Manage your stakeholders


An executive at a large professional services firm was recently bemoaning the state of his company. But it wasn’t the economy or competition that was irritating him most.

“We’re not doing the simple things very well, like accountability and [internal] communication,” he confessed to me. “It’s just killing us.”

It’s no secret to anyone working in IT that rivalries among managers and executives can turn personal and, if left unchecked, breed legions of “project assassins” with enough influence to take down multimillion-dollar IT initiatives. And it’s no mystery that managers with annual performance bonuses on the line can be trouble when they lose their best workers to temporary project assignments and get little or nothing in return to compensate for their loss.

Psychologists have a name for the subtle, gnawing obstructionist behaviours some of these outwardly supportive managers will engage in to frustrate and even block the progress of such intrusive projects: passive aggression. On the devastating-to-efficiency scale, it’s the No. 1 workplace cancer.

Companies that excel at stakeholder management can avoid these debacles. They audit relationships, handle ownership issues and process political (and personal) hot potatoes at the beginning of their projects. They identify existing mentor chains and partnerships and work hard to build upon the positive inertial forces of such relationships to carry projects through to completion and beyond. These companies are simply more aware of the seen and unseen people factors that make or break projects, and that gives them a huge advantage.

Stakeholders can be internal (top management, line managers, functional heads, service and support workers) or external (regulators, environmental and legal entities, the general public). They’re clients, project managers and teams, contractors and subcontractors, distributors and suppliers, and everyone else with a stake in an outcome. General Electric likes to measure and categorize stakeholders as those focused on operational and day-to-day activities (infrastructure experts, employee champions) or strategic and transformational activities (strategic partners, change agents), as well as those excelling most with “hard” tools and processes such as risk and ROI analysis versus “soft” skills such as communication and negotiation.

Obviously, some stakeholders are more important than others. Each one needs to be handled in the way that’s most appealing for him, which can be as simple as adapting meeting styles and communications methods. With discipline and a good methodology, it’s not so difficult. Here are some steps to get you started:

– Identify and gather information about stakeholders. Get their names, background, roles, special circumstances and past experiences.

– Analyze each stakeholder’s behaviour and potential impact on the project. Gauge the extent of his or her influence.

– Develop a tailor-made strategy and approach to each stakeholder. Ask: What is this person’s objective or position regarding the project, and relationship to other stakeholders? Does he or she have a hidden agenda? What influences can be exerted? Who is the best person to approach this person, and when? What tactics should be used?

– Implement and maintain the strategies. Draft an overall stakeholder management and implementation plan. Use it to pinpoint specific actions, responsible parties and the completion dates for all actions.

Stakeholder management is a highly customized, needs-based and open approach to handling obvious decision-makers and behind-the-scenes opinion-makers. You’ll need to continuously recalibrate and rework the plan throughout the project’s course.

Foote, a Computerworld (U.S.) columnist, is president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC, an organizational management consultancy and IT workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn. Contact him at [email protected].

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