Understanding Your Stakeholders

Whether it’s a complex or even a simple project or any piece of work for that matter there will be people who are interested in it to one degree or another. These people are your stakeholders. But what are stakeholders? Stakeholders come in all shapes and sizes and the level of interest they have in your piece of work, or maybe you would like them to have in your piece of work, is one way to categorize them. Their ability to influence your work either positively or adversely is another way of categorizing them.

Who Are Your Stakeholders?

Understanding your stakeholders requires that you know who they are in the first place. Anyone who has an interest in, either directly or indirectly, the successful completion of your piece of work or project is a stakeholder. Those people or groups and companies who are closely involved are obvious but others who maybe don’t have any direct contact with your work in other parts of your organization may well be a stakeholder too.

For ‘people’ you also need to read ‘group’, ‘department’ or ‘company’ as it may not be a particular individual you can identify at this stage. One group of stakeholders that can often be forgotten is customers, the whole reason why your work is being undertaken in the first place.

Where Are Your Stakeholders?

The simple answer to this question is they fall into two groups; those that are internal to your company or organization and those that are external to it. Actually where you draw the boundary is not important in identifying stakeholders, it merely helps in the thought process of ensuring you have identified them to start with. Where it becomes more important is in how you communicate with your stakeholders as there may be organizational requirements overlaid on you for interacting with external stakeholders.

Why Should You Be Interested In Stakeholders?

Put simply, if you aren’t then there is a strong possibility that one of the more influential stakeholders will cause you problems and potentially prevent you from succeeding in your piece of work or project.

So, having identified them you need to determine which ones are likely to be supportive of your work, advocates even, and which ones may block or delay you. One way of bringing this all together is in the form of a Stakeholder Mapping, a simple two-by-two matrix of Power (ability to support or de-rail your work) verses Interest (in your work) each scored Low to High. A project sponsor who controls the budget will naturally have both high power and interest whereas an individual within an unrelated department is likely to have low power and low interest.

Having identified your stakeholders and where they sit and their level of interest has been mapped then comes the ‘So What?’. Now that you know all this information what do you do with it?

What Do Stakeholders Need From You and You From Them?

Those which come out as high power and influence will be the ones you ought to focus on to start with. Ask yourself why they score as they did. Do they have the ability to support you work or hinder it and depending on this answer what do you want to do about that?

The phrase “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” comes to mind here. Someone who is a strong supporter you will want to keep that way so keeping them informed as progress is made and ensuring you know what they expect as time moves on is essential with this type of stakeholder. An individual or group that has the capability to block or delay your work is a serious risk and needs to be dealt with. Close engagement to fully understand their position is critical so that you can determine what may be done to minimize their impact on your work. If nothing else, better understanding where key stakeholders are coming from enables you to better plan your work with that in mind.

It is not necessary to work through each individual stakeholder in this way but it certainly makes sense for those that you determine are your key stakeholders. For others it may be possible to group them together based on particular interests or needs and engage them as such, perhaps through a common communication method if merely keeping them informed of progress is considered sufficient.

Stakeholders Change Over Time

It is definitely worthwhile re-visiting your set of stakeholders regularly as individuals may change their views and indeed, especially in large organizations, individuals move on and someone new comes in to fill their shoes. Depending on the work concerned it may well be the case that stakeholders that showed low interest early on may start to get more interested as the work moves into a different stage. This can be the case were early engagement with potential end-users is wanted but their level of interest and willingness to get involved only increases as you get closer to completion of your work or project.

To better understand your stakeholders you need to:

  1. Know who they are in the first place.
  2. Identify where they are, inside your organization or outside of it.
  3. Determine what they need from you and what you need from them to move your work forward.
  4. Engage with your stakeholders accordingly.
  5. Revisit your stakeholder identification regularly.

Note I have deliberately avoided using ‘project’ too much in this post even though Stakeholder Management is so often associated with projects and programmes. The simple process of identifying who your stakeholders are and considering what they need from you and you need from them is equally applicable to all aspects of business.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Your Stakeholders

  1. Stakeholder analysis is important in strategy, communication, and marketing as well as project management. You’ve got to know your stakeholders before you can engage them. Personally, I think that empathy is a critical part of the process.

    • Couldn’t agree more. I find it strange that stakeholder analysis gets associated with project management all the time when in fact it’s part and parcel of good management practice.

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