Marisa Sanchez, Independent Consultant
Sanchez works in the arena of large-scale technology change and facilitated a participatory session on how to engage your most critical stakeholders to support your project. Her stakeholder engagement framework has three steps: (1) identify stakeholders, (2) analyze stakeholders, and (3) develop engagement strategies.
Half of all IT projects overrun their budgets by a significant amount, half of projects that fail do so because of lack of communication, and effective communication has been proven to increase program success. Resistance to change has many sources: both rational and emotional. Often people resist change because they don’t understand the need for it. People who fear change may do so because they fear loss of power, have anxiety about learning new skills, don’t want to lose existing relationships with coworkers or customers, or lack trust in the organization driving the change. Change fatigue is also an issue: latest fad, same problem.
What is the difference between change and transition? Change is external, such as a new technology, new role, new process, or new boss. Transition is internal, a psychological process that may move through denial, anger, apathy, ambivalence, acceptance, hope, and enthusiasm. When confronted with change in non-collaborative environments, people tend to have fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Employees are more willing to accept change when they are part of both defining the problem and defining the solution.
Stakeholder engagement invites stakeholders into the process long before the change takes place. A stakeholder is anyone who will be affected by the change. Next, Sanchez described each step in detail, using a new financials enterprise resource planning (ERP) system for illustration. For each step, attendees worked through a template that Sanchez provided to sketch out an engagement plan for a project of their own and discussed their results.
Step 1: Identify your stakeholders. First, who will be affected? For internal stakeholders, you might start with the company org chart and choose managers, finance, or HR members whose support is important. Externally, the possibilities include customers, partners, and suppliers. Next, who can influence the project? Who are the decision makers, funders, policy makers, process owners, or other influential individuals? Don’t forget the people who have support functions. Also, note that some stakeholders could belong to either group.
Step 2: Analyze your stakeholders according to four criteria: level of influence to support or block the change, level of interest in the change, current level of support for the change, and desired level of support for the change. Critical stakeholders are those who are highly influential but who have a lower level of support than desired. Next, choose an appropriate level of communication to use and a level of involvement to aim for with each stakeholder, depending on their level of criticality. Don’t plan on doing this analysis once and then never change it. You should do this analysis periodically through the life of the project and adjust your plans for involvement and communication with stakeholders in Step 3 accordingly.
Step 3: Develop involvement strategies and communication strategies with which to engage stakeholders. Involvement strategies include focus groups, pilot projects, and demo feedback. You can also bring stakeholders’ SMEs on to the design team part-time. Communication strategies include town hall meetings, surveys, and webcasts in addition to the usual email announcements. Remember that people often need to hear something more than once. And remember that resistors may have information that you need to hear. For each strategy, allocate responsibility for executing it, determine the key message for the communication, and decide on an appropriate frequency for it. Document these activities in the project plan.
An audience member asked an interesting question: “What if you need to lower a stakeholder’s level of support?” Sanchez suggested giving them the job of bringing other influential stakeholders on board; that role might keep them busy doing something besides providing you with too much support.