is that a stakeholder will take some sort of action to exercise his or her power in relation to projects. Stakeholders can demonstrate their power in a number of ways including covert resistance, resignation, withdrawing labour, cancelling orders, refusing to sell, calling in an overdraft, dismissing directors, legal action, granting contracts or setting remuneration.

It is entirely the responsibility of the project manager to engage all stakeholders. The time and effort needed to gather requirements is small in comparison to the cost of delivering an end product that does not meet the stakeholders’ needs. To get stakeholders to provide open, honest input you need to build a level of trust.

You can do this by getting to know their business environment, learning their language and generally creating an environment that establishes rapport. The key is to show them you are really interested in understanding their business challenges. The answer to the question ‘what's in it for me’ is different for each stakeholder.

AIM’s Applied Project Management provides a broad exploration of project management best practice, giving you an understanding of all aspects of the project management life cycle. The course will utilise the associated text Project Management in Practice, a comprehensive resource that is contextualised specifically for the Australian market and correlates to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK).

If you’re looking for a sneak peek at this course, AIM is offering you the opportunity to connect to a world of learning opportunities with our first Online Open Day. Set for Friday 4 December, you are invited to check out AIM’s most popular management and leadership short courses, new online courses and a sample of our postgraduate offerings, all from the comfort of your office or home through a variety of webinar info sessions. Hear about the courses directly from our best in class Facilitators and have your questions answered. Register for as many half-hour sessions as you like from the day’s schedule, simply by clicking here.