On the Subject of Stakeholder Management


7 January 2014

Dear Editor,

Regarding Omar Muhammad and Abid Mustafa’s article, “Managing stakeholders: Going beyond conventional wisdom” in the December 2014 PM World Journal and Patrick Weaver’s letter in the January 2014 issue on the same topic, both perpetuate a number of fundamental flaws in some current stakeholder management theory and practice:

  • Flaw #1 – A stakeholder is any individual or organization who is involved with, whose interests may be affected by or who exerts influence over a project. That’s PMI’s definition. That’s a mob! Go with the views of John Kotter and Daryl Conner and such who focus on decision-makers first and foremost. The players are easily identifiable, the numbers are workable and the responsibilities are crystal clear, or can be made thus. 
  • Flaw #2 – Muhammad and Mustafa state “Once  the  project  team  possesses  such  intelligence it  becomes  easier  to  align expectations  to  stakeholder  motives,  predict  stakeholder  behaviour  and  establish mechanisms to ensure the right buttons are pressed for stakeholders to support the desired project outcomes.” Why does the project team have to push any buttons? If we focus on the decision-makers, Conner’s four roles and the concept of cascading sponsorship make attributing responsibility simple: sponsors have overall accountability, targets have accountability for their sphere of influence, champions engage and promote, and change agents figure out “how” to make it all happen. 
  • Flaw #3 – There’s this underlying assumption that project teams need to “manage” stakeholder “expectations”. Excuse me! Whose change is it anyway? It belongs to the sponsor. It’s up to the targets to manage the impact on their organizations. Champions engage and promote and articulate. The sponsors, targets and champions need to manage their own expectations! The project team can benefit immensely from measuring stakeholder (decision-maker) satisfaction but only to help the stakeholders understand and resolve the issues identified. The more project teams usurp fundamental stakeholder decision-making responsibilities, and that includes managing expectations, the greater the risk of project failure. PM’s do need to escalate if decisions aren’t being made or decision-makers aren’t committed and engaged. But it’s not their responsibility to resolve. 
  • Flaw #4 – Is the right corporate culture necessary for effective stakeholder engagement? According to Patrick Weaver, Dr Bourne believes “Effective stakeholder engagement is never likely to succeed if it is implemented ad hoc at the individual project level.” Absolutely not true! I have developed a practice called Project Pre-Check that implements and measures stakeholder engagement and satisfaction from project inception through value realization. It does that by focusing on the decisions stakeholders need to make and how satisfied they are with those decisions. I’ve seen it work beautifully on over sixty projects in all kinds of different corporate cultures, from cut throat to collaborative. The corporate culture matters but not a lot if you can get the right project stakeholders in place with a thorough understanding of their responsibilities. My Project Times blog presents over 35 case studies that show what can happen when stakeholders (decision-makers) get their responsibilities right or wrong. 

Patrick Weaver’s letter concludes “if you lose the support of your key stakeholders, your project will fail”. Of course it will. It’s their project!

Drew Davison

Davison Consulting

Ontario, Canada

[email protected]