Dealing with project stakeholders can be tricky, and I’ve had some interesting interactions during projects over the years.
Not only do you need to understand the personal style of your project stakeholders, you’ll also need to understand their motivations – what is driving them. Sometimes the politics and workplace relationships can make a complex project even more complicated.
Many project managers might be thinking:
“Don’t I just need to deliver on time and under budget, to the right level of quality?”
Of course these aspects are important (and hard enough to satisfy) and yes, we need to deliver to them, but it’s not all there is. The manner in which the project is delivered can make a huge difference to achieving a successful outcome.
This includes how you relate to, communicate with and manage your stakeholders.
It’s no good delivering an on-time, under budget project when a trail of destruction has been left in its wake.
Why Project Leaders Need to Gain the Confidence of Their Project Stakeholders
Project managers need to gain the confidence of their stakeholders to run a successful project.
If project stakeholders aren’t buying into the direction of the project or how it’s run, the project manager will be in for a really tough time.
Without gaining the confidence of project stakeholders, it’s likely that the project manager will:
- Be provided with less autonomy and freedom to run the project the way they need to
- Be unable to make decisions about the project – instead needing to defer to the most senior stakeholders
- Lose confidence and become tentative in their actions, further reducing the confidence of project stakeholders
- Feel intense pressure and stress as they come under scrutiny; and
- Fail to find satisfaction and enjoyment in delivering the project.
You might wonder why it matters whether a project manager is enjoying themselves… it’s their job to deliver the project, right?
Of course it is. But if you fail to enjoy or find satisfaction in the work that you do, you’ll do a worse job. The project is more likely to be at risk when a project manager “checks out” or is suffering from low motivation.
Having an unmotivated person manage your multi-million dollar delivery budget can’t be a great thing.
Learn More: Stakeholder Management Tips For the Everyday Leader.
How to Gain the Confidence of IT Project Stakeholders
So we’ve looked at why we need to care about gaining the confidence of our project stakeholders.
Next, let’s look at some specific aspects that project leaders should focus on when delivering their projects.
1. Understand the Domain Well Enough to Speak Sensibly About It
This point may seem obvious, but it’s an important one that I see causing issues when it comes to building trust with key project stakeholders.
In my project delivery career, I had the benefit of a technical background. That is, I used to write software myself, which has given me a decent understanding of technology, how it works, and what we should think about in our projects.
However, I don’t know everything about all the latest technology, nor do I pretend to.
Nevertheless, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of what you’re trying to deliver. Project leaders don’t need to be the technical experts, but they do need to be able to speak sensibly about what is happening in the project, without needing to defer to other people all the time.
When a project manager defers to more technical people at every turn, project stakeholders tend to lose confidence. They start to think “Why should I speak to the project manager when I can just talk to the people who know more?”
This can quickly turn into “What is this project manager even doing?”.
Now we all know that the project manager is doing other non-technical things, but we don’t need that doubt clouding the judgement of key stakeholders.
Project managers need to understand enough about their project to speak sensibly about it. Sure, they may need to defer to others from time to time, but when this becomes the go-to strategy, they run the risk of eroding trust with their stakeholders.
2. Ask Project Stakeholders How They Want to Engage
There are many ways that project leaders can engage with their project stakeholders. This might involve emails, 1 to 1 meetings or group meetings at various intervals.
In many of my projects, I’d have regular official project forums to discuss key aspects, but I’d also have individual private meetings to discuss specific challenges with key project stakeholders.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for engaging with your project stakeholders. That’s why it’s a good idea for project managers to ask them how they’d like to communicate and engage.
Starting with a proposed approach is useful, but often a specific stakeholder will have their own preferred style that suits them best.
Asking instead of telling is a good way to build trust, because it shows that the project manager is committed to engaging in a way that suits the stakeholder, rather than just making it more convenient for themselves.
I like to view project engagement from a few different angles:
- Creating forums for your project stakeholders to receive official project information, such as status or budget updates
- Ensuring there are other private forums that are available for project stakeholders to speak candidly about the project and provide input; and
- Making sure there are informal channels where communication can occur outside of more formal processes.
Project managers can tell their project stakeholders how they will communicate. But asking can be a much more effective strategy for building trust.
Learn More: Start Being Trustworthy For Your Team: Here’s How.
3. Make Sure Your Project Stakeholders Understand the Key Parts of the Project
Sometimes project leaders make assumptions about what their stakeholders understand about the project they are involved in.
This can be a risky strategy, because when stakeholders don’t understand something, they might not tell you.
There are lots of potential reasons – it might be insecurity, or fear of seeming stupid or incapable.
Project managers need to ensure that their project stakeholders are informed about the major parts of their project, including aspects such as:
- The scope: what is being delivered – what is in scope, what is out
- The plan: the steps to be taken to deliver the right outcomes
- Project forums: what meetings or communication channels are used in the project, and why they are important
- Roles and responsibilities: projects can be confusing, especially when project stakeholders don’t know who is doing what!
- Project methodology: you don’t need to make your project stakeholders into delivery experts, but providing context on the delivery methods can be helpful
- Technology: many IT project stakeholders don’t really understand the technology very well. Investing some time up front to help them understand can cut down on questions or uncertainty later; and
- Escalation pathways: it’s useful for project stakeholders to understand how to raise issues with the project manager. This tends to provide some comfort that they aren’t going to be left out of the loop.
Instead of assuming project stakeholders understand all of this, it’s important to provide opportunities for them to learn.
This can go a long way in building trust with key stakeholders as they begin to reduce their fears or uncertainty regarding the delivery of the project.
4. Get the Engagement Style Right
A challenge I observe with some project managers is their chosen style of engaging with stakeholders.
Some project managers are quite formal and structured, which can be a good quality when you’re running an important initiative. Project managers with this style tend to build trust because it looks like they are taking things seriously.
Others are more casual, engaging with less structure or rigour. Informal engagement can also be a great trust builder because a project manager who does this tends to be more “one of the team”, as opposed to trying to be seen as the boss of the project.
In my experience, you need a mixture of both styles and they’ll flex throughout the project.
In governance meetings and when dealing with senior stakeholders, it can be beneficial to put on a more formal demeanour and run sessions in a structured way. This tends to show stakeholders that you are serious about the project and making sure it’s running appropriately for all the money that is being spent on it.
This formality also shows that you value your project stakeholders’ time and demonstrates a degree of respect.
Informal engagement can be more useful when you’re trying to build trust and rapport with project team members or lower-level stakeholders. Their involvement is still important, but they are more involved in the project delivery itself, rather than the governance. A more casual engagement style helps you to build camaraderie, team spirit and commitment to the project.
Getting the balance right is important, and will help to gain the confidence of key project stakeholders at different levels.
5. Cut Down On the Surprises
Technology projects are full of surprises, but it’s better for the project manager to be surprised first, before all the stakeholders find out!
One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that stakeholders don’t like surprises. And the more senior the stakeholder, the less they like them.
The most senior stakeholders see surprises as a personal affront, a potential reputation damager and a credibility killer.
The funny thing is, these project stakeholders don’t necessarily hate issues. They understand that problems are going to occur. It’s just that they want to be well informed and prepared to be able to discuss them, without feeling like they are being blindsided.
Other than running the project effectively and being well-prepared, one way that I like to reduce the chance of surprises is to pre-brief key stakeholders before any public forums. This is normally in the form of a private, one to one meeting.
Senior stakeholders are much more likely to accept bad news constructively in a confidential setting such as this.
This enables stakeholders to hear about any issues prior to being “on stage” in front of other people. It also helps them to develop strategies or communication that will reduce the impact of any problems.
Most of all, it will help them to feel like they are in control, well informed and prepared. This reduces uncertainty and unexpected challenges to their reputation or credibility.
No surprises, please.
Gaining the trust of project stakeholders makes project delivery a far easier proposition.
Without trust, a project manager needs to work much harder to justify their actions during a project, and to be able to take action without second-guessing themselves or asking for permission all the time.
If you’d like support for your next technology project, get in touch about Project Coaching for your delivery team.
What other ways do project leaders gain the confidence of their key stakeholders? Let me know in the comments below!