Monday, September 1, 2008

September 1, 2008 – Back to the Basic: Stakeholders

On July 17, 1999 I was sitting in an emergency room waiting for x-rays to confirm something obvious. My six year old daughter had broken her left arm just above the elbow.

On the television a worse parental nightmare was unfolding for the Kennedy family. The night before, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane had crashed off Martha’s Vineyard, MA (USA) and the news was covering the ongoing search. It was determined that the likely cause of the accident was spatial disorientation, a confusion of the brain that completely destroys your perceptions. The sky that night was dark, and a haze hid the horizon. Without visual references the brain can misinterpret signals from your inner ear.

Pilots with this condition have been known to fly upside down while believing they are right side up. Instead of climbing steeply they may in fact be heading straight for the ground. Only by relying on their instrument panel can they pull through it.

In the midst of a project, when changes are dogging you and deadlines are due, it is easy to loose sight of reference points, forget the basics and start running on adrenaline and pure luck. If your instincts are solid you may be able to fly by the seat of your pants for some distance. However, even the best project mangers can succumb to project disorientation. Fortunately it is neither fatal nor as tragic as JFK Jr’s death.

This series is entitled “Back to the Basics” and is intended to remind us that projects fail day by day, usually when we loose sight of simple things.

Project success begins by identifying and understanding who your key stakeholders are. If you can’t identify the players and which side they are on, you stand little chance of satisfying their needs and landing the project without incident.

Identification. Several stakeholders jump out immediately: the sponsor, end users and your team. But a stakeholder is an individual or group that is either impacted by the development process or the end product of your project

In 1988, New York State attempted to put a low level radioactive waste dump in Allegany County. Although not involved in the construction or ultimate use of the facility, the people of the county were key stakeholders. Their “Bump The Dump” campaign successfully blocked the project and in 1992 the US Supreme Court amended the federal law that required states to store radioactive waste within their own borders.

Create a list of the people and groups impacted by your project. Include hidden ones like:
Current users of what you are getting rid of or replacing (system, building, facility, software, highway, forest)
External suppliers, users or supports. Whole communities are impacted by factory shutdowns, megastore constructions or radioactive dumps. On a much smaller scale, the company supplying data or using your information will have impacts, too.
Support Teams. Call center reps, operational support and disaster recovery are impacted by system changes.

Motivation. Once you have identified them, you need to understand their position. Some will be strong supporters of the project. Others my loose their jobs or need to be retrained as a result of it. For each stakeholder determine and document how the project will impact them.

What pressures are they under? Your director’s bonus may be based on you spending the entire budget. Regulatory or legal requirements may impose strict timeframes. CEO commitments to shareholders may have been made.

Recognition. Return to your list throughout the project. In addition to documenting new stakeholders, begin to put specific names beside each one. This will help you think through whom you are dealing with and begin to plan your approach to dealing with them.

Communication. From the beginning of the project you need to keep the stakeholders informed. You don’t need to have all the answers and in some cases you won’t be able to divulge all of the information, but an open line of communication will alleviate fear and uncertainty.

Unspoken and unaddressed concerns will exist for something as big as potential layoffs or as seemingly small as a new time entry logon screen. Create a forum and an atmosphere conducive to asking question and providing feedback.

The ultimate success of you project depends on you identifying the right stakeholders and satisfying their requirements while sustaining minimal damage from the opposing viewpoints. It is easy to become disoriented by the loudest stakeholder or the one holding the cash, but by identifying them and their agendas you can pull out of a dive before you crash.

NOTE: For an interesting twist on Stakeholder Management, visit the article “The End of Fairy Tale Beginnings” at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It sometimes takes a lot of effort to identify other stakeholders on a project. The primary stakeholder may or not be interested in the opinions or priorities of others in the organization. On projects with tight schedules the PM may not feel that she has time to devote to understanding and winning over people who are not her "primary customer".

Another example of Covey's non-urgent yet essential things.

Great idea for a series.