5 Steps for Building Stakeholder Relationships

Written by Ganesh Kumar, PgMP, PMP

Have you led or been part of a project or program with disengaged stakeholders or sponsors? Did your project suffer from lack of timely decision making or late scope creep? If the answer is yes, you are not alone. Here I will share some steps you can take to improve stakeholder engagement.

It’s important to build a trusting relationship with your key stakeholders and stay connected throughout your project. Engaged stakeholders help motivate individuals through their active participation and timely resolution, which enables the project to stay on track.

Typically, project managers build trust and engage with key stakeholders at the start of a project; but as the project gets underway and team size grows, we lose sight of continuing those relationships. This generally leads to communication breakdowns, a gap in expectations, delayed decision making and sometimes even misalignment of project goals against organizational strategic objectives.

Here are five steps to follow:


1. Identify the key stakeholders. In any project or program, the project manager leading the initiative identifies all the impacted stakeholders to engage in planning, status reporting or managing dependencies. But my focus here is on how you engage your key stakeholders. Who are the key stakeholders? It depends on factors like the type of project, organization structure, industry, and internal and external dependencies.

From a project engagement perspective, key stakeholders are individuals who have decision-making power, and influence or have vested interest on the outcome of the project. They could be aligned within your project organization structure (like a project sponsor or business sponsor) or be an extended stakeholder (like external customers or funding partners).

Identifying these key stakeholders early in the project helps the PM and the team establish trusting relationships and understand their expectations of project deliverables, their role and the ongoing level of engagement.

2. Analyze the individual stakeholders identified in the prior step and decide on the level of engagement and time you need to invest in building the relationship. The information needed for analysis could be obtained from historical information, brainstorming sessions with the team, focus groups and interviews. Each key stakeholder is analyzed to get clarity on their attitude toward the initiative, degree of support, ability to influence and acceptance of change.

Based on their interest toward the project and their power to influence change, the project manager would decide on the level of engagement. The PM’s involvement to manage expectations and relationships tends to be high when there is more ambiguity on scope, objectives and the expected outcome of the initiative.

3. Plan on how to keep your stakeholders engaged in your project. When designing an engagement strategy, consider organizational culture and the attitudes they have toward the project. Also understand the degree of support or opposition the stakeholder would bring to team discussions.

As part of your plan, define how you will measure when a stakeholder gets disengaged; the measure could be something like the number of required meetings skipped by the stakeholder in a month. When a key stakeholder repeatedly skips a required meeting, or is not engaged in timely decision making, it’s a trigger for conflict. If not addressed, this disengagement will start on a trajectory to derail the project.

4. The project manager is responsible for keeping all key stakeholders engaged throughout the effort and provide them with updates as often—and as early—as possible. Stay ahead and be proactive in your communications with them.

Have you struggled to keep all the stakeholders on the same page when you have newcomers on the project? To establish a standard onboarding process, new stakeholders should be familiarized with a standard set of artifacts (like the charter, communication plan, business case and risk register). Also, don’t miss an opportunity to hear from exiting stakeholders. Feedback you receive from stakeholders who no longer have a vested interest in your initiative will sometimes help you to course-correct your project.

5. It is crucial to sustain the engagement, especially in long-running projects. We have seen project teams wearing off, with stakeholders excited to move on to the next new thing at the tail end of a project. It is the responsibility of the project manager to continue the engagement. In large organizations, the relationships and credibility built through this engagement will foster your success in future initiatives. Stay connected with your highly influential stakeholders even after the project is complete and delivered.

Remember: We don’t manage stakeholders, we engage stakeholders. Engage and sustain the relationship with them throughout the project and beyond. This is the project manager’s responsibility—and one of the key pillars to lead and deliver a successful project or program.

About Ganesh Kumar:
Ganesh Kumar is a Portfolio Manager with Progressive Insurance and VP of Marketing for PMI North East Ohio Chapter. Ganesh also conducts program management fundamentals training for PMINEO members. 

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