Managing stakeholders in infrastructure projects
Not so long ago, stakeholder management was merely about dealing with various parties’ issues as they arose. There was a vague understanding of the people involved and if a problem occurred, the project manager would cross that bridge when the time came.
Lately, stakeholder management has become more sophisticated, taking up a greater amount of time and effort up front. Recognising that people are the project is the first step towards stakeholder engagement. Beyond that, it’s a way to ensure that issues are heard at the beginning so that they can be addressed in the project plan and realised as a benefit upon closure.
Stakeholders are the people, groups or organisations affected by a project and/or its outcomes. In infrastructure projects, by its nature as a means to enable operation, this definition gets a good workout because of the sheer number and diversity of stakeholders involved.
Arguably the most important stakeholder group in an infrastructure project is the end user as this party is usually the collective sum of the other stakeholder groups, which could include government, private companies, contractors and project team members.
In government-led infrastructure projects, the public is most often the end user, hence this broad category can prove problematic when in comes to understanding, engaging and managing stakeholders.
Kieran Duck, program manager with specialist largescale training and consulting firm 2nd Road, says it’s a matter of tame and wicked. Tame problems are those where everyone agrees on the problem, the solution and when the solution has worked. Wicked problems are those suffering from the fragmentation wrought by too many stakeholders.
“On an infrastructure project you get a greater degree of wickedness, these multiple world views that you have to deal with,” he explains. “There isn’t a right answer when it comes to what you’re presenting, particularly exacerbated on infrastructure projects. Often the public is involved, or special interest groups. infrastructure projects are big, they are expensive, so whoever’s financing it also comes in with a different dimension.”
Project managers must be disciplined about understanding who the real users are, and becoming their advocate, to match the type of communication required. The key is to design it well by identifying the different stakeholder groups and the type of information they need, and being consistent in that message, Duck believes.
“Often the communication or the reporting just occurs. Project managers start writing reports instead of standing back and actively designing it, so you get this disconnect between what the people want and what they’re getting. Step back and think of the individual stakeholders and think what they need.”
Popping the question
Duck’s colleague Quinn Chow is a design practitioner who specialises in creating stakeholder value through project leadership. He says the premise of any stakeholder management model is to find the common ground: “It’s sticking to the single truth that all stakeholders can agree to upfront and keeping it top of mind.”
In many cases, the argument for ‘public good’ tends to lead the project in the right direction, which then helps stakeholders focus on a ‘project first’ approach. At the start of a project, project managers should gauge stakeholder motivations.