“Engage stakeholders proactively and to the degree needed to contribute to project success and customer satisfaction.” PMBOK pg. 31
Let me tell you a story about why I hammer on stakeholder engagement when mentoring new PM’s.
It was to be the biggest, most impactful project I’d taken lead at that point in my career. We were embarking on a roughly $4M development project, rewriting a popular software application used by thousands. This was also my first time utilizing an offshore development team. The project was well underway and we were about 50% complete. Things felt like they were going well, until they weren’t.
In a company of 17,000 people, I thought I had taken the time to identify all the relevant stakeholders. However, there was a New Product Development team of 4 people that had been missed. This small 4 person team had the power to terminate my project, which they did within 48 hours of finding out it was in progress. Since we didn’t engage them at the beginning (frankly, no one knew this team even existed!), they said due diligence had not been done on market feasibility and growth. In an instant, I had a $2M sunk cost on my record. Damn, that happened fast!
In retrospect, if I would have asked more questions, I would have discovered this team and engaged them. Money, and embarrassment, could have been saved. Thankfully, I didn’t get fired and learned a valuable lesson; continually engage stakeholders and ask if there’s any other groups I should reach out to.
Stakeholders have an impact on almost all areas of the project, including scope definition, requirements, budgeting, providing people and other resources, creating or mitigating risks, quality, and implementation/change management. They can come and go throughout your project or program. You will always have them!
My #1 rule with stakeholder engagement is build solid, evergreen relationships. Have an informal meeting over coffee, lunch or a beer. Get to know them as people! They spend a lot of time working, but they also have lives outside of the office. Find out about that. I have yet to meet a stakeholder I can’t connect with on some level. If your project is large with a lot of stakeholders, meet with the key ones that represent a bigger group. Building fruitful relationships now will pay dividends later.
When it comes to communication with stakeholders, I put communication into one of two categories. The first is “Formal” communication. These are the regular status report emails and recurring updated meetings. Think of formal as an expectation and something on your annual review. The second, and in my opinion more important, is “Informal” communication. These interactions aren’t scheduled and can happen at any time. For example, I have an issue and would like a stakeholder’s input. Or, our project needs a specific person or resource and I want to negotiate for those outside of doing formal requests (which usually take awhile). I think of informal communication as where the most work gets done!
Lastly, I’ve been on many teams where the project team and stakeholders were kept from each other. They never met, talked, or been in the same meetings. I don’t like this approach because it can cause an “us and them” mentality. Instead, I have everyone in meetings when it makes sense. I let them talk and ask questions. Be mindful of potential scope creep in those meetings, but let conversations happen and relationships be built.
Stakeholders. You’ll always have them and if not identified or treated properly, they can make your life difficult! Proactively engage stakeholders and build evergreen relationships that not only grow during this project, but in future projects where you may work with them again.
Project Management Institute. (2021). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide) (7th ed.). Project Management Institute.