Part two: Can you really manage stakeholders?
The term stakeholder management has been widely written about and accepted as a key aspect of program management. However, upon deeper reflection, can program managers really “manage” stakeholders in the same way they do scope, cost, inter-project dependencies or any other knowledge area of a program?
Programs are typically large, complex, multi-function, multi-year, cross-organizational initiatives. As a result, the diversity and complexity of internal and external stakeholders increases exponentially. With globalization, internal stakeholders such as program teams, sponsors, business partners and solution providers become geographically dispersed. External stakeholders may include customers, suppliers, distribution channels, legislators and even the public – potentially, all over the world.
Under these circumstances, stakeholders cannot really be managed. Therefore, I would suggest that managing stakeholders, though universally used, is a misnomer. The real need is to manage stakeholder expectations.
Stakeholder expectation management explained
This change in terminology does not reduce the importance of the activity within a program; it simply illuminates the original intent. Identify all stakeholders who will affect or be affected by the initiative and focus their expectations in accordance with the ultimate goals and objectives of the program. Stakeholders significantly influence an initiative’s outcomes and degree of success; thus, stakeholder expectation management seeks to maximize stakeholder buy-in, engagement, adoption and contribution to target objectives.
When managing stakeholder expectations, many tried and tested methods and approaches exist that lay out step-by-step processes to:
- Identify stakeholders
- Perform stakeholder analysis and map the level of influence and impact
- Create heat maps to separate believers from resisters and take appropriate action
- Develop communication strategies with timely information flowing to and from all stakeholders
- And more recently – apply change management principles and techniques to ensure readiness for change within an organization
Based on my experience managing a significant number of programs, stakeholder expectation management is neither black nor white – rather many shades of grey. An effective program manager will need to wear many hats. The following set of seven best practices have stood me in very good stead when managing stakeholder expectations.
- The tailor: One size does not fit all. Every initiative is indeed different. Stakeholder expectations remain context specific; strategies to address these need to vary based on the nature of the program and unique and specific needs of each group.
- The architect: Governance structures and decision-making frameworks are very effective ways of including stakeholders in a meaningful way. Both internal and external stakeholders can be included in governance process through forums such as steering committees or specific advisory councils. These allow relevant stakeholders to provide input to decisions and influence direction.
- The pioneer: Take opportunities to innovate stakeholder expectation management. Leaders can brainstorm new and sometimes yet untried approaches to increase buy-in, engagement and adoption by groups. For example, new and innovative thought leadership approaches are being considered to include public participation in crafting government policy.
- The juggler: Interests vary between internal stakeholders and external stakeholders and also within these groups. Not all internal stakeholders will agree on outcomes and approaches. External stakeholders – by their very nature – typically will want different outcomes. Consideration needs to be given to the influence and impact of these stakeholders and juggle priorities and decisions appropriately.
- The mediator/salesperson: Not only are interests different between stakeholders – they are often polarized and in direct contention. Conflict resolution, negotiation, persuasion and selling ideas are important techniques that need to be applied.
- The sociologist: Stakeholder biases and opinions are strongly tied to their culture. In order to manage their expectations effectively, understand and respect cultural factors in solution design.
- The investigator: Critical to developing expectation management strategies is any information related to previous changes in the organization. These include lessons learned and as much information about stakeholder opinions, preferences and potential biases.
In conclusion, stakeholder expectation management is complex. Rather than applying a prescriptive approach, exploring multiple strategies targeted to meeting diverse stakeholder expectations can make the difference between success and failure.