Project Communications and Stakeholder Engagement

Project Communications and Stakeholder Engagement

Project Management  |  Professional Development

While all facets of project management and leadership are important, the most important skill a project manager or leader can possess is communication. It is said a project manager spends 90% of their time communicating. I have seen the single greatest factor impacting project success is communication.  In fact, project communication is so vital, it really encompasses two entire knowledge areas in project management; “Project Communications Management” and “Project Stakeholder Management.” The two go hand-in-hand. You must communicate effectively to drive stakeholder engagement, which is critical to overall project success and adoption. 

A stakeholder is any person, internal or external to your project or organization, who is impacted or perceives to be impacted by your project. This includes yourself and your team members. The two types of stakeholders to consider when optimizing engagement are (key) internal stakeholders and those external stakeholders which will drive the success of your project.  I often think about each group separately to ensure I have a comprehensive list of stakeholders.

If you have taken a project management boot camp course, you learn there are three types of communication. Push, Pull, and Interactive. Push communication is sending information to your key stakeholders. This information is pushed via targeted communications using the telephone, hosting progress meetings, or sending frequent email updates. This is the type of status communication Amazon Prime sends you when you order a product. Pull communications is for the stakeholders interested in your project, but not (at least for now) influential.  You should still keep them informed, but not to the same levels as your key stakeholders.  Interactive communication is what you should focus on when communicating with your key stakeholders. We will focus on interactive communication, as this is how you’ll communicate with your most influential stakeholders; however, the topics discussed are applicable to push communications as well. 

No one notices when a project goes off without a problem, but as soon as the scope, schedule, cost, and/or quality starts veering in the wrong direction, everyone notices! Therefore, regular communication is key. You’ll want to provide status updates, set expectations (good or bad) for what lies ahead, and address issues early on when the cost of change is lower. Project success is determined by the attitudes of the key stakeholders around the project. As such, I try to proactively communicate with my stakeholders to ensure the proper level of engagement and the correct attitude towards the project. 

Delivering a project on time, on budget and according to requirements is not sufficient; if the project is not liked and the outputs are not used, it is still a failure. It is critical to gain positive stakeholder attitudes through effective engagement which is driven by useful communication.  I’ve used three general classes of communication in stakeholder management: reporting, marketing, and purposeful communication.

Reporting fulfills two useful purposes: first, it demonstrates you are running your project properly. As a project manager, you are expected to produce reports, have schedules, etc., so issuing reports shows you are conforming to expectations. Second, providing reports to a key stakeholder keeps you in touch with them which is important when more significant communications are needed. The information in the reports is typically pushed (sent directly to) to recipients.  While this creates a consistent set of information shared universally in a time-series, reports are not communication, although information in a report can be used as part of purposeful communication.

Marketing is an underrated and underused communication activity. Marketing includes all of the communications needed to provide information about your project to the wider stakeholder community.  This is your opportunity to publicize the value of the project and to prevent information ‘Black-holes’ from developing, which breed misinformation and rumor. Developing an effective “Marketing Campaign” is an important communications activity designed to build buy-in and enthusiasm for the project and the deliverables. I find it well worth the effort on almost every project! It is far easier to create a good first impression than to try to change an already formed, bad impression among your stakeholders. I’ve found this is particularly important if your project is going to change how people do their jobs – your project will experience far lower levels of opposition and the change manager will thank you.

For me, purposeful communication is all about starting with the end in mind and putting yourself in the shoes of the stakeholder. Purposeful communication needs to be planned, which means you need to know precisely what effect you are seeking and then work out how to achieve the effect. This usually means you want the stakeholder to start to do something, do something differently or stop doing something. Purposeful communication should address WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), be directed towards a network of key stakeholders, and be delivered incrementally and regularly. 

As with risk management, I regularly review the stakeholder community (changing levels of interest and influence, new or existing stakeholders, etc.).  The purpose is to reassess the relative priorities of all stakeholders, to understand if your communication efforts are successful (change tactics if not) and to best focus your communication effort going forward. You need to remember your project is being accomplished in a dynamic environment and, as such, stakeholder and communication management should be an on-going process regularly reviewed, updated, and enhanced.

Effective communication needs to be designed to be valuable within the stakeholder’s culture. This means learning how the stakeholder operates and what is normal for them; you need to communicate within their paradigm. Building this type of communication environment, designed to support project success, requires a strategic approach. The payback? Less time spent firefighting and dealing with ad hoc inquiries and a more engaged stakeholder community to drive project success, adoption and enhancement.  I find it an amazingly valuable investment of time, and I hope you will as well.

 

Want to learn more? Check out our course on Managing Client and Stakeholder Expectations.