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Finding Your Project Stakeholders Wherever They Are

Every project manager will tell you about the importance of educating stakeholders about the value of the project and getting their buy-in. However, we rarely talk about what a pain in the @$$ it can be to figure out who the stakeholders are and get in front of them.

Often you start out talking to an exec or manager that has created or identified the need for the project. They’ll tell you what they are trying to accomplish, why they think its important and when they need it done. If you are lucky, they’ll have some perspective on the organization as a whole and how the project fits into it BUT often all they know is what they want.

When you get past those early discussions, you’ll find that several other people are needed in order to review, approve and embrace your project. This is normal and usually not a problem. In the best case scenario, these people are surfaced early through your discussions and knitted into your communication going forward. You may not talk to them from the very beginning, but you’ll know when you need to start getting them involved.

Why Stakeholder Are Sometimes MIA

The worst case scenario is that neither you nor anyone else is really sure who you need to have involved. You figure this out when questions about timing, resources or priorities are met with silence. Or, when your steering committee sees a presentation and says,” Oh, Mr. X in department Z needs to look at this before we can approve it.”

There are a few common ways that you end up with “missing” stakeholders:

  • No one —including you — realized that your project involved a particular skill set or specialist: Maybe there is a DBA with security concerns you need to address. or you didn’t realize a brand manager had to approve every CTA you put on the site.
  • Lost in Translation: It’s embarrassing, but sometimes you and your project initiator are not on the same page. He is expecting a different set of work than you are. When you catch this, you have to figure out who you really need. These are embarrassing moments, but usually they happen early.
  • Parallel Activities: Your project aligns with other initiatives that are being managed elsewhere. The other initiatives are just ramping up, or maybe they have been running with a small, below-the-radar team. Someone remembers this and decides you need to integrate your timelines with the other stuff going on.
  • Lack of Ownership: You are interfacing with a tool, vendor or program that doesn’t have a clear owner. Maybe its the email system or a set of reports that have always been done ad-hoc. This system is used by everyone, but no one person has the authority to make decisions about changes.
  • Wrong Assumptions: They assumed something would be in place before you started.  Maybe they are missing a key hire or they are still writing integrations for a tool they bought two years ago. No matter the reason, you have to start talking to the person in charge of this because you are going to need that piece before you can move forward.

With any of these scenarios, the key is to get these people involved and up to speed fast. How you do that is another matter.

Staking A Claim to The People You Need

With any of the above scenarios, you obviously need to get communication going as soon as possible. While the urgency will vary, the truth is that you want whomever to know about your project, and you, well in advance of needing their help.

4 things to do if you are managing the project:

  1. Find them: You’ve been given a name and department. Look them up, find out who they report, where they are in the company (both physically and politically), what they look like, and what their calendar looks like. Does the stakeholder usually work remotely? Are they perennially overbooked? Are they about to leave on vacation for 4 weeks?
  2. Figure out what you need from them:. You discovered that you need to talk to this person, but you should take a a few minutes and figure out exactly what you are going to be asking for. If it’s a data set, then be specific about the date range and metrics. If it’s a decision, then layout exactly what you need them to decide.
  3. Get Introduced: It’s easier to get on someone’s calendar if they are told by a manager or peer that they really need to talk to you. Getting an intro by email or phone will keep them from putting you at the bottom of their to-do list.
  4. Get on their calendar with an Agenda: You know who they, you know what you want, and now you have a chance to get it from them. Make sure that you schedule the time you need and that you are prepared for the meeting.

3 Really Helpful Things to Do If the PM Works for You:

  1. Give them the introduction: Don’t make them send blind emails or phone calls to this person. Give them an intro that makes it clear why the PM and the stakeholder need to talk.
  2. Be honest about how much the input matters: There are somethings that are essential and others that are nice to have. You might want a consensus on everything, but be clear that someone people might need to be left-out due to scheduling or other priorities. Be clear about who matters and make sure PM knows too.
  3. Make sure that you aren’t creating scope creep: Projects evolve, but they should become totally different species. Don’t start pulling departments and people into a project unless you are clear on what they are needed for. Talk to your PM if you are not sure.

How Do You Avoid Scrambling to Get Stakeholder Input?

The short answer is that you can’t. The larger and more complicated a project is, the more likely that new people are going to have to be integrated along the way. The best you can do is accept it and be proactive about getting them into the mix. A key tool for this is a good Audience List: keep updating it and don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution.

If you keep asking questions and keep refining your Audience List, then things will work out. That doesn’t mean your project will succeed but it means you’ll have one less thing to worry about.

Have you had a problem with new stakeholders being required and slowing down or breaking your workflows? Share your pain & your solution in the comments.

Image courtesy of Doblu.comSpecial Thanks to Chuck Norris

Published in Project Management Ideas Working Blog

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