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We're all in this together: How to identify stakeholders and achieve project success


Have you ever had a project derail at the last minute, or discovered that a project’s return on investment did not meet projections? These types of issues happen in the final stages of a project, often as a result of incorrect or incomplete stakeholder identification. Conversely, performing due diligence at the beginning of a project to identify stakeholders, (and updating your stakeholder register throughout the project), can minimize the risks of incorrect scope, excessive change orders, and user resistance. Identify stakeholders early to increase your chances of delivering a better result.

What Is a Stakeholder?

In some projects, the term “stakeholder” only describes those individuals with visible and formalized responsibilities on the core project team. The fifth edition of the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) more accurately defines it as “an individual, group, or organization who may affect, be affected by or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project” (italics added for emphasis).

Commonly Overlooked Stakeholders

Stakeholders often overlooked include those not involved in the core project team, but who nonetheless play an important role in achieving project success throughout the organization. They include: regulatory agencies, auditors, IT staff outside of the core project team, internal customers, citizens, and staff. Your Project Management Team should plan ahead and identify the appropriate time and approach to include these groups.

Guidelines for Identifying Stakeholders

Identifying stakeholders is an iterative process that incorporates feedback from multiple levels of the project’s governance structure, and identifies stakeholders. When our team works on larger projects, for example an ERP system selection and implementation project, we recommend project leadership identify an Executive Sponsor, who in turn selects an Executive Steering Committee to provide executive-level support to the project by committing resources and weighing in on escalated decisions.

The Executive Sponsor chooses the Project Manager and Project Management Team. Because the Project Management Team works with the Project Manager to accomplish project tasks and reach project decisions, this team assigns staff with appropriate knowledge and other characteristics to be Functional Area Leads (FALs). FALs play an important role in selecting Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) for their respective functional areas, as FALs are typically already leading day-to-day operations for the area they will represent. These leads often have a more detailed knowledge of SME resource availability than those in the project’s executive roles, and can identify the extent of each SME’s areas of strength. Engaging FALs in this exercise can enhance buy-in and ownership of the project, strengthen the quality of the project team, and address nuances where the project structure and organization’s structure do not necessarily align.  

We recommend you create a stakeholder register to conduct a thorough inventory of the stakeholder groups involved in (or impacted by) the project’s work. Conducting this exercise identifies relevant characteristics (role in the organization, on the project, supervisory, and communication responsibilities) that can help the Project Management Team make decisions related to issue management activities, risk mitigation, communications strategies, and change management planning. Your Executive Sponsor and Project Management Team should create this stakeholder register early, and update it frequently, as stakeholders often change during a project. Taking multiple stakeholder inventories throughout the project helps set the project up for greater success, less user resistance, and better-informed decision-making.

Do you have questions about our guidelines for identifying stakeholders? Unsure about the best approach for communicating with stakeholders once identified? We can help you get started.

If you’ve been tasked with leading a high-impact project for your organization, you may find managing the scope, budget and schedule is not enough to ensure project success—especially when you encounter resistance to change. When embarking on large-scale change projects spanning people, processes and technology, appointing staff as “coaches” to help support stakeholders through the change—and to manage resistance to the change—can help increase adoption and buy-in for a new way of doing things.

The first step is to identify candidates for the coaching role. These candidates are often supervisory staff who have credibility in the organization—whether as a subject matter expert, through internal leadership, or from having a history of client satisfaction. Next, you need a work plan to orient them to this role. One critical component is making sure the coaches themselves understand what the change means for their role, and have fully committed before asking them to coach others. They may exhibit initial resistance to the change you will need to manage before they can be effective coaches. According to research done by Prosci®, a leading change management research organization, some of the most common reasons for supervisor resistance in large-scale change projects are:

  • Lack of awareness about and involvement in the change
  • Loss of control or negative impact on job role
  • Increased work load (i.e., lack of time)
  • Culture of change resistance and past failures
  • Impact to their team

You should anticipate encountering these and other types of resistance from staff while preparing them to be coaches. Once coaches buy into the change, they will need ongoing support and guidance to fulfill their role. This support will vary by individual, but may be correlated to what managerial skills they already possess, or don’t. How can you focus on developing coaching skills among your staff for purposes of the project? Prosci® recommends a successful change coach take on the following roles:

  • Communicator—communicate with direct reports about the change
  • Liaison—engage and liaise with the project team
  • Advocate—advocate and champion the change
  • Resistance manager—identify and manage resistance
  • Coach—coach employees through the change

One of the initial tasks for your coaches will be to assess the existing level of change resistance and evaluate what resistance you may encounter. Prosci® identifies three types of resistance management work for your coaches to begin engaging in as they meet with their employees about the change:

  • Resistance prevention―by providing engagement opportunities for stakeholders throughout the project, building awareness about the change early on, and reinforcing executive-level support, coaches can often head off expected resistance.
  • Proactive resistance management―this approach requires coaches to anticipate the needs and understand the characteristics of their staff, and assess how they might react to change in light of these attributes. Coaches can then plan for likely forms of resistance in advance, with a structured mitigation approach.
  • Reactive resistance management―this focuses on resistance that has not been mitigated with the previous two types of resistance management, but instead persists or endures for an extended amount of time. This type of management may require more analysis and planning, particularly as the project nears its completion date.

Do you have candidates in your organization who may need support transitioning into coaching roles? Do you anticipate change resistance among your stakeholders? Contact us and we can help you develop a plan to address your specific challenges.

How to identify and prepare change management coaches

Here’s a challenge for you: Can you identify the number one predictor of project success?

According to Prosci, the leading change-management research organization, the answer is the project sponsor. In fact, project sponsor has topped Prosci’s biannual Best Practices in Change Management benchmark study as the number one predictor of success since 1998. Yet it’s one thing to simply name a project sponsor; it’s another to have the sponsor actively engaged in the project.

In order to achieve project success, a project sponsor must play an active and visible role, and should be prepared to assume the following responsibilities — what we call the Four C's of Project Sponsorship:

Commit resources. The role of project sponsor is best filled by an executive who has access to, and authority over, human and financial resources dedicated to the project. As organizations search for ways to “do more with less,” projects and daily operations often compete for the same resources. Because resource shortages can severely impact a project’s scope, schedule, and budget, your project sponsor should have the authority necessary to communicate a project’s priority and commit the necessary resources accordingly.

Communicate the project’s strategic purpose. Research has repeatedly shown that the project sponsor is the preferred sender of communications about the project’s strategic purpose. Indeed, the project sponsor should communicate with each stakeholder about the project’s goals and how these goals align with the organization’s strategic vision. Setting this expectation at the organizational level can provide answers to the age-old question, “What’s in it for me?” and help inform future conversations between supervisors and direct reports about the project’s impact on individual job responsibilities.

Conscript other leaders as change champions. To demonstrate support for the change across the organization, your project sponsor can empower leaders, including executives and mid-level managers, to communicate their support for the change. This support:

  • Allows the project’s messaging to reach a broader audience. 
  • Demonstrates endorsement of the change by other leaders, which enhances credibility and positive perceptions of their commitment to the organization’s success. 
  • Enables the project team to collect more feedback from different perspectives as these change champions liaise to relay information from end users back to the project team.

Command enforcement of project changes. This can be the most challenging aspect of a project sponsor’s role. Resistance is a natural reaction to change; it is present to some degree on nearly every project. Despite the most thorough efforts to mitigate resistance, certain users may choose to resist changes brought about by the project, finding workarounds or reverting to previous business processes. In these instances, it is important that your project sponsor leads and commands the effort to communicate how and why the changes should be adhered to, provide any necessary remedial training, then follow through with corrective action if needed. Although this may be a challenging task, it can boost the credibility of the project and the project sponsor, and help realize the project’s return on investment.

Mastering the Four C's of Project Sponsorship will allow project sponsors to more successfully take on other important responsibilities, such as providing support and encouragement to the team, giving direction on escalated decisions, granting security to allow changes despite initial decreases in productivity or returns in investment, and clearing barriers to project success.

When the Fours C's of Project Sponsorship are executed from the project’s outset, the value of a project sponsor is substantially increased. Our Local Practice Area has experience in advising clients on how to add or restructure the role of project sponsor — even in the midst of the most challenging projects — to leverage the benefits of this role for the project’s success. Take charge and reach out to us. 

The four C's of project sponsorship