Stakeholder Management – essential to project delivery success?

A recent gathering of influential senior business leaders involved in project delivery provided the opportunity for a straw poll as to “what is the most important factor essential to project delivery success?” The group were asked to select one factor from the following list:

Project duration

IT engineering/technology

Stakeholder management

Shape of the delivery organisation

Steering committee contribution

Project management competency

Delivery approach/methodology

Is it surprising that the majority felt that stakeholder management was the most influential factor that could determine the success of a project? Why don’t organisations when analysing failed projects conclude that stakeholder management was a contributory factor?

It may be of course that those organisations that actually undertake internal project reviews are not willing to accept that the senior stakeholders were responsible for the project’s failure. It can be too easy to look outwardly at suppliers or other external mitigating factors for the cause of failure. Unfortunately project reviews or “lessons learnt” from failed projects are rarely documented, are rarely publicised and the feedback is rarely put in to corrective actions or processes to prevent recurrence of the issues. Therefore in most cases the cause of project failure is not even analysed.

A review of Pelicam Health Checks  carried out over the last decade would support this assumption. Pelicam’s causal analysis of these projects reveals the true root cause affecting project delivery, many directly associated with poor stakeholder management. The external mitigating factors were simply an effect masking the cause of the issues that led to project failure.

Appointing an external organisation able to carry out a detailed project review objectively and free of internal politics and sentiment can overcome this inability or reluctance to identify the root cause of failure. An external review can often identify the core issues across the organisation and a wider perspective will often enable preventative actions to be taken that influences a cultural change across the organisation that steers towards best practice so that issues do not repeatedly occur.

So what can project practitioners do at the outset of projects and what skills and tools do they need to ensure stakeholders can be managed effectively? The ability to communicate and negotiate effectively is a core skill that every project practitioner must possess, knowing what to communicate, how, when and to whom will shape the relationships they will have with the various project stakeholders. A number of project management approaches also provide tool guidance to project practitioners aimed specifically at managing stakeholders. These tools are often based around the four core factors known to influence stakeholder’s attitudes towards a project:

Importance: measures the priority given to the project by stakeholders and addresses their perception regarding the likelihood of project success.

Influence:  measures the degree to which stakeholders have the influence to affect the project outcome.

Commitment: measures stakeholder availability to participate in the project and to take direct responsibility as well as identifies conflicts limiting or preventing participation.

Engagement: measures stakeholder’s willingness to stay “on board” with the project and clarifies who are the active project participants.

By asking stakeholders relevant questions based around these four factors it is possible map out a stakeholder matrix which in turn identifies the potential project strengths and weaknesses and ways that these can be used to influence a more positive project outcome. The matrix then provides an ongoing project management tool for developing and executing a relationship strategy for each stakeholder. 

The stakeholder matrix can be used very effectively by project practitioners but it only has limited impact as a “bottom up” lever. If the senior stakeholders are not aligned organisationally or are not personally accountable for the project’s success then at some time or other critical project issues can emerge. As the disengaged stakeholders look to distance themselves from the perceived problems, not recognising their actions may be the root cause, the project spirals out of control.

A strong “top down” lever that can be used to complement and support stakeholder management is to align stakeholder KPIs to those of the project. If a senior stakeholder’s own recognition and reward is dependent on the project outcome there is a much greater chance that the stakeholder will do everything within their power to overcome barriers to success and to ensure a successful delivery.

In summary:

Stakeholder management should be considered essential to guarantee project delivery success but is often overlooked or underestimated. Strong communication skills, a clear relationship strategy plan and stakeholder KPI alignment to the goals and objectives of the project should be considered essentials to any project practitioner looking to ensure a successful project delivery outcome.