A small group of project manager s spent an enjoyable 90 minutes in an ‘un-conference session’ during the Project Zone Congress earlier this month discussing the biggest single challenge to project success – stakeholders! Depending on the type of project, between 50% and 90% of the risks in the risk register are associated with stakeholders.
Agreement was quickly reached by the group on the proposition that ‘stakeholders’ are a very wide and diverse group, some supportive and useful, others negative and obstructive and all with different needs and aspirations; so the conversation quickly moved onto the management of stakeholders and the proposition that ‘effective stakeholder management = effective stakeholder communication’. But what does effective mean? There is probably not a lot of point in communicating if you do not want an ‘effect’.
To be effective, the project’s stakeholder engagement and communication planning needs to develop an overall strategy for these two closely linked processes and then identify appropriate tactics to maximise the probability of achieving a successful project outcome.
Effective communication is the key, and there are three general classes of communication; reporting, public relations and purposeful communication.
Reporting fulfils two useful purposes; firstly it demonstrates you are running your project properly, project managers are expected to produce reports and have schedules, etc., issuing reports shows that you are conforming to expectations. Secondly, copying a report to a person keeps you in touch with them for when more significant communications are needed. Reporting may not be communication but it is useful.
Public relations (PR) cover the broadcast communications needed to provide information to the wider stakeholder community to market the value of the project and to prevent information ‘black holes’ developing that breed misinformation and rumour. The power of social media to amplify bad news is massive and it is nearly impossible to kill rumours once they have started even if the information being circulated is completely false. Effective PR using a range of available mediums including web portals and social media can mitigate (but cannot eliminate) this type of negative influence on your stakeholders, both within the organisation and externally.
Developing an effective PR campaign is a skilled communications process but well worth the effort on almost every project. It is far easier to create a good first impression than to try to change an already formed bad impression among your stakeholders. This aspect of project communication is probably the most underrated and under used.
Purposeful communication is hard work and needs to be focused on the important stakeholders (both positive and negative) with whom you need to cause an effect. Purposeful communication needs to be planned, which means you need to know precisely what effect you are seeking and then work out how to achieve the effect. This usually means you want the stakeholder to start to do something, do something differently or stop doing something. Some of the tactics that can be used to make your communication effective include:
- WIFM – ‘what is in it for me’ – try to align your needs with something the stakeholder desires (this is called Mutuality).
- WIFMF – ‘what is in it for my friend’ – if there is no practical WIFM is there something the stakeholders friends of colleagues may benefit from?
- Build peer pressure through the stakeholder’s network of contacts. It’s hard to hold out against a group.
- Use your network to develop persuasive pressure.
- Delivering information incrementally in a carefully planned way with different people playing different roles in the communication plan.
Effective communication needs to be designed to be effective within the stakeholder’s culture. This means leaning how the person operates and what is normal for them – you need to communicate within their paradigm. And you need regular testing of the overall communication process to make sure it’s working effectively.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because everything in your stakeholder environment is currently peaceful and productive. A ‘big mission’ or crisis can override culture for a short time and make a group seem like a homogeneous team but once the pressure is off people revert to their normal behaviours and unexpected issues can emerge – constant vigilance and maintenance of key relationships is critical to achieving final success
Constant surveillance and routine reassessments of the stakeholder community and of the effectiveness of your communication strategy and tactics is essential to understanding how your stakeholder community is evolving and to monitor the effectiveness of the communications. Based on these assessments you can adjust the strategy and tactics you are using to ensure on-going effective stakeholder engagement.
 For more on the artefacts needed to be ‘seen as a proper project manager’ see: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/20949/3/Whitty_PMOz_2011_PV.pdf
 For more on the difference between reporting and communicating see ‘Beyond Reporting – The Communication Strategy’: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Resources_Papers_094.html.
 For more on prioritising stakeholders and assessing the effectiveness of communications see: http://www.stakeholder-management.com/shopcontent.asp?type=methodology-description