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Using project controls for effect

Lynda Bourne
April 3, 2013

More importantly, the communication effort needs to be planned to focus on the important stakeholders that influence success, both internally to leaders within the team and externally to decision makers and influencers.

Then KISS—keep your communication as simple as possible (but no simpler)—and remember Cohn’s Law: The more time you spend in reporting on what you are doing, the less time you have to do anything. Stability is achieved when you spend all your time reporting on the nothing you are doing.

Communicating for effect

Communicating effectively with stakeholders in the ways outlined above is a resource intensive process. Every project team will have far more stakeholders to potentially communicate with than they have either the time or the resources to manage.

Selecting the ‘right’ stakeholders for a sustained communication effort at the ‘right time’ in a project is not simple; some are obvious and important but others can be noisy but largely irrelevant or hidden and important. My research over the last 10 years developing the Stakeholder Circle® methodology has suggested a three phased approach works best.

Step one is to identify the stakeholders for the project, understand what you need from them and importantly what they want from the success (or failure) of the project. This is called ‘mutuality’ and is critical to understand when you are planning your stakeholder communication effort. If you can show the person they are likely to achieve at least some of their aims, they are far more likely to provide you with what you need. This applies equally to internal stakeholders and external influencers.

Step two is to work out who is important; this requires assessing and integrating at least three aspects for each stakeholder:

  1. The most obvious is how powerful the person is. Can they close the project down, force change, are they essential for the work or do they have little direct impact?
  2. Power is offset by the concept of ‘urgency’: how much effort is the stakeholder likely to invest in asserting their position or ‘rights’? Some stakeholders will go to almost any lengths to assert their position; others are really not that interested.
  3. The third is proximity. People actively working on the project have more impact than those who are relatively distant.

Combining these factors in a model allows the relative importance of each stakeholder to be determined ‘at this point in time’.

Step three is to determine the current attitude of each important stakeholder based on how supportive or opposed they are to the project and how receptive they are to your communication. It’s nearly impossible to change someone’s attitude if they won’t communicate with you! The current situation needs to be compared to a realistic optimum situation for each person. The optimum for some people may be passive opposition, that is, they are unlikely to take any action; others may need to actively support the project.

Now you have the information needed to focus your communication efforts where they can achieve the greatest benefit. People who already have the optimum attitude simply need ‘business as usual’ communication. On the other hand, important stakeholders who are assessed as having a less than optimal attitude need heroic communication efforts to change their attitude if the project is going to succeed.

The last piece of the equation: people change. Your communication should cause change, and people’s attitudes change over time anyway. Reassessing the stakeholder community on a regular basis is important to ensure the communication plan is working and to update it where necessary. This is also an important lead in to undertaking a project risk review. A very high proportion of project risks are directly linked to stakeholders.

Using the data generated by project controls systems to provide useful information to the right person at the right time still won’t make your tools into ‘control systems’ as there’s still no direct cause and effect. However, you can make the data into useful information that can have a powerful influence on the future actions of the key stakeholders. Achieving this objective goes a long way towards making the planning system useful.

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Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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