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Project stakeholders: assets or risks to be managed?

Danielle Annells
August 8, 2013

Think about your trickiest project at the moment. Now think about stakeholders on that project. What comes to mind? What’s your first response?

A. I get a bit tense from thinking about all that I might need to do to manage their expectations.
B. I’m hoping that they won’t get in the way of me getting things done efficiently.
C. I’m feeling grateful that I am working with people who have the potential to add so much value on the project and I wouldn’t be without them.
D. Stakeholders? They’ll be fine if I just tell them about what a good decision it was after it’s done.

For most of us, there is likely to be quite a bit of truth in A & B (and maybe even D) if we’re really honest about it. But we also know that C is the answer we should probably give publicly and is at times the way we genuinely see it.

So if C is what we’re aiming for, what is it that we need to do from the outset of a project and will set us up for seeing it this way? I believe there are two essentials; become aware of the mindset and narrative around the project – yours and that of key decision makers.

We need to ask ourselves if we are unconsciously operating from the paradigms of A, B & D out of ‘habit’, or previous difficult experiences and because of the way we talk about stakeholders in relation to projects.

We often use the phrase ‘stakeholder management’. The implicit message in this phrase is that stakeholders need to be managed. Definitions for ‘manage’ include; to take charge of, to dominate or influence, to handle, direct, govern or control. By using this expression we are saying that we need and intend to exercise some control of stakeholders. This sets up an uneven power dynamic with us at the helm.

What effect does this have on our ultimate goal of making good decisions, and developing excellent solutions based on the best information available? Let me illustrate it further.

We can see stakeholders as people to be managed because they:

  • Cannot grasp the complexity of all the project issues
  • Are easily influenced by the loudest voices
  • Have views shaped by narrow concerns or self-interest and can’t be objective
  • Don’t have time to get involved or are apathetic

—and therefore it is futile and hazardous to engage them and we should be very cautious with the information we share.

Or, we can see them as people who:

  • Know things we don’t
  • Will provide us with a full range of useful and diverse perspectives
  • Are the source of innovation and creativity so they will help us do this better
  • Are very good at taking the big picture into consideration, weighing things up and making wise decisions

—and therefore it is essential to collaborate from the outset.

Which of these will set you up for building trusting relationships and generating innovation on your project, and which might stifle it? Which of these create the potential for building trusting relationships and which might bring scepticism and criticism?

It’s easy to answer when it is pointed out in this black and white way. My suggestion is that we pay close attention to the way that we think about stakeholders and the words that we use in relation to them (the narrative) so that we can be a project manager who genuinely collaborates. I’ll even go so far as to say let’s throw out the term ‘stakeholder management’ and use words like engagement, collaboration and partnering instead.

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Danielle Annells
Danielle Annells is a senior consultant at Twyfords specialising in supporting organisations to collaborate with their internal and external stakeholders around complex issues. Twyfords’ Collaborative Governance model underpins her work and provides a pathway for the co-creation of innovative and enduring solutions. She works across a wide range of industries and issues providing strategic advice, process design, facilitation and the delivery of capacity and skill building programs.
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