Leading multiple software projects recently, each of which had a wide variety of stakeholders, has taught me that influencing stakeholders requires a combination of interpersonal skills, effective communication and understanding of their perspectives. Building strong relationships, demonstrating value and actively engaging stakeholders can effectively influence them and gain their support throughout the project life cycle, leading to increased project value delivered.
Why must a project manager influence project stakeholders?
Improved schedule performance – Stakeholders who are not properly managed can lengthen review and approval cycles, introduce new features late in the game and advocate for suppliers who may not be the best fit for the project.
Ensuring long-term success - Influencing stakeholders can contribute to long-term success and sustainability of the project. Nurturing positive relationships with stakeholders can create a supportive environment that facilitates growth and resilience of the entire project team.
Enhancing reputation - Successfully influencing stakeholders can contribute to enhancing the organization’s reputation and credibility. Positive stakeholder relationships can lead to increased trust and goodwill, which can be valuable assets in the long-term.
Risk mitigation - Engaging and influencing stakeholders can help identify and address potential risks and challenges early on. By involving relevant stakeholders in decision making processes, the project manager can gain valuable insights and perspectives, leading to more informed risk management strategies.
1. Identify and prioritize all the project stakeholders depending on how they influence the project. This is also known as stakeholder mapping. This step is crucial and should be done before the project starts. It involves identifying the stakeholders (both internal and external) who have a vested interest in the project and understanding their motivations, concerns and power dynamics.
During the second month of a six-month project, I realized that it was hard to get a sign off/approval from the product owner (client’s side) because they had to wait for input from their business analyst, who had not been identified as a project stakeholder. This created delays in the project. Therefore, to curb this, I identified and prioritized this stakeholder as high impact and high influence and shared weekly progress reports with them. Furthermore, I made sure they were always apprised of the project’s status. This greatly helped improve the turnaround time for getting approvals.
2. Build relationships: It is essential to establish strong relationships with the stakeholders (especially those identified as High Power, High Interest from our stakeholder mapping exercise) from the beginning by taking time to understand their perspectives, needs and expectations. It also helps to engage in open and honest communication, listen actively to concerns and show empathy.
During the first couple of work sessions for the design phase of a project, I noticed that the stakeholders from the client’s side did not give any feedback to the designers. It appeared as though they were reluctant to raise any concerns. This was probably because this was a new project and we had not interacted before. This caused our designers to lose morale. To curb this, I decided to directly ask each one of them, in a non-confrontational way, for their opinion and honest feedback during the sessions. This feedback was promptly incorporated into the designs and after a few days of doing this, I noticed that they became more relaxed and talkative.
3. Responding fast to objections and concerns fosters trust and builds relationships. It is important to provide evidence and data in the form of numbers, expert opinions and case studies when responding to these concerns. It also helps to present these facts in a clear and accessible manner, making it easy for stakeholders to understand and support the proposal.
In a previous project, there was one stakeholder that always raised concerns and objections during the status meetings regarding the progress of the project, no matter how well we were performing. This led to long, drawn-out meetings, which further impacted our progress. To limit their negative impact, I prepared detailed answers to possible queries that may arise, based on their previous concerns, and talked about them before the stakeholder had a chance to raise them. They begrudgingly appeared to appreciate that their concerns were being addressed, and became more supportive in future meetings.
4. Seek win-win solutions: As a project manager, it is important to look for opportunities to create mutually beneficial outcomes. The best way is by incorporating stakeholders’ suggestions or interests at the proposal phase if feasible. This way, all organizations involved contractually have a voice early in the process.
I once managed a project whereby the client wanted to introduce changes to the scope very late in the game. The client was adamant that we should make the changes without them incurring the cost; however, the features that they were trying to change had already been agreed to during a formal review process earlier in the project. Because of the excellent relationship that I had with the client, it was easy to explain the reasons for, and convince them to sign, a change request for additional time for us to incorporate the new changes.
5. Maintain consistent engagement: Engagement with stakeholders should not be a one-time event, but an ongoing process. Continuously inform stakeholders on progress, involve them in decision making processes and seek their input, especially in areas that you know they care about (which we learned about and documented during stakeholder mapping).
As a project manager I always make myself as accessible as possible to the client. I make it clear during our first meeting that I am available via chat, email, and phone calls (within reason). They appreciate that I am willing to engage with them to increase project value delivered.
In conclusion, patience and persistence is key when influencing stakeholders. This is a gradual and iterative process. Effective stakeholder influence is based on trust, credibility, and genuine engagement. By understanding and addressing stakeholders’ needs and concerns, the project manager can increase their chances of gaining their support and achieving project objectives.
About the Author
Christabel Misiko, PMP
Christabel has a combined eleven years experience in both construction and software project management. She has a proven track record of successfully managing complex projects, and brings leadership and innovation to the table. Her vision, drive and intellectual depth help to secure project results under pressure.