The term 'Stakeholder' is an extremely common term in project management. Although you'll find a wide variety of definitions for the term, one of the best ways of defining it is to consider what makes a stakeholder a stakeholder.

What exactly are the characteristics of stakeholders and stakeholder groups? Several of the most widely accepted ones are listed below. It's important to note that any one of these characteristics can make someone a stakeholder:

  • Stands to gain or lose through the success or failure of the project
  • Provides funding for the project
  • Has invested resources in the project
  • Participates in (works on) the project
  • Is affected by the outputs of the project
  • Is affected by the outcome of the project
  • Is within the 'chain of accountability”

All of these characteristics are probably clear, except perhaps the chain of accountability. This term relates to an interesting twist on the ordinary interpretation of 'stakeholder” and is worth mentioning for its political implication.

Groups of stakeholders.

The chain of accountability is often seen within complex matrix organizations, where a number of departments exist, each with layers of management. In organizations structured this way, several signatures must often be secured before a project is finally considered approved. Everyone who signs off to approve the project is viewed as taking on some accountability for the project. These people are in the chain of accountability.

Therefore, they may see themselves as stakeholders - and feel that they have the right to exert some degree of influence on the project if they feel the need. Whether or not they actually need to be included in the project itself as an on-going entity, or to be included in the status reporting chain for the project is something that would need to be defined at the front end of the project. Politically astute project managers will pay close attention to who these people are.

What do you need to know about stakeholders?

Stakeholders can be in any department or at any level within the organization. You'll constantly be interfacing with stakeholders throughout the life of your project. This leads to another important consideration: what do you need to know about stakeholders to properly manage your relationship with them? Here some of the key things you should try to learn about your project stakeholders:

Stakeholder characteristics.

Who are they?

Make sure you know who each stakeholder is - by name. Don't be content to recognize that classes of people (such as functional supervisors) are stakeholders. Figure out every individual stakeholder. Know them personally for the duration of your project.

What is the nature of their stake?

What do they stand to gain if you succeed - or lose if you fail? How much? In what way? Does the outcome of the project affect them professionally or personally?

What do they expectfrom you?

You can best find out what they expect by meeting with stakeholders individually. Since this is time-consuming, you may want to limit face-to-face meetings to key stakeholders, such as clients or management sponsors.

If there are differences between what they expect and what you believe they should reasonably expect, you'd better work those differences out as soon as possible. Letting that gap in expectations go too far into the project can spell disaster when issues arrive and decisions need to be made.

What do you expect from them?

This is, of course, the flip side of the previous item. However, some project managers have difficulty expressing their expectations for members of management.

If you feel this way, bear in mind that stating expectations does not mean that you're telling them what to do or how to act. If you express your expectations of management correctly, it should seem more like a description of the support you need than a prescription for their behaviour.

Defining Stakeholders.

What are their priorities?

In this case, the term 'priorities” refers to four major elements of success and control: schedule, cost, performance, and quality. Try to gain an understanding of which of these elements is most important to key stakeholders, such as the client and management sponsor.

What are the rules of engagement?

This item pertains primarily to the process of communication and, in particular, your personal interaction with a given stakeholder. It's probably most relevant to your interaction with members of management.

For example, consider what type of communication a given manager may prefer - formal written or informal oral. In other words, would they prefer that you phone them and follow with a memo or write them a memo and follow with a phone call? In some cases, these are not trivial issues.

Are they friends or foes?

Is a given stakeholder likely to support you and your project - or more likely to undermine your efforts? The answer to this question is often closely related to the nature of the person's stake.

Conclusion

The more you know about stakeholders, the better your chances for developing and maintaining a strong and beneficial relationship with them. Cultivating good relationships with stakeholders may help you in ways you can't envision at the outset of the project.

Get to know the stakeholder or stakeholders and use that knowledge to your advantage throughout the engagement.