10 Ways Project Managers Can Address Stakeholder Expectations

These strategies will help you bring out and understand stakeholder needs

December 19, 2019 | Helen S. Cooke

stakeholderStakeholders all have expectations, whether they’re expressed or subconscious. For project managers, understanding these expectations throughout the course of a project can help create a successful project conclusion. While meeting every expectation from each stakeholder is impossible, identifying what people consider critical, as well as what they secretly hope for, can help you fine-tune your delivery as well as better manage a client’s responses to the final product.

Managing stakeholder expectations is all about paying attention to expressed needs. Regardless of whether you and your team are confident you have a strong solution or outcome for meeting a project’s final objectives, you need to involve the sponsors, users, and customers in your discussions. Involvement allows them to express their concerns and feel they are being treated as partners. It might even bring hidden hopes and fears into the open. Two-way communication builds consensus, bolsters confidence, defuses resistance, and can evolve into better customer loyalty over time.

These 10 strategies will help you bring out and understand stakeholder expectations, especially the ones that are not so obvious at the outset.

  1. Understand each stakeholder’s role

Each stakeholder has a different role in putting the project’s outcomes to good use. The more you know about each person’s role in the organization, each person’s responsibilities and challenges, and each person’s potential for helping the team perform well, the better off you will be.  Learn the functional, technical and managerial responsibilities of each position, and tailor your responses to their interests.

  1. Understand your customer’s experience

Tuning in to the customer’s experience needs to be a repeat activity on your project schedule. Especially in today’s multi-media project environment, it’s important to understand how the customer experiences your project not only when the project team completes its delivery, but all along the path to completion. Use various actions and events to solicit the information you need.

  1. Ask for opinions and put them to use

Keep stakeholders informed about how you use their suggestions. When people’s opinions are solicited, and their responses handled respectfully, they feel that you’re playing “fair” – even if their suggestions are not the ones that define the end product.

  1. Define the problem your project is solving

At times, the project you’re working on is intended to solve a problem that the stakeholders themselves don’t fully understand. Perhaps your project was created because the people in charge didn’t understand why a desired outcome wasn’t achieved using normal operations processes. Projects examine past problems, take a fresh look at the current situation, and create the changes needed to bring about successful outcomes. As you and your team gain insights into the project’s potential for improvement, share those insights with the stakeholders.

  1. Listen to stakeholders’ assessments of the problem your project will solve

Letting people talk through their understanding of the reasons and hoped-for outcomes of a project can bring clarity as you move forward. Perhaps the environment changed and the old way of doing things couldn’t be sustained. Ask what is different now. If other efforts have been undertaken to get desired results, find out what they were, when they occurred, and whether they were a project or simply someone’s job responsibility. The best way to identify everyone’s expectations is to simply ask and listen. Face to face discussions are often best. If you restate the comments in your own words, the group can correct your understanding immediately, and avoid misperceptions.

  1. Acknowledge that the problem might be with the people

Sometimes the past problem was not a structural or systems problem, but evolved from the people in charge, their attachment to the past, or their resistance to doing things differently. Seldom are those people aware of their part in creating the problem, and they may be as baffled as those around them. But few employees are comfortable opening up to the boss. Your digging can reveal diplomatic hints at the possible solutions. As an “outsider” running a project, your explanations are more readily accepted than complaints from the employees. And remember: a problem can solved diplomatically without ever revealing the true cause.

  1. Create a project environment where questions can be asked openly

Some work cultures consider discussing an issue to get a resolution the same thing as “taking issue with” a person or job performance. But in a true “quality” environment, solutions are public property. The project manager and team can create a safe place to discuss sensitive issues. Ask questions openly, listen carefully to what is said and not said, and dig into every perspective on why the need is there, where it came from, who tried to solve it in the past, and how things went from there. Files from prior projects can hold important clues to trends and false starts to be avoided. Careful diplomacy allows you to work toward a resolution without getting your team crosswise with the corporate culture.

  1. Ask questions systematically and often

Since asking your client’s personnel for their opinions builds credibility and trust, do so systematically and often. Tell people how and when you will solicit their opinions. Manage discussions democratically and diplomatically. Do what you say you will, and share final decisions.

  1. Use people’s suggestions publicly

Try to involve everyone at each stage and publicly give credit whenever possible. Using people’s suggestions publicly builds loyalty and cooperation, and it makes people feel like their opinions and input actually matter. Public acceptance of one solution allows those who may still disagree to accept the overall consensus more easily.

  1. Schedule time to discuss everyone’s participation

Asking for everyone’s opinion becomes even more effective when you delineate time to discuss the positive impact of their participation. Go ahead and schedule special times to discuss how specific feedback was used to shape the project and to examine the results of everyone’s participation. This is a great way to close the loop on getting stakeholder opinions before you move on.

Building trust and team loyalty are easier to say than do, but the payoff can be huge. It’s worthwhile to work – and work hard – on keeping stakeholders involved. At the outset of a project, work with your team to identify who is particularly good at managing these types of discussions. From there, you will learn along the way as you tap the talent on your team to manage stakeholder expectations.

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  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.