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Stakeholder Alignment

Who are the stakeholders – those who have a ‘stake in the game’

The real danger for any project is not that it does not reach the finish line, but that it reaches the end only to find that the finish line has moved and that the spectators are waiting impatiently somewhere else. That may sound strange, but it happens to more projects that you might expect. It is a particular risk for big initiatives, where stakeholder needs as defined at the start may change significantly over the life of a project.  

What is required is dynamic re-alignment

Alignment is a particular challenge when delivering projects in hierarchical organizations where the necessary cross-functional collaboration is impeded by silos

Leading & Inspiring Stakeholders

It is not just the project team that requires effective leadership, the project’s stakeholders need leadership too.  That includes internal and external stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, internal collaborators (other departments and functions), corporate management and so on.

The project management manual says you need a communications plan for stakeholders, but that may not be enough.  For example:

  • Stakeholders don’t just need to be listened to, they need to be educated and inspired too.  Sometimes they even need to be respectfully challenged.  Most important of all, they need to be engaged.
  • Project Leadership involves not just eliciting or even understanding stakeholder needs, but shaping them too. After all, stakeholders may not know exactly what they want, or may have expectations that are unrealistic or even out-of-control.

All too often those working on the project can find that they are playing on a different team, battling other parts of the organization, in particular the corporate functions. The challenge for project leaders is to engage key internal stakeholders so that a corporate ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation does not arise. 

To paraphrase the Spanish proverb: ‘Talking about bulls is not the same as facing them in the ring’.  This certainly applies to critical projects.  Yet, it is too easy for certain stakeholders to stay on the sidelines:

  • Highlighting problems but not offering solutions.
  • Holding the project team to the original budget or time lime, even when the scope of the project has expanded.
  • Wanting it all and not being prepared to make trade-offs or compromises.
  • Commenting on what could or should be, without any responsibility for making it happen.
  • Looking for written reports and slideshows on what is happening, rather than joining a project review meeting.

Moreover, internal stakeholders need to be engaged from the very start – if you don’t you cannot turn to them when the project is struggling and difficult decisions need to be made.

Corporate leadership may delegate responsibility for the execution of a strategic initiative, but it cannot abdicate responsibility for its success. Project leaders have to make sure that this does not happen.  They have to keep internal stakeholders inside the tent at all times, making them feel not just involved but responsible too. 

We often hear comments such as: ‘We are too busy working on the project to spend lots of time talking to the various stakeholders, preparing reports and presentations, etc. …We would rather stay focused on getting the work done’.  However, that is a mistaken view.  Any distinction between doing the work and engaging stakeholders is a false one. 

Engaging Stakeholders is a key part of the work on any project. This is particular true in respect of fast-moving agile projects, where there are frequent deliverables, outputs or iterations (e.g. mock-ups, prototypes, etc.) that stakeholders can be engaged with.

The process of engaging and communicating with stakeholder groups cannot be left to chance.  It must be planned and structured – it is a key part of the project plan.    Turning stakeholders into meaningful collaborators is a mark of effective project leadership. 

Engaging stakeholders is often a low bar.  The challenge of project leaders is to energize, ignite and inspire, rather than simply engage stakeholders.  How to do this?  The answer is through the tools of effective leadership – passion, inspiration, vision, innovation and so on.

Energizing stakeholders requires engaging not just with logic, but with the emotions too. Yes, the business case is important for any initiative, however it only connects with the head and not the hearth.  Both are necessary. 

To energize and engage people requires a compelling vision of success (and a better future). That means helping stakeholders to envision the success of the initiative and the benefits that will result.  This is often most effectively told via stories (customer stories and use case scenarios) that present a compelling problem – solution or before – after narrative.

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