Welcome to the latest “Ask a project manager” blog. This week’s question is about coping with difficult stakeholders:
I’ve just been given a project that, in all honesty, will make or break my career. It’s a fantastic opportunity but, and it’s a big but, the stakeholders are horrendous! They all want completely different things, they hate each other and in some instances fundamentally oppose my project. They’re not adverse to making their feelings known, have money to burn and will do anything they can to make the project fail.
What can I do?
Thanks for the question, it sounds like an almost impossible situation! Here are some of my suggestions – hopefully they can help you safely navigate those troubled waters:
Leverage your sponsor
My first piece of advice is to leverage your sponsor as much as you can. He or she is going to be in a really good position to help you get the stakeholders on board. If they can’t do that, then they will be able to help you put a management plan in place.
When you go and speak to your sponsor, make sure you take concrete examples of the stakeholders’ negative behaviour. That might sound a bit obvious but it’s for very good reasons:
- It’s much easier to fix a problem when you know exactly what it is
- There’s less wriggle room for the people creating the drama when faced with a real example
- It shows that you’re not sweating the small stuff and that there actually is a problem
- You’ll enhance your credibility
Make sure you get some firm commitments from the sponsor on when they will get involved as well as the type of help they’ll give you. This isn’t the time for wooliness!
Speak to the wider project team
It’s always a good idea to get other people’s perspectives, so it’s worth asking the project team and anyone else connected to the team for their opinions. I’d suggest you do it one-on-one as people are more likely to be forthcoming when there’s no one else around. Use this opportunity to get as much information about the stakeholders as possible. It’s also worth using this time to dig deeper and find out if there are any underlying reasons why people are so anti each other and the project. You never know, you might come across a nugget of information that you can use to your advantage.
Read the existing project documentation
If documentation exists, make sure that you read it. There will likely be lots of really useful information in there that you can use. Pay close attention to the stakeholder matrix and engagement plan (if they exist). Just be aware that the information in there may be out of date or inaccurate so it’s worth revisiting. Also be aware of what’s not there. Often insights come from information that’s not included. Look at everything as a whole, not disparate pieces. Stepping back and taking a wider view often pays dividends in situations like this. Mainly because people don’t want to write anything negative down.
Now isn’t the time to skimp on spending money. If the stakeholders really are as difficult as you say, you need to hit them with the big guns. In this case, it’s buying in expert communications and change management help.
Work with the experts to create a really detailed stakeholder matrix and a multi-pronged communication, engagement and change management programme.
Don’t plan too far into the future. Consider having a detailed plan for the first two week, a slightly less detailed plan for the following two weeks and headline only for the two weeks after that. Make sure you put in plenty of metrics! This is one plan that you need to micromanage. That way you’ll get early notice of any problems and will be able to fix it before it goes completely off the rails. I’d go so far as to suggest that for the first two weeks at least you should be meeting with the change management and communications teams daily.
You can plan the next two weeks after a week on the current plan. This way you have the flexibility to quickly adapt and modify the plans and any content.
Whatever you do, don’t be surprised if, even after all your efforts, the stakeholders still stay off side. It’s not uncommon for behaviour to be so ingrained that nothing you do will change it. It could also be that the stakeholders are just fundamentally opposed to your project and you will never make them agree.
I hope this has given you some ideas on how to manage these particular stakeholders. Good luck, I hope you and your project are successful!
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