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Working Effectively with Project Sponsors and Stakeholders

It's all too easy, when you manage a project, to become so involved with your team and the work at hand that you overlook a very important group of people: your sponsor and stakeholders—in other words, the people who have an investment or interest in the project's outcome but who are not directly involved in making it happen.

Neglect them at your peril! Whether or not the entire project succeeds or fails may depend on the opinions and influences of these people. The wise project manager will make sure that he or she knows from the outset who they are, what form their interest in the project takes, and what they need and desire. From there, it's much easier to start and maintain a great working relationship with them.

What You Need to KnowHow do "sponsors" differ from "stakeholders" in project management?

The project sponsor is the individual or organization for whom the project is undertaken—the primary risk taker—usually the person or body responsible for financing the project. Stakeholders are people and groups not directly involved in the project but affected by it in some way, and so have a vested interest in its outcome. As a result, they and their views must be addressed by the project manager and the sponsor. The most common type of stakeholder is the user—those people who will be using the end product—but can also include people like your boss, suppliers, customers, and even your family.

Why is it necessary to have these people on my side?

There are a number of important benefits to having a good relationship with your sponsor and stakeholders. For example:

  • If you consult the most powerful among them early on, you can use their opinions to shape your project from the outset. Not only does this make it more likely that they will support you, but their input can also improve the quality of your work (and stop you from having to do things twice).
  • Gaining support from powerful stakeholders can help you get additional resources—meaning that your project will be more likely to succeed.
  • If you communicate regularly with stakeholders, you will know that they fully understand what you're doing and what the benefits are. As a result, they will be more likely to support you actively when necessary.
  • Through stakeholders, you can anticipate the reactions people may have to your project, which will enable you to build in plans that will win widespread support.

Good stakeholder management also helps you to deal with the politics that often accompany major projects, and that can be a major source of stress.

Who has the final say in running a project, the project manager or project sponsor?

This is tricky, and it can be a fine balancing act. If you are managing a project, remember that your sponsor has the biggest interest in it and therefore has the right to make decisions—he or she is not a silent partner. If you think the sponsor's decisions are wrong, be honest about it but not confrontational. If the sponsor still wants it done his or her way, follow instructions and do your best to make the outcome successful.

What to DoKnow Your Stakeholders

Many of your stakeholders will be obvious, but others may not come to mind immediately. It is a good idea to have a brainstorming session with your project team to make sure no one is left out of the loop. Ask your team to think of all the people who are affected by your work, who have power or influence over it, or who have an interest in whether it succeeds or fails.

Possible stakeholders include:

  • Your boss
  • Your project sponsor
  • Analysts
  • Business partners
  • Coworkers
  • Creditors
  • Customers (both actual and prospective)
  • Family and friends
  • Government
  • Interest groups
  • Labor unions
  • The local community
  • The press
  • The public
  • Future recruits
  • Senior executives
  • Stockholders
  • Suppliers
  • Team colleagues
  • Trade associations

Remember that, although stakeholders may be both organizations and people, you communicate with people, not buildings, however, so make that you have a contact at any stakeholder organization with whom you can build a relationship.

Prioritize Your Stakeholders

You will not have enough time to deal equally with everyone who fits into the above categories and any others you think of who may be affected by your project, so how do you decide who takes precedence?

A good way is to categorize them by their power over and interest in your work. Draw a graph, with the y-axis representing "power" and the x-axis representing "interest." Write the stakeholders' names in wherever seems appropriate. For example, your boss is likely to have high power over your project and high interest, and will therefore go at the top right hand corner of the grid. Your family may have high interest, but are unlikely to have power over it so they will be at the bottom right hand corner.

Someone's position on the grid shows you how important they are to your project:

  • High power, high interest. These are the people you must make the greatest efforts to satisfy, so make sure you communicate with them very regularly and get their support.
  • High power, less interest. Communicate with them often enough to keep them satisfied, but not so often that they get bored with your message.
  • Lower power, high interest. Keep this group adequately informed, and talk to them to ensure no major issues are arising. These people are often very helpful with the detail of your project.
  • Low power, low interest. Check in every now and then with this group to confirm no problems are developing. An overview, without a lot of detail, usually satisfies these people.
Understand Your Key Stakeholders

Now that you know who they are and who takes precedence, you need to find out more about your stakeholders: how they are likely to feel about and react to your project, and how best to engage them and communicate with them. To help you decide, consider these questions:

  • What financial or emotional interest do they have in the outcome of your work? Is it positive or negative?
  • What is their principal motivation?
  • What information do they expect from you?
  • How do they want to receive information from you? What is the best way of communicating your message to them?
  • What is their current opinion of your work? Is it based on good information?
  • Who influences their opinions generally? Do some of these influencers therefore become important stakeholders in their own right?
  • If they tend not to be positive, what will win them over to support your project?
  • If you think you will not be able to win them over, how will you manage their opposition?
  • Who else might be influenced by their opinions?

The best way to answer these questions is to talk to your stakeholders directly. People are usually quite open about their views, and asking their opinions is often the first step in building a successful relationship with them—they will be pleased that their views are being taken into account.

Plan Your Communications

You want to make sure the right messages get to the right people at the right time and in the right format, so you need a communications plan.

This is vital: the danger is that while a project is in progress, the team members toil away and take the attitude that no one should bother them until they have finished the project and delivered a wonderful product. Stakeholders, who are eager to see a successful result, get nervous if they have no indication of how the project is progressing.

As you draw up your plan, consider the following eight aspects of the project:

  • Stakeholders. Who are you trying to reach (you will know this from your initial brainstorming session)?
  • Objectives. What are the objectives of the communication? Is it to prompt action, gain approval, or merely to inform?
  • Message. What are the key messages you want to get across? These should be targeted at the individual stakeholders according to their influence and interest. Typical messages will show how the project benefits the particular stakeholder, and will focus on key issues like increasing profitability or delivering real improvements.
  • Information. What information will you communicate? There may be issues of confidentiality that you must consider.
  • Channel. What channels will you use? The choice of channel for a particular stakeholder will depend upon the message, feedback, content and timing of the message, and geography (where they are located relative to you). Choices which may be available to you include meetings, videos, e-mail, newsletters, telephone, workshops, and press conferences.
  • Feedback. How will you encourage feedback, and what mechanisms should you have in place to respond to it? For example, you could give a member of your project team the job of responding to queries that come to a dedicated e-mail address.
  • Detail. How much detail should you provide?
  • Timing. When should you communicate? As often as is necessary to satisfy your stakeholders and team members.

The easiest way to set up your communications plan is to plot all the above information into a table.

Say, for example, your project is to construct a meeting place for a local interest group, and you have decided you will hold design consultations, regular site meetings, monthly progress presentations, publish an advertisement in the neighborhood magazine, and hold an open day. Your table could look like this:

StakeholderDesign consultationsSite meetingsProgress presentationsAdvertisementOpen day
Group leaderXXX
Project sponsorXXXX
Local residentsXX
Facilities managerXXXX
State officialsXXX

You can use simple tables of this type to illustrate various aspects of the communications plan. Keep the stakeholders down the left-hand side and change the column headings as you need to—they could relate to timings, information, message, channel, and so on. There are no set rules; just use a layout that is appropriate for your project.

What to AvoidYou Leave It Too Late To Communicate Problems

Flag potential problems as early as you can in order to give everyone time to think through how to move forward, and to maintain your reputation for reliability. No one will be happy to learn at the last minute that a project will not be delivered on time or within budget.

You Provide Too Much Information

It is just as damaging to relations with stakeholders to provide too much as to provide too little information. The company chairman will not be amused to receive every detail of every quote you get. Be sensible about judging the level of detail you give to whom, and the amount of time you spend managing stakeholders. It will depend on the size and complexity of your projects and goals, and the time you have available.

You Consider Only What Your Stakeholders Want from You, Not What You Want from Them

Stakeholders are likely to be a disparate lot, and you will probably need very different kinds of support from each of them. Your family, you hope, will understand if you need to work weekends; your boss, you hope, will understand that you cannot always give priority to his or her immediate work. It is important for you to communicate with each of your stakeholders in an appropriate way.

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