Stakeholder Engagement: let's start with 'why?'

This is blog post was first published by the Association For Project Management in June 2018.

Why is stakeholder engagement so important to the project management community? This is the topic of a webinar and whitepaper published by the Association for Project Management (APM) on June 28th 2018. Is this philosophical point worth spending time on when  busy project and programme managers are really looking for practical solutions for a growing list of people-related challenges? Yes, I believe that it is. In my experience, the best way to work out how to do something is to start with why you need to do it.

Understanding the WHY enables you to figure out the HOW

You may be familiar with Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why”. His focus is on how to inspire others by creating an emotional connection of shared values and purpose. While this is relevant in particular circumstances such as team building and motivation, that’s not the point I want to make. I think the value of ‘Starting with why’ is more fundamental as I believe it underpins three key project management capabilities.

1. Analysing options

For project managers seeking advice on how to approach stakeholder engagement, the APM’s Stakeholder Engagement section on the website provides a rich resource of information but no ‘how-to’ manual, because the problem with stakeholder engagement is that there is more than one way to approach it. Unfortunately, presenting project managers with so much information risks ‘stakeholder engagement’ getting put on the ‘do tomorrow’ list, or simply delegated because the task of learning and assessing options feels too difficult.

Understanding why they need to engage with stakeholders provides project managers with a filter to make choices about the information available, making the task of engagement feel more achievable.

2. Adapting to change

Many industries (eg. food & drink, health & safety, finance) have learned that just defining processes to mitigate risks ends up creating a tick-box approach and expectation that compliance will result in success. According to the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority), “The [financial regulation] compliance industry was built around the idea that everything will be OK if firms comply with a set of rules." And we know where that ended up.

For project managers, dealing with an ever growing and complex set of issues requires careful thought by everyone involved. A shared understanding of the intention of stakeholder engagement underpins the ability of the people at the ‘coal-face’ to identify and manage change with stakeholders, rather than sticking to a process and reacting to events.

3. Communicating effectively

According to Dr. James T. Brown in a webinar last year, poor stakeholder engagement is often caused by project managers communicating at ‘project level’ ie. in terms of what’s important to the project manager. Instead communication needs to be at ‘stakeholder level’. I agree but let’s be honest, this is difficult to achieve even for people with good communications skills.

In my own work in the IT and engineering industry where the language of individual teams can be quite opaque, I have found that moving the conversation to why something needs to be done enables people to work together more effectively by connecting them through a shared language. Focusing on ‘why’ rather than ‘what’ removes the barriers of jargon and seemingly irrelevant detail from the conversation, improving the ability of stakeholders to understand and engage, and increasing the capability of project teams to exchange information more effectively.

Why is stakeholder engagement important?

The APM whitepaper addresses the topic of stakeholder engagement holistically, setting out a number of arguments underlining the need for us to take stakeholder engagement more seriously. In reality, the reasons why stakeholder engagement is important will change with the project lifecycle, with the people involved and with the challenges that are presented at the time. However, take a moment to think about the overarching principle of stakeholder engagement. To pinch the analogy of sailing, keeping an eye on where you’re ultimately trying to get to enables the skipper to spot if adjustments need to be made on each leg of the journey.