Peter is a valuable project stakeholder. We need him more than he needs us. So, no matter what you do Peter puts your request to the bottom of his priority list. He is not engaged.
How about this one?
Dory is a project customer. She wants to get the results. Therefore, she puts quite a lot of stress on the team. Nevertheless, Dory wants to hear nothing of the difficulties on the project. She is not engaged as well. It freaks out even more.
Does it look familiar? Every project manager has such kind of problems. Unengaged stakeholders.
It may seem like there is nothing you can do about it.
I will share some secret tricks that will help you to boost stakeholders’ engagement right away.
What Kills Engagement?
Let’s get clear on the approach.
You should never act as if a stakeholder wants to sabotage your work. That is wrong unless proven otherwise.
Therefore, approach it from a position of mutual benefits. Even if a person acts somewhat aggressive, passive or in any other unsuitable manner.
It doesn’t mean that he or she is your enemy. You have not discovered the cause of disengagement yet.
It is easy.
In most case the root cause is one of the following:
People will disengage from your project in case they are overwhelmed with other tasks and projects.
The simple example is when they are ignoring your requests. They just don’t have time for you.
It is more complicated when a person has to answer to your requests. But there is still no spare time. In such case, a stakeholder may loop your request.
Most likely you will get a bunch of rather stupid questions in return. Likewise, this person may drift to another topic with even more unrelated questions.
The goal is simple.
To buy some time while you try to answer the questions politely.
2. Lack of Knowledge
This case is difficult to differentiate from the rest accurately.
People don’t like to show their weakness or lack of knowledge. So, they get creative.
The worst thing…
Once they got away from a project where they lack knowledge, it will be twice as hard to bring them back.
In the majority of cases, you will notice an unusual buzz around “following the processes and policies” stuff.
Also look for tunnel vision. Such stakeholders will insist on a proven solution only. Even if it doesn’t serve the project goal.
These are the ways to cover the back in case of a failure.
3. Lack of Interest
A stakeholder has nothing to gain from your project. The most common and the simplest of cases.
There are many reasons to have a weak interest. Even high paid, central persons in the company often disengage because of little benefits.
You will know these people by the attitude:
“Get me a solution and I will reject and criticise it. Repeat until the times runs out, or I will see a safe to approve one.”
“Tell me what exactly I need to do. Even better write it down I will do it as you say.”
That is so common I’m sure you saw it many times.
4. Conflicting Requests
It usually happens due to miscommunication or the lack of communication in the first place.
You can also expect this case when a person has two or more bosses or managers. Both of them may have different expectations from your project. Therefore, they will put a lot of stress on the stakeholder you need to engage.
Discovering the conflict is difficult. Especially when it comes to a higher level of the organisational hierarchy.
The person in the centre will try to get away from two powers until they solve the conflict.
What’s the catch?
In most cases, you will be the third party to push on that stakeholder.
So, now maybe you understand a reason for disengagement of a person. Though I would exercise extreme caution here.
You may assume a wrong root cause of the problem. So, unless you are entirely sure, continue to explore the factors influencing the stakeholder.
Understand the Meaning of Communications Methods
Even if a person is engaged, some communications methods may restrict his or her enthusiasm to help you.
Every communications method has it’s designated purpose.
Use Emails for Everlasting Trails
Here is an important thing you need to remember.
An email lives forever.
It is a MacLaud of the modern office. Even if you and receiver delete it, there is a strong chance that a backup version is stored somewhere on the mailing server.
That is not all.
Email can be used as evidence in the court.
OK, even if doesn’t go that far.
Emails will be used to sort out whom to blame.
For these reasons, people are reluctant to share thoughts and concerns in emails. They tend to keep it as formal as possible.
Therefore, it is not the best way to get support and brainstorm.
But there is a catch.
Email may not be the best way for the first move during escalation. That will put a lot of stakeholder into defensive mode at once. While you may require their expertise.
Use Instant Messengers to Warm up Engagement or Clarify Specifics
Instant Messengers are deemed to be more private.
Most of them have an ability to save the conversation history. So, they are quite the same as emails.
Nevertheless, it gives you an option to solve a problem quickly and quietly.
Here is the tip.
It always pays back to follow up on the agreed upon points in the messenger. But do communicate this intent with your interlocutor.
Use Meetings to Sell Emotions
All of us have meetings. They can be powerful. Most are useless.
Here is the real story.
Meetings are a perfect place for a stakeholder to say a lot while promising nothing.
At the end of the day, an email with action points is what matters.
So, unless you end up the meeting with voting, it is not the best method to make the final decisions. Use it to share information, sync up and generate ideas with stakeholders.
Go for Personal Agreements (Phone Calls) to Getting Things Done
I believe personal agreements are the most efficient ways to push the project further. While at the same moment it is the most risky one.
Many delicate problems can be solved this way. You can find out a lot of useful information in private talks.
So, it is the best way to build the engagement.
And while everything goes well no one will ever blame you for managing a project this way. However, in a case of a crisis, you may not verify all agreements.
So, balance the risks and the trust you can put into a stakeholder.
Use Request Tickets to Finalise a Deal
This kind of communication is even more formal than email. It follows the strict protocol to request someone’s action.
But there is a trick.
While it is formal, it can get very bureaucratic. Therefore, it is good to summarise the agreed upon action, not to solve problems.
Why did I just wrote so much about this means of communications?
Here is why:
Don’t Get Caught in the Loop
I want you to learn how to resolve impediments and get things done.
Communication loops are the worst enemy of productivity and engagement.
Imagine you need assistance from a stakeholder. You write an email, describe the context, ask one direct question. Yes or No. Simplified as it could be. Send.
Several hours later you get the response.
What the hack? It says:
“Why do you need this in the first place?”
You type even more text. Explaining the whole history of the matter.
The next reply says:
“Please send me the specification, designs and all related communication.”
Oh my… You do have all these in your inbox. Why do you ask me to do that?
Several days later and seven more useless email and the stakeholder asks you for a meeting because he needs to clear things out.
That is the communication loop. You know the possible reasons already…
But how can you avoid it?
Tactics That will Help You to Build Engagement
1. Know Your Stakeholders To Push in Right Direction
It all starts with stakeholder analysis.
You simply must know who they are. What do they want and why. And you must have a plan.
Why does it matter?
Did you notice professional psychologists in a movie? They always record their sessions, and they keep notes in the process.
Why do they do that?
They test and verify the result. Test again and check whether there is a pattern. They are searching for an approach that will work for the person.
That is the same way you should work on stakeholders engagement.
Plan, do, check, correct. Plan, do, check, correct.
2. Adopt Continuous Communication to Control Engagement
The most common mistake is to build engagement with a stakeholder only when you need it.
That doesn’t work.
You need to warm up their interest to the project continuously.
Keep them informed on the project progress, ask their opinion and ideas, invite to meetings.
You don’t want to overwhelm stakeholders with all the information on the project. However, you do need to keep the door open for them to contribute.
3. Giveaway Ownership to Build Motivation
People don’t like to commit when they don’t feel control over the assigned task.
Also, consider the following:
A high-level expert is assigned to help you with a project. She is a top star in a department. Maybe she leads some projects on her own.
However, on your project, you limit her abilities to only answering your questions.
That is not as exciting as leading own project, is it?
Therefore, sometimes you have to give away responsibility and control over a part of a project.
To build engagement stakeholders should feel the ownership for the work.
Nevertheless, you are still interested in keeping overall control of the project.
4. Acknowledge Contribution to Build Engagement
It goes without saying for the project team. Hopefully, you say “Thank you” every day.
But what about a person who participated only partially? When his or her impact was critical.
Do you remember to acknowledge the commitment of a person beyond you team?
If not, that might be a reason why stakeholders do not want to engage with your projects.
5. Give Behind the Scenes Access to Stakeholders
This tactic works well with top level stakeholders like clients, sponsors and customers.
The idea is simple.
Whenever you communicate with this kind of stakeholders you describe the efforts, it takes to do the work.
It should have common sense in it, but:
- When the team works on challenging task, say they are working hard and doing their best.
- When the team has to overtime, describe how committed they are.
- When you are working on creative tasks, tell how engaged the team is.
You want to achieve two responses from stakeholders:
- They should understand that everything takes time, efforts and, in general, it is hard work.
- Stakeholders should see real people behind the work they request.
- They should feel commitment of the team.
That will make stakeholders more reluctant to waste team’s time, delay answers, or to request unneeded changes.
Also, it is hard to stay passive alongside such an engaged group of people committed to doing your project.
- Stakeholder engagement is a continuous effort.
- You do need a plan to measure your progress.
- You must choose correct means of communications.