Moving the Needle: Driving Meaningful Conversation with Stakeholders

Meaningful conversation

By: Amy Baugh

All projects have one or more curveballs where things don’t go as planned.  When you have bad news to share with stakeholders, or perhaps a necessary change in direction, how you communicate those things matters.  Simply sharing the information is not enough.  How do you ensure your stakeholder fully understands the implications of what you are sharing?  If you are needing their support or agreement, how do you confirm you have that agreement?  This blog will cover three scenarios of how stakeholder communication was not done effectively and how to adjust the approach to ensure full stakeholder engagement and understanding, along with a list of conversation starters to help you move the needle on your own projects.

Scenario 1:

A program manager was running an ERP implementation.  The go-live date was going to be missed, and the program manager knew the date would be missed.  The company culture was historically upbeat and positive, and the delivery of bad news was frowned upon.  As such, the program manager delayed bringing up the bad news.  When she brought up the bad news, the project manager sugar-coated it and did not clearly communicate the risk and how certain missing the date really was.  Because of the sugar-coating approach, the stakeholders continued to think there was a chance of making the date, and there was no action taken.

What should the program manager have done differently?

  • Identify risks upfront and proactively manage those risks
  • Communicate with transparency (i.e. do not sugar coat)
  • Regular, honest communication to drive course corrections/actions throughout the project – perhaps keep the project on track, and if not, avoid a big, ugly surprise

Scenario 2:

A project manager was managing a data project, and for several reasons, the outputs using the initially identified solution would not be able to meet requirements.  The project manager came up with a new approach and shared it with the key stakeholders via sharing a slide deck.  The project manager assumed that by sharing this information, he had done his job, and stakeholders were now up to speed and aligned.

What should the project manager have done differently?

  • Rather than simply informing stakeholders, the project manager should have engaged stakeholders in an open dialogue about the challenges and proposed approach
  • The project manager should not assume that communication = understanding, and support. He should have asked direct questions to confirm stakeholder understanding and stance.


Scenario 3:

A project manager completed an extensive risk assessment on her project with her internal project team.  Because the project manager did not want to cause her client stress and worry about the lengthy list of potential risks, she chose not to include her stakeholder in the assessment activities, nor did she share the full risk analysis.  Not surprisingly, over the course of the project, some of those risks turned into issues.  One of those issues was large enough to cause a delay in the project.  The stakeholder was dismayed that the risk had never been raised and felt risk management was not properly being handled.

What should the project manager have done differently?

  • The project manager should have included the stakeholder in the risks assessment analysis, or at a minimum had a dialogue about potential risks, impacts, and mitigation plans.
  • The project manager should follow a “no surprises” approach and engage in open sharing of information, most importantly where stakeholder support and/or decision making is needed.

The common thread through these scenarios is that it is important to have ongoing, timely, and meaningful dialogue with your stakeholders.  The best way to obtain support and to ensure your stakeholder is at minimum supporters (and ideally champions) of your project is to regularly check in, take a pulse, and take actions as necessary to gain their support.  Here are a few conversation starters to help you do this:

  • I am sensing some frustration. What is frustrating you?
  • What would make you feel comfortable that this new approach will achieve the desired outcomes?
  • Have I given you the information you need to understand the issue and proposed resolution? What other information do you need?
  • Do you support this new approach? (why or why not?)
  • What is keeping you up at night? (in relation to this project)

This is obviously not an all-encompassing list, but hopefully, you get the idea – ask open-ended questions to gather the information that can then be used to drive meaningful activity and drive support for your project.  By actively listening and responding to your stakeholders, your project will stay on track. And if it doesn’t stay on track due to one of those project curveballs, you will have your stakeholders backing you rather than surprising them and leaving them angry.  Shift your approach by taking stakeholder conversation and communication one step further and moving the needle!

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