The Stubborn Stakeholder
A favorite quote of mine from the great Mark Twain is: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” One of the hardest things about managing projects is dealing with stakeholders that do not understand what, often times, is a complex and nuanced process. This situation is magnified when that stakeholder is incorrectly under the impression that they do understand and therefore resist explanation from the project manager. A saying of mine that I’ve been known to mutter when lamenting this type of situation is “I can deal with ignorance and I can deal with arrogance, but I can’t deal with ignorance and arrogance.” Unfortunately, not dealing with these traits in a key project stakeholder is sometimes not an option. It’s particularly frustrating when this person is the product owner and/or project sponsor. There is no such thing as a magic bullet to help a project manager navigate these types of situations, but there are some things to keep in mind that can help to maintain your sanity.
1. Don’t forget, project management is ultimately people management:
Each person is different. When you are dealing with a stakeholder whose attitude has become an impediment to the project, you first have to consider the dynamics of that person’s situation. Have they recently been promoted into a new position? If so, then they may be overcompensating for their lack of familiarity in their role. They may not have the context of the project or the background on the specific topic. Sometimes it just takes a little more time on your part to help the stakeholder get caught up or feel more comfortable. Has the stakeholder been recently burned by projects that were unnecessarily over complicated? In this case, you may have to invest some time and energy earning the stakeholder’s trust. Once they understand that you won’t take advantage of their ignorance, they will likely be more willing to defer to you and your team’s judgment.
2. Don’t hesitate to educate:
Sometimes it’s worthwhile to expend some effort in order to help educate the uninformed stakeholder. If the stakeholder is going to be performing in the same role for similar future projects, then some training will go a long way to improving their experience (not to mention yours). However, be careful in these situations not to overdo it. You don’t need the stakeholder to be a subject matter expert. They simply need to have a general understanding of the processes involved in development of their product. Also, be aware of the stakeholder’s self-perception when scheduling this type of training. We don’t want any bruised egos! Something I have done in the past to avoid hurt feelings is look for opportunities to ask the stakeholder to help me in educating others. This is a way to gently prompt them to learn more about the topic without directly pointing out their ignorance.
3. Know your organizational influences:
Every organization is different. The context in which a stakeholder operates is going to influence their behavior. Perhaps the stakeholder’s company structure and governance require them to report on the project at a weekly status meeting. In this case, they may feel the need to show progress on a regular basis. If they don’t understand some of the complexity of certain work packages then they may see the smaller more nuanced tasks as impediments to major project milestones. It is important that you take these types of environmental factors into account when you are planning your stakeholder management and communication plan. If you have reviewed the known factors and still don’t see a connection, it may be worthwhile to have a conversation with the stakeholder to determine if there is something influencing their behavior that you are not aware of.
Stakeholder management is essential to your overall project success. It’s one of the most important functions of a project manager and without it, your project is likely to be a pretty rocky experience. When you are faced with a stubborn or difficult stakeholder it’s important to address the problem head on. Look for the root cause and try to solve for that instead of just reacting to symptoms. Don’t be too clinical. Stakeholders are people and you have to treat them as such in order to effectively manage your relationship with them. Don’t forget that sometimes a project manager has to also be a teacher. If you take the time to help educate your stakeholders then it can ultimately save you time later on. And finally, remember that your project does not take place in a vacuum. Many things influence your stakeholders and their attitude toward your project. If you keep these factors in mind when you react to a difficult stakeholder then it will increase your chances of a successful outcome. In the end, it’s up to the project manager to make sure that the stakeholders are informed and content with how a project is proceeding. Just like with many things in life, that’s easier said than done. However, if you keep an open mind and try not to make assumptions then it can often help to make a difficult situation better.