Five Strategies for Successful Stakeholder Management

How to manage complex projects while keeping stakeholders happy

April 14, 2022 | Helen S. Cooke

project stakeholdersAnyone who works in project management knows that a lot of planning goes into preparing a project team to do its work, before the project itself even begins. Deliverables are spelled out; estimates are made regarding how long the project will take and which resources are needed. The project manager shapes the work plan to fit the team’s capability, as well as the total cost and timeframe. Finally, after much work has already been done, meetings are held to kick things off. Risks have been spelled out, project roles have been divided among the team, and each assignment has a person’s name on it. The project now begins in earnest.

But the presence of the “stakeholder” is always hovering in the background, whether or not the team members think of—or mention—that word.

A stakeholder includes anyone who has a “stake” in the success of the project. When most people think of stakeholders, they think of sponsors, customers, clients, and users. Let’s begin by defining these better-known stakeholders:

The sponsor: Your project is funded by a specific executive or senior manager, and that individual wants to see their investment in the project pay off over the long run. At the least, they want to see something they can be proud to have put their name to.

The customer: Your organization is doing this work for someone who engaged you, your team, your division, or your company to carry out this project and produce the key product or service. They expect quality results, even excellence.

The client or user: This is the person who will be looking, every day, at the work you produced. Ideally, they will be smiling—not cursing—at your product or service.

Along with these obvious stakeholders, there are “secondary” or even “tertiary” stakeholders. These are the people who install or integrate your product with what the organization already had in place. That includes the people who sit at the help desk, patiently explaining to users how the new product or service works. Secondary stakeholders are also the managers who built their business model around the old way of doing things and are a bit threatened by the new product. Stakeholders might also include researchers who use the data your system produces for longitudinal studies or newsworthy conclusions about trends in the broader society.

Should you be worrying about these other stakeholders? Probably yes. In today’s economy, every organization works hard to maintain a good reputation and receive work through referrals. Before social media, stakeholders discussed their satisfaction with your product by talking to co-workers, neighbors, or peers. Today, they can reach pretty much anyone. Not all stakeholders can be delighted by the work you and your team produce, but they should at least be satisfied.

Keeping in mind the broad reach and influence of stakeholders, it’s more important than ever to use these strategies for managing stakeholder expectations:

  1. First, define your stakeholders. Engage your team in identifying who should be included in stakeholder management. Define at what point in the project key stakeholders need to be involved, and add this to the plan; the earlier the better.
  2. Once key stakeholders have been defined, match a team member to each stakeholder, and task your team member with keeping in touch with the stakeholder.
  3. The goal is to continually assess the stakeholders’ expectations and desires. Ask stakeholders to provide suggestions. Remember that if you ask their opinion, they expect you to consider it. This doesn’t mean you will accept or use every suggestion. The simple act of asking will make them feel valued. It shows that you considered their input, and this makes stakeholders less likely to treat you poorly in their comments.
  4. If you have no intention of directly implementing a stakeholder’s ideas, don’t ask for direct input. Instead, let stakeholders give general comments via a survey. This gives stakeholders an opportunity to voice their priorities. As a follow-up to the survey, issue a few general public comments about the suggestions people made and the actions you took to respond.
  5. Most importantly, treat stakeholders with sincere interest, and show respect for their ideas. They’re likely to return the favor.

These strategies apply to all stakeholders, not just the obvious trio of sponsor, customer, and client. A second-tier or third-tier stakeholder has the power to negatively influence perception of your product or service. An unhappy stakeholder, even if it’s someone you’ve never met or even thought about, can add a negative drag on what you otherwise expected to be a successful project.

Stakeholder management should be an important task on your project plan. Treat it as seriously as you treat the tasks on the production end. Wouldn’t it be a shame if your team did a great job producing the technical work of the project, and yet the stakeholder community is unhappy? Ultimately, you’re in charge of the project’s public image, and stakeholder management is a fundamental part of its success.

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  • About The Author
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  • 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 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.