“Dear Elizabeth: I work with a difficult stakeholder population – there are a lot of them. My project has over a thousand people affected by the change my project is delivering, in multiple geographic locations. I know I should be doing stakeholder engagement and creating plans to work with them, but how do you get the one on one contacts with such a large group?”
The short answer is: you don’t.
You can’t build individual connections with that many people. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Plus, not all those people’s problems and opinions will be worthy of your attention.
I understand that isn’t a very helpful answer! I spend a lot of time researching and writing about stakeholder engagement, and it was the topic of my recent webinar for LiquidPlanner, so hopefully, I do have something useful to share with you in response.
Find the leaders
The first thing I would do is find the leaders. There will be people in hierarchical positions of power across different locations. Ask them to either take responsibility for cascading information and managing feedback from their community, or to delegate to someone who can.
This limits the number of people you have to interact with. You still end up with one person per location, but you could perhaps further group them. For example, in one project I used existing geographical networks as my entry point for communication. Our business split the country into different regions. Each region had a ‘cluster group’ made up of representatives from each office location. I interacted with one representative from each cluster group. That further limited the number of personal contacts I had… but you have to accept the risk that your messages don’t get heard in the way they would if you were sharing them yourself.
On another project, we made delivering the change in each location part of the job description for an existing role.
Remember, the person ‘in charge’ isn’t always the best person to have as the key contact for each location. It’s better to choose someone interested in the subject and with the time to dedicate to the project. Set out exactly what you expect from them (especially how much work it is going to be for them to be the named contact) and be open to taking volunteers from all levels across the business.
Prioritize your stakeholders
Another thing you can do is to prioritize your stakeholders. You won’t have time to engage with everyone (this goes for any project, not just those projects with hundreds of stakeholders).
Prioritize your time so you spend your communication and engagement effort on the people who matter most. Here’s a way of categorizing stakeholders.
Priority: These are the people who are directly affected by the work of your project. They are the decision-making group who will be shaping the outcome of the change.
Secondary: These people may be affected, or have a role to play in the project, but are not involved in making direct decisions.
Interested: These people want to be kept informed, but they aren’t going to be affected by the change delivered, and their opinion doesn’t carry any weight either.
There are lots of ways of categorizing stakeholders and it doesn’t matter how you carve up your stakeholder groups as long as you do it. Then you can focus your efforts on engaging with people who have the power and influence to support the work as you go along.
If you carry out a power and influence analysis of your stakeholders, you’ll also be able to identify anyone who is not fully supportive of the project. That’s another group to prioritize for engagement, as unsupportive stakeholders can easily derail your work.
Bring groups together
As you won’t have enough time to work effectively with large numbers of stakeholder group representatives, so see what you can do to bundle them together. Are there stakeholder groups with common interests? In a group of over a thousand, I expect there will be.
I worked on a software implementation that changed the daily computer system in use for over 9,000 individuals, in multiple locations. Each geographic location had certain specific requirements, but the bigger picture was the same for them all. They all needed general project updates, training, staff briefing material and so on. We could reuse a lot of communication assets because their needs were similar.
We put a lot of assets online and then had an email newsletter that could be printed out and pinned up in the common areas of each location, so even colleagues who didn’t spend a lot of time in front of a computer would get to see it. That newsletter referenced additional resources. And we had a lot of conference calls and all-hands staff briefings!
Plan your engagement
The more you plan, the easier it is to find time to ‘do’ engagement. The thing with building relationships is that you can’t add it on to an already busy workload. You need to carve out time to think about how you want to work with people and be intentional about your interactions with them.
It’s also important to plan what you are going to share. If you have your list of location representatives, think about how you can make it easy for them to communicate with their colleagues. For example, on one project I produced a slide deck and Frequently Asked Questions document relating to the change our project was delivering, with input from all the relevant subject matter experts. Then I delivered the slide deck as a webinar direct to our location contacts. They then could see how I wanted the message communicated and could ask questions.
They then went back to their offices and cascaded the communications. I have no way of knowing if some of them simply sent out the slide deck with a note saying ‘please read’ but I am hopeful that the full briefing and demo they got helped make it easier for them to deliver the material confidently.
Other comms were delivered as briefings to everyone, recorded videos or presentations at all-hands staff meetings.
The main thing to remember is that the core principles of stakeholder engagement are the same, whether you are working with five stakeholders or five thousand. The only thing that changes is the time it takes to effectively engage across such a wide, diverse population. One final point that will help is to try to delegate as much of the other project management tasks as you can to a project coordinator. Activities like updating the project scheduling software or organizing meetings can easily be done by someone else. That frees you up to spend time on the tasks that add the most value – working with people to effect the change.