Stakeholders are your customers: ignore them at your peril

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ElainePorteous_100.jpgStakeholders can and will influence the outcome of a project, especially if they are likely to be directly affected by it. If you thus fail to meet the expectations of key influencers, projects will be delayed, will only be partially workable or, at worst, doomed. Elaine Porteous unpacks the process of winning stakeholder support in this month's SmartProcurement.

Who are your stakeholders?
Stakeholders are any individuals that can impact your activities by:
- Removing obstacles and championing your goals
- Slowing down or blocking your activities
- Influencing others about your project - whether positive or negative

Many of your stakeholders may not initially be obvious. Stakeholders can be:
- End-users of the product or service
- Line managers, executives and support staff
- Procurement team members and co-opted subject matter experts
- Suppliers and their subcontractors
- Government agencies and the media
- Customers and society at large

Why is stakeholder management so difficult?
Stakeholders have conflicting priorities and are often not working towards the same goal. Personal ambitions may trump the company's vision. You may be the messenger bearing bad news or saying no to stakeholder proposals. Seasoned procurement professionals use their persuasive skills to win support from stakeholders. This can be the difference between success and failure.

Because stakeholders will change over time, we need a systematic approach to identifying and prioritising influencers. A stakeholder map is a simple analysis tool that we can use to identify which key people have to be won over.

A simple stakeholder map
This map provides a guideline on how to manage stakeholders based on their interest and their influence:

StakeholderSupport_300.jpgFigure 1: The stakeholder analysis grid

The Greens
Stakeholders with a high level of influence in your specific project and who also have a high level of commitment and support must attract the most focus. They are usually easily identified and are easy to engage. They typically include line managers and end-users. Ensure that you continue to maintain their support through good communication and by monitoring their needs. These individuals can be used to influence others.

The Oranges
This is an important group to manage and may include senior management, e.g. CEOs or GMs. Keep them satisfied. Increasing their interest in or commitment to your project through regular updates can be very helpful.

The Browns
These customers are your supporters. Keep them informed, as their enthusiasm may be infectious and they may have more influence in the future. Less time is needed to maintain this group.

The Purples
External stakeholders, such as the media and government, may fall into this group so it is not necessary to spend too much time on them. But keep them in the loop and monitor them as they may move into another group!

Identify all key stakeholders and plot them in the grid in Figure 1.

Steps to follow to ensure the success of any initiative
1. Concentrate your time on working with key stakeholders who can make or break the initiative. Ensure that every stakeholder has an appropriate way to participate and offer input.
2. Understand and manage stakeholder expectations. Identify any potential adversaries early on in the process and manage them directly by allocating key tasks to them. Persuade those persons who may not be immediately supportive.
3. Under-promise and over-deliver. Think like a salesperson.
4. Keep everyone well-informed and build strong relationships with the people who support the initiative. Recognise and reward positive behaviour to preserve the relationship and buy continued support.

Dealing with difficult stakeholders
The first step when dealing with difficult influencers is to clearly identify them and work out what motivates them and what is causing their resistance. Ignoring difficult stakeholder behaviour is not recommended; take time to immediately identify the cause of their objections as well as the underlying issues. People want to feel understood and feel that their opinions matter.

Engage directly with the person without others being present. This leads to more clear and calm conversations. Actively listen to what they have to say and don't close communication channels because you don't like what you are hearing. Remain fair, objective and professional, and remember to keep the project objectives within focus. Try to find common ground by asking open-ended questions.

Why projects fail: communication is key
A lack of frequent and accurate communication to and from stakeholders is probably one of the main reasons for project failure. Another is not listening to the needs and concerns of key stakeholders, both internal and external.

When to communicate with stakeholders
- Before the launch of a project to get buy-in. Early engagement is important.
- At regular progress meetings held to keep everyone updated. Report back on progress (or the lack of it) and milestones achieved.
- Before implementation to ensure alignment with the process and the proposed solution.
- At the end of a project to establish lessons learnt.

Stakeholder management is the process that we use to identify key stakeholders and win their support. We use the analysis grid to prioritise them by influence and commitment. Understanding what motivates them is the first step to getting them on board.

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