“It’s looking at human variabilities as a risk, an opportunity to get these people in a room and find out what we are actually trying to achieve. Not only is it a necessity, it is a massive opportunity for project managers because they are the ones to facilitate that,” says Chow. “Involving them upfront might make the upfront phase slower, but in the end you’re not wasting 25 percent of the time trying to retrofit.”
Once you lay the foundations for stakeholder objectives it’s then much easier to ask the right questions of what those stakeholders want from the process to build an effective communications strategy, says Duck.
“That’s a crucial point that most project managers don’t get, it’s synthesis versus analytics. Analytics is thinking ‘if I slice things up and answer all the pieces I’ll get the whole’ but you have to have a synthetic view that looks across, looks for the gestalt,” he says.
“The biggest risk is not answering the question. We’ve had 400-page reports that simply don’t answer the question. What question do you have? That cascades down and the information flows back up.”
Part of the process is educating stakeholders to ask the right sort of questions, which is where the information gleaned in the identification stage should come into play. And be aware that you’ll need to treat perception as reality, adds Chow. “If a stakeholder assumes something incorrectly about a project, the instinct is to say it’s their own fault, but why do they think that way? What’s the impact that it will have on the project?”
When you know what the stakeholders want to know, tailor the information given, says Duck. “There’s the steering committee, often full of particular questions: you need detail, you need warts ‘n’ all. For an uncontrolled audience, a public forum or a general media release, it has to be managed slightly differently. That question of ‘what do you tell the public?’ gets back to the truth about what you’re doing.”
And sometimes it’s best to keep publicly-available information to a minimum, firstly to reduce the risk that details could be taken out of context, but also to reduce wickedness. Thus the next challenge for stakeholder management will be controlling the message, particularly online, says Chow: “Because of social media we’re becoming more aware of our impact, and much sooner.”
Taming stakeholders in infrastructure projects is a complex undertaking, but there are ways of funnelling everyone in the right direction towards successful project outcomes.